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Prisoners' 1983


BY J.D. Enquist

Ask what the most common lawsuit filed by prisoners is and instinctively the answer will be the "Prisoners' 1983."

The section 1983 is the result of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The statute was originally enacted by Congress under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Known then as the Klu Klux Klan Act of 1871; later in 1970 it was codified as 42 U.S.C. §1983.

Between 1871 and 1961 the State and Federal Courts heard very few lawsuits filed by prisoners. It was known as the "hands-off doctrine." In 1871 the Court said "[a] prisoner has as a consequence of his crime not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights, except those which the law, in its humanity, accords to him. He is for the time being a slave of the state." (Ruffin v. Commonwealth, 62 Virginia 790).

The death of the hands-off doc¬trine begun in the late 1950's and 1960's, after a period in the 1940's known as the "open door policy" (in which the Courts infor¬mally looked at prisoners' com¬plaints), the Courts began hearing a small number of complaints by prisoners filed formally as law-suits.

The real break through for the section 1983, however, came by way of the United States Supreme Court's de¬cision in Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167, 81 S.Ct. 473, 5 L.Ed.2d 492 (1961), which held that acts com¬mitted Ly an agent of the state, even if a misuse of power, is ac¬tion under "color of law." But it took another decade before the same Court decided Wolff v. McDonnell, 418 U.S. 539, 94 S.Ct. 2963, 41 L.Ed.2d 935 (1974), which not only proved that the hands-off doctrine was forever dead, but caused resent¬ment by prison officials towards the Courts, who had dared the Courts for any reason to interfere with their prisons. The landmark decision for-ever changed how prisons are to be run and every prisoner owes it to themselves to read the case.

Prison officials and staff are in¬structed that they will win every lawsuit filed against them if three (3) things are shown: A) that the Court understands the reality of the conditions and the conduct that took place; B) that temptations of the staff to get even with the prisoner were not carried out, but that the policies and procedures were equally enforced; and C) that the staff and institution knew the minimum amount of rights that were required.

On the other hand, prisoners need to consider four (4) basic and important questions before filing their lawsuit: 1) has a Constitutional pro¬tected right been infringed upon by staff or other representatives of the state; 2) what is the institution's justification for the infringement; 3) can the institution prove that its interest is substantial enough to justify the invasion of the prisoner's rights; and 4) is there other ways in which the institution could protect its interest and yet minimized or avoid the infringement of the pri¬soner's rights. See: Turner v. Safley, 107 S.Ct. 2254, 96 L.Ed.2d 64 (1987); Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396, 94 S.Ct. 1800, 40 L.Ed.2d 224 (1974); and Whitney v. Brown, 882 F.2d 1068, 1074 (1989) (The fact remains, however, that prison officials do not set constitutional standards by fiat).

It is very important to note that a "negligent" act is not a claim that relief can be sought through a Prisoner's 1983. See: Daniels v. Williams, 106 S.Ct. 677, 88 L.Ed.2d 662 (1986) (read for the three types of due process and distinctions).

To state a cause of action under a 1983, the Plaintiff (you) must allege facts (opposed to mere conclusions) that he defendants, acting under the color of law, violated your Constitutionally protected rights. See: Haygood v. Younger, 769 F.2d 1350 (9th Cir. 1985), Hewitt v. Helms, 459 U.S. 460, 103 S.Ct. 864, 74 L.Ed.2d 675 (1983).

Remember, also, that your written materials (motions, letters, etc) are your representative - they speak for you in your absence. As a rule the reader (e.g. Court) has only your written materials to represent you. It must speak clearly, in simple non-fancy language, and adequately explain itself.

The most common mistake made by a prisoner filing a lawsuit is not understanding what it is, and prison officials who would hope that it stays that way, will instinctively resent the right to understand the Prisoner 1983.

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