This Handbook explains how a prisoner can start a lawsuit in federal court, to fight against mistreatment and bad conditions in prison. Because most prisoners are in state prisons, we focus on those. However, people in federal prisons and city or county jails will be able to use the Handbook too.

We, the authors of the Handbook, do not assume that a lawsuit is the only way to challenge abuse in prison or that it is always the best way. We believe that a lawsuit can sometimes be one useful weapon in the struggle to change prisons and the society that makes prisons the way they are.

The Handbook discusses only some of the legal problems which prisoners face – conditions inside prison and the way you are treated by prison staff. The Handbook does not deal with how you got to prison or how you can get out of prison. It does not explain how to conduct a legal defense against criminal charges or a defense against disciplinary measures for something you supposedly did in prison.

The Importance of “Section 1983”

A prisoner can file several different kinds of cases about conditions and treatment in prison. This Handbook is mostly about only one kind of legal action: a lawsuit in federal court based on federal law. For prisoners in State prison, this type of lawsuit is known as a “Section 1983” suit. It takes its name from Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. The U.S. Congress passed Section 1983 to allow people to sue in federal court when a state or local official violates their federal rights. If you are in state prison, you can bring a Section 1983 suit to challenge certain types of poor treatment. Chapter Three of this Handbook explains in detail which kinds of problems you can sue for using Section 1983.

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