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Book Review: The PLRA Handbook

by David M. Reutter

Understanding how the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) impacts prisoner civil rights litigation can be a time intensive undertaking. John Boston’s new book, The PLRA Handbook, makes that undertaking a simple task and answers virtually any question one may have on the topic.

When I first started studying law in prison, some of the best advice I received was to avoid a procedural fight by researching the applicable rules and statutes before I filed any pleading with the court. The most helpful book I consulted in those early years, and still do to this day, was The Prisoner’s Self Help Litigation Manual, which John Boston co-authored with Dan Manville.

With The PLRA handbook, Mr. Boston has provided litigators with an invaluable research tool to help them avoid and overcome the barriers and obstacles the PLRA put into place. The Table of Contents alone comprises eight pages, and it demonstrates that the handbook covers every procedural issue that a litigator may confront when challenging a lawsuit that concerns prison conditions, which includes any 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action that alleges violations of constitutional rights in the prison environment.

The shortest chapter of The PLRA Handbook is the first, as it covers the scope and definitions of the PLRA. The second chapter comprises 84 pages that examine issues surrounding the granting of, and termination of, prospective relief in prison condition cases.

Chapter Three, containing 248 pages, covers the PLRA’s administrative exhaustion requirement. The interpretation of this part of the PLRA has evolved greatly since it was enacted in 1996. I thought I’d fully understood this area of law due to the many articles I’ve written for PLN on the subject, but after reviewing The PLRA Handbook, I found a few areas where my understanding received some correction.

The PLRA’s ban on compensation absent physical injury is another area that has vastly evolved over the years. The 55 pages of the PLRA Handbook Chapter Four on this subject arm readers with the information to know whether a claim can result in monetary awards. Chapter Five then details how the PLRA impacts proceeding in forma pauperis.

The PLRA’S “three strikes” provision compels a prisoner to prepay the filing the fee if the prisoner has “on 3 or more prior occasions, while incarcerated or detained in any facility, brought an action or appeal in a court of the United States that was dismissed on grounds that it was frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, unless the prisoner is under imminent danger of serious injury.” So Chapter Six’s 78 pages fully consider what constitutes a strike and how the imminent danger exception is applied.

Chapters Eight and Nine cover prescreening of lawsuits, dismissal procedures, and the award of attorney fees under the PLRA. The final four chapters cover waiver of reply, hearings by telecommunication and at prisons, revocation of earned release credit, and the diversion of damage awards. The appendix contains the codified version of the PLRA.

“Citations to case law are extensive and often go far beyond what is necessary to support a point because of the value to practitioners of a case from a particular jurisdiction or one addressing facts similar to those they face in a prisoner action,” Mr. Boston states in his introduction to the book. This feature renders The PLRA Handbook a virtual PLRA law library.

My first thought after perusing The PLRA Handbook was that it needs to be on the mandatory book list of every prison law library. Prisoners often enter prison with no prior legal knowledge or training and without a high school education. They are then regularly faced with onerous and unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Many focus on wanting to overturn their convictions so they can be freed from those conditions, but many others become jailhouse lawyers who want to change their conditions of confinement.

For those in the latter category, The PLRA Handbook should be required reading, for it will not only help them avoid filings that are procedurally problematic, it will help them understand the type of relief they can obtain under the PLRA. This book is admittedly huge, but despite my limited storage space, it has left me trying to figure out how to keep it at hand for future use. The value of this book is that it not only details the full text of the PLRA and breaks down each issue into its own section, but its in-depth case law citations are footnoted with comprehensive quotes from the courts.

Another invaluable aspect of this book is the expert insight from Mr. Boston, who spent his career as a staff attorney and then Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the New York City Legal Aid Society. I submit that any pro se litigant armed with The Prisoner’s Self Help Litigation Manual and The PLRA Handbook will not only avoid filing actions that are frivolous, malicious, or fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, but they will be well-armed to protect and enforce their civil rights.

As Mr. Boston notes, the PLRA has been effective in achieving its aim to reduce frivolous and malicious prisoner lawsuits. Yet, its procedural hurdles have also limited or prevented relief in meritorious cases. The PLRA Handbook assists litigants in succeeding on those claims by helping them understand the issues they will confront upon filing in federal court. Thus, it is my opinion that lawyers and pro se litigants involved in or considering filing prisoner civil rights litigation should have a copy of The PLRA Handbook available to consult. It will not only save you time, it may save your case from unforeseen PLRA-mandated consequences.

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