As you read in Sections A and C, most prisoners who decide to challenge abuse or mistreatment in prison will do so through a federal law known as “Section 1983.” Section 1983 is a way for any individual (not just a prisoner) to challenge something done by a state employee. The part of the law you need to understand reads as follows:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress …
Section A of Chapter Two will explain what this means in detail, but we will give you some background information here, because the history of prisoners’ struggles in the courts starts with the history of Section 1983. Section 1983 is a law that was passed by the United States Congress over 100 years ago, but it had very little effect until the 1960s. Section 1983 was originally known as Section 1 of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Section 1983 does not mention race, and it is available for use by people of any color, but it was originally passed specifically to help African-Americans enforce the new constitutional rights they won after the Civil War — specifically, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Those amendments made slavery illegal, established the right to “due process of law” and equal protection of the laws, and guaranteed every male citizen the right to vote. Although these Amendments became law, white racist judges in the state courts refused to enforce these laws, especially when people had their rights violated by other state or local government officials. The U.S. Congress passed Section 1983 to allow people to sue in federal court when a state or local official violated their federal rights.
Soon after Section 1983 became law, however, Northern big businessmen joined forces with Southern plantation owners to take back the limited freedom that African-Americans had won. Federal judges found excuses to undermine Section 1983 along with most of the other civil rights bills passed by Congress. Although the purpose of Section 1983 was to bypass the racist state courts, federal judges ruled that most lawsuits had to go back to those same state courts. Their rulings remained law until African-Americans began to regain their political strength through the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In the 1960s, a series of very good Supreme Court cases reversed this trend and transformed Section 1983 into an extremely valuable tool for state prisoners. Prisoners soon began to file more and more federal suits challenging prison abuses. A few favorable decisions were won, dealing mainly with freedom of religion, guard brutality, and a prisoner’s right to take legal action without interference from prison staff. But many judges still continued to believe that the courts should let prison officials make the rules, no matter what those officials did. This way of thinking is called the “hands-off doctrine” because judges keep their “hands off” prison administration.
The next big breakthrough for prisoners did not come until the early 1970s. African-Americans only began to win legal rights when they organized together politically, and labor unions only achieved legal recognition after they won important strikes. In the same way, prisoners did not begin to win many important court decisions until the prison movement grew strong.
Powerful, racially united strikes and rebellions shook Folsom Prison, San Quentin, Attica and other prisons throughout the country during the early 1970s. These rebellions brought the terrible conditions of prisons into the public eye and had some positive effects on the way federal courts dealt with prisoners. Prisoners won important federal court rulings on living conditions, access to the media, and procedures and methods of discipline.
Unfortunately, the federal courts did not stay receptive to prisoners’ struggles for long. In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). The PLRA is very anti-prisoner, and works to limit prisoners’ access to the federal courts. Why would Congress pass such a bad law? Many people say Congress believed a story that was told to them by states tired of spending money to defend themselves against prisoner lawsuits. In this story, prisoners file mountains of unimportant lawsuits because they have time on their hands, and enjoy harassing the government. The obvious truth – that prisoners file a lot of lawsuits because they are subjected to a lot of unjust treatment – was ignored.
The PLRA makes filing a complaint much more costly, time-consuming, and risky to prisoners. Many prisoners’ rights organizations have tried to get parts of the PLRA struck down as unconstitutional, but so far this effort has been unsuccessful. You will find specific information about the individual parts of the PLRA in later chapters of this Handbook. Some of the most important sections of the PLRA are included in Appendix F at the end of this book.
History has taught us that convincing the courts to issue new rulings to improve day-to-day life in prisons, and changing oppressive laws like the PLRA, requires not only litigation, but also the creation and maintenance of a prisoners’ rights movement both inside and outside of the prison walls.