The condition of prisons in the United States today is deplorable. Housing is overcrowded. Prisoners live in fear of violence. The use of solitary confinement—despite its toll on prisoners’ mental health—is on the rise. Often, the only recourse inmates have is through the federal court system.
But after a Supreme Court ruling Monday, even that recourse will be tougher to come by.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), passed in 1996, was an attempt by Congress to limit what it perceived as runaway, frivolous inmate litigation. Once a prisoner has three civil lawsuits dismissed by a court as frivolous (his or her three “strikes”), the act effectively prohibits the inmate from bringing another case while incarcerated. Without the ability to bring suit, prisoners have essentially no remedy when they are attacked, denied medical treatment, or are otherwise the victims of cruel and unusual punishment.
As detailed in AFJ’s report “An Expanding Strike Zone,” lower federal courts have been expanding nearly every element of the PLRA for the past two decades. Far from being a tool to stop frivolous lawsuits, the law now acts as a litigation minefield for prisoners, locking them out of the courthouse for technical errors, poor timing, and even reasonable arguments that end up losing.
Now the Supreme Court has taken its first step toward expanding the act. In a unanimous ruling, the Court held in Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson that so-called “pending strikes”—that is, cases that are dismissed as frivolous by the district court, but are being appealed—count towards a prisoner’s three strikes. Andre Lee Coleman-Bey, the plaintiff in the case, is an inmate in Michigan who brought a lawsuit against prison officials for interfering with his access to the courts. Coleman-Bey had brought two previous civil cases that were dismissed. He then brought a third case, which was dismissed by the trial court, and he appealed. That appeal is still pending. When Coleman-Bey attempted to bring this suit, the district judge ruled—and Monday, the Supreme Court agreed—that he was “struck out” and unable to bring the case.
The ruling means that prisoners can be prevented from bringing lawsuits if a district judge rules against them on a third strike, even if the judge’s decision was clearly incorrect, until the appeals court overturns it. Worse yet, the PLRA essentially prohibits prisoners from appealing cases once they have three strikes. Under the logic of the Court’s ruling, an inmate could be prevented from even being able to appeal the third strike an erroneous district judge gave him or her.
The Supreme Court disagreed with a vast majority of the circuit courts in coming to its decision. The First, Third, Fifth, Eight, Ninth, Tenth, and DC circuits all refused to count pending strikes against prisoners. Only the Sixth and Seventh circuits reached the same conclusion as the Supreme Court.
Monday’s decision is unlikely to be the last time the Court addresses the PLRA. Circuit courts continue to disagree on how and when the three-strikes rule applies to inmate lawsuits. One prominent judge on the DC Circuit has expressed “grave doubts” about the constitutionality of the three-strikes rule altogether. When these issues come to the Supreme Court, the justices should protect access to justice for incarcerated Americans who need it the most. The current trend of restricting their rights far beyond what the drafters of the PLRA could have envisioned only serves to protect wrongdoers and to delay the reforms our prison system so desperately needs.