Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood

24 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2014 Last revised: 8 Dec 2014

See all articles by Margo Schlanger

Margo Schlanger

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: October 2, 2014


Since the enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) in 1996, the statute's impact on jail and prison litigation has been extremely substantial. In two articles about a decade ago, I presented descriptive statistics showing the PLRA-caused decline in civil rights filings and plaintiffs' victories, and the likewise declining prevalence of court-ordered regulation of jails and prisons. More up-to-date information has not been published, so here I update those statistics for use by policymakers, judges, and other researchers, and discuss them briefly. I look in Parts I through III at damage actions, using primarily the data compiled by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (the AO) for each federal district court case "terminated." Part I examines prisoner filings over time and by state; it demonstrates first sharp decline in both filings numbers and rates, and then a more recent plateau. There is substantial variation by state. Part II examines outcomes over time and compares outcomes in other case categories. The trends span the past 15 years: in civil rights cases brought by prisoners, government defendants are winning more cases pretrial, settling fewer matters, and going to trial less often. Those settlements that do occur are harder fought; they are finalized later in the litigation process. Plaintiffs are, correspondingly, winning and settling less often, and losing outright more often. And Part III looks at litigated damages. Because the AO’s data on damages are error-ridden, I supplement the AO database with docket-based research into individual cases. Like my similar study over 10 years ago, that research indicates that when prisoners do litigate all the way to victory, they tend to win pretty small.

In Part IV, I move to the topic of injunctive prison and jail litigation — cases in which prisoner plaintiffs seek a change in policy or other aspects of prison conditions. The PLRA was motivated in large part by Republican discontent with plaintiffs' successes in such litigation, and Part IV demonstrates more comprehensively than prior data that it has succeeded in radically shrinking — but not eliminating — the coverage of such orders.

Keywords: prison, inmate, litigation, civil rights

JEL Classification: K41

Suggested Citation

Schlanger, Margo, Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood (October 2, 2014). U.C. Irvine Law Review, 2015 Forthcoming, U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 427, U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 14-020, Available at SSRN:

Margo Schlanger (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

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