Rethinking the PLRA: The Resiliency of Injunctive Practice and Why It’s Not Enough


During the latter part of the twentieth century, prison populations in the United States increased exponentially and the nation became notorious for mass incarceration. Despite what many viewed as a broken prison system, in 1996 Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (“PLRA”), with the avowed purpose of hindering prisoners and their advocates from bringing civil rights actions to challenge prison conditions, laws, and policies. To accomplish this, Congress curbed courts’ most powerful remedial tool—injunctive relief. As a result, early scholarship predicted that injunctive practice would become a useless tool in prison reform litigation.
Instead, twenty-five years after Congress passed the Act, a limited injunctive practice has adapted and survived. Through a survey of fifty consent decrees and a series of case studies, this Article shows that some injunctive practice remains possible where (1) lawyers carefully craft consent decrees to sidestep the PLRA’s hurdles to injunctive relief, and (2) judges take persistent and stern measures to help move defendants toward compliance with the decrees.
Ultimately, however, this restricted injunctive practice is not enough. This Article demonstrates that despite advocates’ and judges’ best efforts to circumvent the Act’s limitations, the PLRA continues to hamper necessary prison reform. For this reason, it is time to rethink the PLRA—our nation’s recent outcry for reconsideration of the criminal justice system is an ideal catalyst for reassessing the Act and its effects on people least able to assert their rights.


Stanford University Stanford, CA
  • Allison M. Freedman, Rethinking the PLRA: The Resiliency of Injunctive Practice and Why It's Not Enough, 32 Stan. L. & Pol'y Rev. 317 (2021).
Related Organization(s):