In the 1990s, Congress passed the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) to decrease frivolous prisoner litigation. One PLRA provision that was aimed at accomplishing that goal is § 1997e(e), which states that no prisoner can bring a federal civil action for mental or emotional injury without a showing of an accompanying physical injury. This provision has created a circuit split over whether prisoners who suffer a violation of their Free Exercise rights under the First Amendment can recover compensatory damages. If the split is left unresolved, it will lead to a troubling lack of uniformity in the law for federal prisoners, who are a group of uniquely vulnerable litigants given their lack of access to resources.
This Comment argues that to achieve uniformity and avoid the complications of the First Amendment circuit split, federal prisoners should bring their claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) instead. In Tanzin v. Tanvir, the Supreme Court explicitly ruled that monetary damages are available as a form of “appropriate relief” under RFRA. This Comment asserts that “appropriate relief” should include compensatory damages for prisoners for a number of reasons. These reasons include RFRA’s “super statute” status, the imperfect fit of other noncompensatory remedies such as injunctive relief and nominal damages when religious freedom rights are violated, the failure to serve PLRA’s stated purpose of decreasing frivolous prisoner litigation by barring recovery of compensatory damages, and consistency with the Supreme Court’s separation of powers doctrine. Therefore, federal prisoners should be able to recover compensatory damages under RFRA when their religious freedom rights are violated.