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Challenging the Conditions of Prisons and Jails: Report on Section 1983 Litigation

NCJ Number
Date Published
December 1994
54 pages
Publication Series
This profile of Section 1983 lawsuits was developed from an examination of more than 2,700 cases disposed of in 1992 in nine States (Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas).

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted Section 1983 of the U.S. Code to permit inmates to sue State correctional officials when the conditions of confinement fail to meet constitutional standards. Findings from this study show that Section 1983 litigation can be distinguished by three gradations of lawsuits. The first gradation consists of cases dismissed by the courts in 6 months or less because the issues raised lack an adequate basis in law or fact. The second gradation includes cases that survive from 6 to 12 months as the proportion of issues dismissed by the court decreases, and the incidence of stipulated dismissals and successful motions by defendants to dismiss increase. The final gradation consists of cases that take up to 2 years or more to be resolved, because the issues involved are much more likely to have appointed counsel and the holding of evidentiary hearings. Two policy implications flow from the evidence concerning case gradations. Cases that lack an adequate basis in law or fact should be resolved through State administrative grievance procedures instead of through litigation in the Federal courts. Second, the findings raise the issue of how best to handle the remaining two gradations of cases. A systematic approach should be taken to determine the most efficient methods of handling Section 1983 cases that cannot be resolved administratively. 15 references

Date Published: December 1, 1994