The Growth of Litigations Concerning Prison Rights


The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Section 1983 of the U.S. Code to permit prisoners to sue state correctional officials when the conditions of confinement fail to meet constitutional standards of physical security, adequate medical treatment, freedom of religious expression, and so forth. (www.ncsonline.org) In the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court established that prisoners had constitutional rights, (Cooper v. Pate, 278 U.S. 546 (1964).) the number of cases filed was small. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) counted only 218 cases in 1966, the first year that state prisoner rights cases were recorded as a specific category of litigation. The number climbed to 26,824 by 1992; during 2000 the approximate 1.4 million Federal and State prison inmates filed 58,257 petitions in U.S. district courts – or 42 petitions for each 1,000 prisoners incarcerated. (www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs) In order to understand this rise in litigations we must first try to clearly understand the different types of litigations that compose these statistics and how these litigations are viewed by the Justice System and society; in addition, the rights of prisoners and the result statistics of prison litigation cases must also be clear.


There are many popular images of prisoner litigation. One of them is that lawsuits are filed for entertainment value by prisoners who have a lot of time on their hands and that these lawsuits serve only to crowd other litigation of the already busy federal and state courts. In contrast to this image there is the image that courts ruthlessly dismiss prisoners\' complaints to clear their calendars and that in those cases that do not get dismissed prisoners ever win, despite the merit in many of the cases. This last image could be due to thee serious debate among judges, attorneys, and other experts concerning the necessity and desirability of hearing in the federal court system the many thousands of prisoners\' complaints filed annually; to the federal court system the most common suggestion to solve this debate is to have all cases tried at state courts or to make changes to the already restricting Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).


The PLRA is designed to limit prisoners\' access to federal courts due to allegedly frivolous lawsuits. Since it applies to convicted prisoners as well as those merely accused of crimes, the Act has been questioned as unconstitutional. While limiting monetary rewards for prisoners is one goal of the act, the main thrust is to reduce the large number of lawsuits against the government that they deem "frivolous." (www.prisonactivist.org) It states that administrative remedies must be exhausted in any federal action involving prison conditions, including civil rights actions under section 1983. The PLRA also brings a new form of "Three Strikes and You\'re Out." If a prisoner has filed three suits that are dismissed because they fail to state a claim for relief (or are frivolous), he or she is barred from filing future actions unless in imminent danger of serious physical harm (28 USC 1915). These actions imposed by the PRLA, are undoubtedly in disagreement with the Constitution since it discriminative by restricting the ability of a particular disfavored group to enforce constitutional rights in federal court. (www.prisonwall.org) This could definitely lead people to think about the image of a loss, loss situation for all litigators behind bars.


It must be clear that the litigations made by prison inmates are not always frivolous and there for the process of deciding which cases to dismiss and which cases to view must be very carefully done. Some of these lawsuits have claimed that state officials have deprived the prisoners of their constitutional rights, such as adequate medical treatment, protection against excessive force by correctional officers or violence by other inmates, and access to law libraries. Pass actions by some government officials make it seem as though they want the public to believe that all litigations are frivolous, an example of this is well described in an article from www.prisonactivist.org titled Changing the Rules: Prison Officials and Legislators Mount an All-Out War against Prisoners ‘ Right to Legal Access:
A bill is pending in Congress to curtail prisoner litigation and the need for effective representation of prisoners was forcefully illustrated earlier this year by an endorsement of