On June 25 the National Center for Access to Justice filed a brief as lead amicus (“friend of the court”) in Rosa v. Doe in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. On behalf of nine organizations, the amicus brief urges the Circuit Court to guide its federal district courts on how to ensure that people in state prison are not forced by substantial federal court filing fees to choose between pursuing justice in court and covering their “necessary expenses” including their expenditures for family members.
The amicus brief challenges the denial of an in forma pauperis application, in which Alexander Rosa, who is incarcerated in Connecticut, sought leave to file a lawsuit – alleging medical neglect – without making advance payment of the court’s $402 filing fee. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA) a person in prison may commence a lawsuit without making an up-front payment of the fee if the court finds that the person is indigent. (Unlike for the general public, this is not a free waiver of the fee; rather the rule requires people in prison to repay the full fee amount over time). The lower court, in denying Rosa’s application, held that “as a prisoner, Rosa does not pay for room or board” – ignoring that Rosa and others held in state prison systems have substantial necessary expenses.
Prisons are environments of deprivation. They often provide insufficient food, leaving people to supplement with food purchased in the commissary. Incarcerated people have to pay for medication, medical visits, and other necessities like glasses. Phone calls, stamps, and emails are expensive, making it costly for incarcerated people to stay in touch with children and loved ones. And people often have substantial ongoing costs, including child support payments, court fines and fees, and old credit card debt. Meanwhile, people in prison earn an average of just 14 to 52 cents per hour, meaning that families—who are often already facing eviction and food insecurity—must scrape together the money for their loved ones’ commissary account.
Outlining these financial realities, NCAJ’s brief argues that the federal court’s refusal to allow Mr. Rosa and others like him in prison to proceed in forma pauperis (temporarily deferring payment of the filing fee) will inevitably force many people to abandon meritorious, important claims. In creating high hurdles for people in prison to file lawsuits, the PLRA does not stop abuses of power and unsafe conditions that occur in prisons. Rather, it stops them from coming to light—and stops the federal courts from being able to protect people’s fundamental rights.
The Morgan Lewis law firm, serving pro bono, drafted the brief with NCAJ participating, of counsel. The nine amici are: ACLU of Connecticut, ACLU of Vermont, Center for Community Alternatives, Fines and Fees Justice Center, National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, New York County Defender Services, Parole Preparation Project, and Prison Policy Initiative. For more about NCAJ visit our website. For more on NCAJ’s work to curb excessive fines and fees visit our site here.