Inmate Litigation Summary

"Inmate Litigation," 116 Harv. L. Rev. 1555 (2003)

by Margo Schlanger


In 1995, prison and jail inmates brought about 40,000 new lawsuits in federal court nearly a fifth of the federal civil docket. Court records evidence a success rate for inmate plaintiffs under fifteen percent. These statistics highlight two qualities long associated with the inmate docket: its volume and the low rate of plaintiffs success. Then, in 1996, Congress enacted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which dramatically altered the litigation landscape, restricting inmates access to federal court in a variety of ways. This Article examines inmate litigation before and after the PLRA. Looking first at the litigation process itself, it brings together prior research, the results of new quantitative analysis of a comprehensive database of federal district court cases, and interviews and other qualitative inquiry. The Article canvasses filing trends, subject matter, and settled and litigated outcomes, exploring what is happening in each of these areas and why. Then it uses a variety of analytic tools to uncover and assess the PLRAs impact. Most obviously, the PLRA has shrunk the number of new federal filings by inmates by over forty percent, notwithstanding a large increase in the affected incarcerated population. Simultaneously, the statute seems to be making even constitutionally meritorious cases harder both to bring and to win. Finally, the Article looks beyond federal courthouses to the ways litigation affects jail and prison operations. Specifically, it explores agencies efforts to respond efficiently to the high-volume, lowprobability docket and to reduce their liability exposure, and offers some tentative observations about the PLRAs likely impact on these efforts. The Article suggests in conclusion that use of the PLRA as a model for broader litigation reforms should proceed with enormous caution given the statutes problematic effects.