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Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual, 4th Edition, by John Boston and Daniel Manville, Oxford University Press, 960 Pages, $39.95

Reviewed by Paul Wright

The Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual (PSHLM) by Dan Manville first appeared in 1983. It was designed to give prisoners an overview of the legal system, a basic overview of what their rights are and guidance on how to actually litigate a suit in federal court. The book went on to become enormously popular with jailhouse lawyers and in many court access cases it became a required part of prison law library collections. The second edition came out in 1986, the third edition in 1995. As the years passed the book became dated in that the law pertaining to prisoners’ rights was rapidly changing, moreso with the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act and several key Supreme Court cases that severely diminished prisoners’ rights. Now, fifteen years later, the fourth edition is finally available.

This is the third PSHLM that I have owned, and I still have the second and third editions sitting on my bookshelf. Unlike many other books and products, each edition of the PSHLM is better than the last. The authors clearly respond to feedback and strive to improve what is already a fantastic resource. The PSHLM is divided into sections. The section on prisoners’ substantive rights discusses the relevant case law pertaining to all aspects of prison life: beatings, sanitation, food, clothing, medical care, censorship, disciplinary hearings, personal safety, use of force, segregation, access to the courts, religious freedom, visitation, searches, property and much more.

If you are a prisoner, even if you don’t plan to file a lawsuit yourself, reading this book will be a valuable experience. If you don’t know what your rights are you can’t seek help to enforce them. More importantly, the PSHLM explains the difference between the rights prisoners have and what court (state or federal) is the appropriate forum to hear a particular claim. All too often many prisoner lawsuits are dismissed as “legally frivolous” not because there is no actionable harm being claimed, but because the lawsuit was filed in the inappropriate court.

Most books dealing with prisoners’ rights merely state what those rights are and leave it up to the reader to figure out how to enforce them. This is where the real value of the PSHLM comes in. This book gives an explanation of the legal system, different types of actions (e.g., civil rights, tort, habeas corpus, workers compensation, etc.), suing the right defendants, choosing a remedy, class action suits, and defenses prison officials are likely to raise. Then it gets down to the nitty gritty: how to actually file a suit in court and litigate it step-by-step all the way through the court system. It also contains a section on writing legal documents and conducting legal research. Any litigant who reads and masters the PSHLM will be a formidable courtroom opponent. The book is clearly written in plain English.

If you want to know how to enforce your rights this is the book for you. While the focus of the PSHLM is on prisoners and their rights, I would strongly recommend this book to any non-attorney who is seeking an explanation of what all those fancy legal terms, procedures and such mean. If you are a free citizen too poor to afford counsel, this book will give you the basic information you need to research, file and litigate a lawsuit on your own. It has dozens of example forms, briefs and motions. Attorneys, especially those with clients in jails or prisons, will find this book to be an invaluable quick reference, especially when an imprisoned client asks that age-old question, “can they do this to me?”

I went to prison in 1987 and shortly thereafter realized I needed to know what my rights were and how to enforce them. I bought my first copy of the PSHLM in early 1988 for $16.00. I definitely got my money’s worth. The next edition was sent to me as a review copy by the publisher, and I still have that as well. When I was being bounced around the Washington prison system I was only allowed to bring one book with me on the chain bus. This is the book I brought. If you can only afford to buy one legal book this should be it. Every prisoner should have a copy of this book, to go along with their PLN subscription. The PSHLM also lists publications of interest to prisoners, a prisoners’ assistance directory and recommended collections for prison law libraries.

The PSHLM is 960 pages in length; it is extensively footnoted and well organized. Previous editions had an index that was difficult to use, which has been corrected. It is exceptionally well-written, organized and designed to be used by real-world litigators. Prisoners should urge their law libraries to purchase the latest edition for their collection. Highly recommended. The PSHLM costs $39.95 plus $6 shipping for orders under $50. To order, contact: Prison Legal News, P.O. Box 2420, West Brattleboro, VT 05303, 802-257-1342 or

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