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Cases and Legal Issues in Corrections
By Terry Campbell, Professor, Purdue University Global
Published: 11/24/2014

Lawbooks In this month’s issue we will look at ongoing legal issues in corrections. Some key areas I will discuss are: Training, 1983 Litigation, Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), and Prisoner’s Rights. Each of these areas is a separate topic. However, I will provide some personal views and an overview for each area. Our officer training incorporates a variety of legal issues for us to consider. However, is this enough? How prepared are you when an inmate advises you than you will be named in a lawsuit or all of a sudden administration notifies you, your presence is needed in the front office? You will need to sign for some legal papers and ‘Your Day in Court Booklet.’ These and other issues are covered in training, however until you actually receive the notification of a lawsuit you are not that worried. Now reality sets in and you are like ‘what?’

Being named in prison litigation is part of the process. Do not take it personally, you know you performed your duties within the legal requirements, followed departmental policies and procedures, and now will testify in court. The nervousness exists, yet if you ‘did the right thing,’ you have no worries. By testifying in federal court you are about to build upon your personal integrity and credibility. There is often he said/she said testimony. The testimony will either substantiate the allegations or not. Remember to be professional when you testify. Review your report before court and be prepared. If you have never been to federal court, remember the judge may ask you questions. Again, answer these questions to the best of your ability and be truthful.

Hopefully, in your training and prior to appearing in court, someone from the department or attorney general’s office will meet with you prior to the hearing and not only on the day of court. Meanwhile, you have access to many materials and staff to talk with about upcoming court. Part of the preparedness is mental and also trusting your confidence and training.

The next area I will cover is 1983 Litigation.

"Section 1983 Litigation" ‘refers to lawsuits brought under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code. Section 1983 gives an individual the right to sue state government employees and others acting "under color of state law" for civil rights violations. Section 1983 has spawned a tremendous amount of interesting and lucrative litigation, as well as a wide selection of law review articles and CLE seminars’ ("Section 1983 Litigation", http://law.lexisnexis.com/infopro/zimmermans/disp.aspx?z=1919).

This allows inmates access to proceed with legal action in the federal courts. We must recognize individuals have the right to challenge our actions and decisions, these are individual rights and protections guaranteed. I would suggest you become familiar with Section 1983 litigation if you have not already done so. You can be assured inmates are aware of this mechanism.

Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA)

The PLRA was enacted in 1996 and has many components. I will discuss some of these. This act makes it more difficult for inmates to file law suits in federal courts. The prisons will have an inmate grievance procedure in place. Inmates must try and resolve their complaint(s) through the grievance procedure. If the inmate files the lawsuit in federal court without following this process, there is a good chance the lawsuit will be dismissed.

Due to implementation of the PLRA, inmates now must pay filing fees. This payment can be collected monthly through the inmate prison account and the fee will not be waived. There are some additional guidelines for this. Please refer to the PLA for additional guidelines.

The PLRA allows for a ‘Three-Strike Ban'. This occurs when an inmate has three cases dismissed for the following reasons: “dismissed as frivolous or malicious, or failing to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, the inmate must pay the full filing fee at the time the complaint was filed with the court unless the inmate can show he is in “imminent danger of serious physical injury” (28 U.S.C. {1997} e(e)).

Also the PLRA says “no federal civil action may be brought by a prisoner…for mental or emotional injury suffered while in custody without a prior showing of physical injury.” (42 U.S.C. {1997} e(e)).

The brief PLRA information I provided allows you the opportunity to consider the intent behind this act and also to further explore the act. Something else to consider, prison officials are prohibited from any type of retaliation. If staff and officials elect to do so they are subject to liability. You can also follow up with your agencies for additional information regarding this act.

Prisoner’s Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled over the years on the importance of inmate rights. These rights are protected by the following Constitutional Amendments. Other amendments are applicable, however these amendments are the ones most often utilized by inmates.
  • Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
  • Amendment 5: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
  • Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
  • Amendment 14: Section. 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. ("U.S. Constitutional Amendments", http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendments.html#sthash.qLkBwfBq.dpuf)
Below, I provided some of the areas of litigation often filed by inmates, this is not conclusive.
  • Mail: legal, personal, publications, and other (Privileged and Non-privileged);
  • Medical and Mental Health Care;
  • Prison Conditions;
  • Private Prisons;
  • Religion;
  • Restriction of Inmate Rights; and
  • Solitary Confinement.
Hopefully you will follow up on legal issues and the law itself to help you in your daily job duties. Good luck and stay safe.

Terry Campbell is a criminal justice professor at Kaplan University, School of Public Safety and has more than 20 years of experience in corrections and policing. He has served in various roles, including prison warden and parole administrator, for the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Terry may be reached at tcampbell@kaplan.edu.

Other articles by Campbell


  1. StephanieCasey on 02/17/2019:

    Quite an interesting article Terry Campbell, The discussion here is quite helping and I would love to find more here on different laws, The Cases and Legal Issues in Corrections seems quite a lot to understand and the way you have got it together has made it easier to understand.

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