Emory Law Journal


In 1996, at the height of the prison boom and as mass incarceration began to take shape, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA aimed to reduce the overloaded federal court docket, and it targeted inmate litigation as its cause célèbre. The result was immediate, and it caused inmate litigation to plummet in federal courts. One of the provisions that facilitated and continues to facilitate the drastic decline in inmate filings is § 1915(g). Section 1915(g) of the PLRA—also known as the “three strikes” rule—prohibits in forma pauperis status to indigent inmates who have had three frivolous actions or appeals dismissed in federal court. In denying in forma pauperis status to indigent inmates, the law effectively serves as a ban on accessing the courts unless inmates can afford to pay filing fees out of pocket. Since the PLRA’s passage in 1996, courts have wrestled with how to interpret § 1915(g), and it has led to a quagmire of patchwork interpretations. This quagmire has led to the erroneous dismissal of meritorious inmate claims, while also increasing litigation that seeks to answer the following questions: What type of dismissal constitutes a “strike?” What constitutes imminent danger of serious physical harm? Can an inmate appeal their third strike? This Comment argues for a narrow, text-based interpretation of § 1915(g). Interpreting this section narrowly will maintain the statute’s effectiveness while also ensuring that inmates are not unconstitutionally restricted from exercising their fundamental right to access the courts.

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