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Prisoners File Record Number of Suits

By Paul Wright

We often hear prison officials, the various attorney generals, and the courts complain about what they call a "flood" of prisoner litigation. I, for one, became curious as to how many lawsuits constitute a "flood." I have been in several prisons over the last few years and the one thing they all have in common is the arbitrary manner in which they are run with little regard for either state or federal laws or even their own rules and policies. In many cases this situation continues because prisoners aren't challenging these practices in court.

The Administrative offices of the U.S. Courts has provided me with the statistics for the total number of civil suits commenced in the U.S. District and Appeals Courts from 1987 through and including June of 1992.

There has been a decrease in the total number of suits filed. In 1987 238,982 civil suits were filed, 72,022 by the U.S. government and 22,972 prisoner civil rights cases and 9,542 habeas corpus petitions were filed.

By 1992 the total number of civil suits filed had declined to 226,895; the U.S. government had only filed 63,310 civil cases. Prisoners filed a record 28,308 civil suits and 11,087 habeas corpus petitions.

In the context of more than 1 million Americans in prison or jail at any one time in the U.S., this does not seem to be a very large amount of suits. Certainly more civil rights violations are committed than the number of suits filed would suggest.

The biggest category of suits filed in federal court are contract suits, prisoner civil rights suits are second, followed by free world civil rights suits at 20,975.

The district court with the most prisoner suits filed in 1992 is the District Court in the Middle District of Florida, with 1,002 suits filed. The court with the least is the District Court in North Dakota with 9. Prisoners in Washington state filed 181 civil rights cases in the Eastern District and 172 in the Western district.

By Circuit, prisoners filed the most civil rights suits in the Eleventh Circuit, with 4,140 suits filed. The runner up is the 5th Circuit, with 4,034 suits filed. So we see that two circuits accounting for six states result in over a quarter of all civil rights suits filed by prisoners. All the states are in the south and border each other from Texas to Florida. Prisoners filed the least in the 1st Circuit with a mere 249.

The federal courts are jammed with criminal cases, mainly drug cases, that are a result of the "war on drugs." Because criminal cases have taken priority due to speedy trial rights of criminal defendants, civil cases wind up on the back burner. The result is that after getting up into prison on the conveyor belt justice program, it takes years to challenge either their conviction or the deteriorating conditions of confinement caused by the massive overcrowding of the last decade's prison building binge.

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