The Handbook is organized into six chapters, plus several appendices.


This is Chapter One, which gives you an introduction to the Handbook. Sections C through E of this chapter indicate the limits of this Handbook and explain how to try to get a lawyer. Sections F and G give a short history of Section 1983 and discuss its use and limits in political struggles in and outside prison.

Chapter Two discusses the different types of lawsuits available to prisoners and summarizes an important federal law that limits prisoners’ access to the courts, called the “Prison Litigation Reform Act.”

Chapter Three summarizes many of your Constitutional rights in prison.

Chapter Four explains how to structure your lawsuit, including what kind of relief you can sue for, and who to sue.

Chapter Five gives the basic instructions for starting a federal lawsuit and getting immediate help from the court – what legal papers to file, when, where and how. It also provides templates and examples of important legal documents.

Chapter Six discusses the first things that will happen after you start your suit. It helps you respond to a “motion to dismiss” your suit or a “motion for summary judgment” against you. It also tells you what to do if prison officials win these motions. It explains how to use “pre-trial discovery” to get information and materials from prison officials.

Chapter Seven gives some basic information about the U.S. legal system. It also explains how to find laws and court decisions in a law library and how to refer to them in legal papers.

The APPENDICES are additional parts of the Handbook that provide extra information. The appendices to the Handbook provide materials for you to use when you prepare your suit and after you file it.

  • Appendix A contains a glossary of legal terms.
  • Appendix B a sample complaint in a prison case.
  • Appendices C and D contain forms for basic legal papers. You will also find helpful forms and sample papers within Chapters Four and Five.
  • Appendix E gives the text of the first Fifteen Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Appendix F has a few of the important sections of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, and
  • Appendix G includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • Appendices H and I list possible sources of support and publicity – legal groups, political and civic groups that help prisoners, progressive magazines and newspapers that cover prison issues, and other outlets you can write to.
  • Appendix J lists other legal materials you can read to keep up to date and learn details which are not included in this manual.
  • Appendix K lists free book programs for prisoners, and
  • Appendix L includes a list of addresses of Federal District Courts for your reference.
We strongly recommend that you read the whole handbook before you start trying to file your case.

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