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Copyright (c) 2003 The Harvard Law Review Association
Harvard Law Review


April, 2003

116 Harv. L. Rev. 1555


Margo Schlanger*


On any given day there are over two million people in jail or prison in the United States, a population that has nearly quadrupled since 1980. 1 Driven at least in large part by the steep increase in the number of jail and prison inmates, and notwithstanding the nearly complete disappearance of what used to be an active and influential prisoners' rights movement, 2 the amount of civil litigation brought by inmates in federal court increased steadily during the 1980s, and more steeply in the early 1990s. In 1995, inmates filed nearly 40,000 new federal civil lawsuits 3 - nineteen percent of the federal civil docket. 4 About fifteen percent of the federal civil trials held that year were in inmate civil rights cases. 5

But in the mid-1990s, the state officials who were the most frequent targets of the growing inmate docket were finally able to capitalize on the rightward move in American politics 6 and mobilize a major campaign against the lawsuits. Building on years of (noninmate) tort reform drives as well as law-and-order rhetoric, 7 state officials got their proposed legislative solution into the Republican Congress's 1994 Contract with America. 8 When it could not be passed as a freestanding bill, 9 the initiative was eventually included as a rider to an appropriations bill, 10 and was finally enacted in that form as the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). 11 The statute drastically altered the corrections litigation environment, imposing filing fees on even indigent ...
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