Over the summer of 2001, I conducted a survey of jail and prison systems about experiences with civil litigation brought by inmates. Here I report in a preliminary but focused way on those results. (There is not room here for comprehensive analysis, but I hope to publish a fuller discussion in the fall. The survey instrument itself, along with other relevant information, is available at this website.)
Findings: Since passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), the federal court civil rights inmate docket has shrunk by 40%. But the results of the survey establish that litigation remains extremely important to correctional administrators and administration. It is clear that agencies continue to respond to the fact and prospect of damage and injunctive actions by seeking to avoid lawsuits, by hiring various kinds of staff to respond to litigation, and by reforming policy and supervision in areas that turn out to pose litigation risks. On the details about how inmate litigation works – its prevalence, topics, outcomes, and impact – different observers will be struck by different aspects of the findings. For me, the most interesting results are:
- Problems in medical care are the preeminent topic of litigation and court orders, for both jails and prisons.
- Jails and prisons report quite different trial experience; only 14% of large jails reported trial losses, compared to 58% of prisons.
- Both jails and prison respondents report a fairly low amount of damages paid annually, but jails report damage levels notably higher than those in the prison sample.
- Court orders continue to be very prevalent, and prisons are far more likely than jails to seek termination of the orders.
- Both jail and prison respondents rated both individual and class action litigation high in importance to their agencies.
- Jail respondents were more likely to consider individual litigation burdensome – but less likely to consider class action litigation burdensome.
- Both jail and prison respondents reported that court orders were largely beneficial to their agencies’ mission.
- Nearly half of jail respondents, but hardly any of prison respondents, reported no impact of the PLRA on the number, frivolous proportion and burden posed by individual and class action lawsuits.