'Tis Enough, 'Twill Serve: Defining Physical Injury under the Prison Litigation Reform Act

Article excerpt

"Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much." (1)


Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1995. (2) Since that time, no provision of the PLRA has created more confusion than the limitation-on-recovery provision, or [section] 1997e(e), commonly referred to as the "physical-injury requirement." (3) The provision reads: "No Federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner confined in a jail, prison, or other correctional facility, for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury." (4) Because the statute itself does not define physical injury, the provision leaves the task of defining the phrase to the courts. (5)

The First Circuit has yet to address the physical-injury requirement of the PLRA. (6) Other courts of appeals have heard cases addressing the requirement, yet their definitions have varied substantially. (7) The language of the statute requires courts to draw a line between injuries that are physical in nature, and those that are purely mental or emotional. (8) Such a distinction, however, is often unclear. (9)

Congress enacted the PLRA to curb the tide of prisoner litigation, as increasingly frivolous lawsuits clogged the court system. (10) The statute may have succeeded in limiting the court access of many prisoners whose claims lacked merit, but it has also prevented some litigants with valid claims from having their day in court. (11) Federal judges continue to wrestle with the meaning of physical injury and its implications for constitutional violations. (12) In the First Circuit, district courts continue to address the merits of claims under the PLRA, but the court of appeals has yet to hear a case hinging on the definition of the provision. (13) As district court judges continue to draw their own distinctions between physical injury and mental or emotional injury, the First Circuit will eventually need to draw a line in the sand. (14)

This Note examines the jurisdictional split in defining physical injury under the PLRA. (15) Part II.A outlines the historical circumstances that brought about the need for such legislation, while Part II.B analyzes the congressional intent behind it. (16) Part II.C examines the major consequences of the statute (both intended and otherwise), while Part II.D surveys the circuit courts' conflicting interpretations of the PLRA. (17) Part III.A argues that the First Circuit must address the physical-injury provision before district-court case law becomes increasingly scattered in its application of the statute. (18) Finally, Part III.B recommends that the First Circuit define physical injury more broadly than its sister circuits. (19)


A. Prisoner Lawsuits Before the PLRA

Prior to the enactment of the PLRA, prisoners' rights were considered a relatively recent concern both in the United States and internationally. (20) In fact, there are no annual statistics of prisoner civil rights litigation prior to 1966. (21) While the international community agreed upon several human rights standards, many global activists and lawmakers paid little attention to the enforcement of these same rights within the prison population. (22) As the issue of inmate access to courts gradually gained attention, the dramatic rise in prisoner litigation throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s provided an important context for the legislative response that followed. (23)

Prior to the PLRA, the number of inmates who filed lawsuits in district courts, many of them pro se, steadily increased each year. (24) By 1996, prisoner-litigants accounted for twenty-five percent of all lawsuits filed in federal courts. (25) Most of these lawsuits were unsuccessful, with one estimate placing the success rate of prisoner-litigants below fifteen percent. (26) Inmates became increasingly aware of the right to both court access and other legal resources. …