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For years, Alliance for Justice has warned of the conservative-led campaign to restrict access to justice.[1] From forced arbitration, to restricting medical malpractice claims, to overturning civil rights protections, Congress and many courts have worked to shut the courtroom doors and keep powerful wrongdoers from being held accountable. Everyday Americans, particularly our society’s most vulnerable, are losing their ability to stand up for their rights in court. This report highlights one of those attacks: the judicial effort to restrict justice for prison inmates.

Recent court decisions have expanded congressional restrictions on the right of inmates to access the courts. Today, inmates are losing more cases, winning fewer settlements, and going to trial less often than any time in the past two decades. [2] Yet, civil lawsuits are often the only way to hold prisons accountable for violence, overcrowding, and medical neglect.

And as with all burdens in the criminal justice system, these developments disproportionately burden people of color, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. Fifty-eight percent of all inmates in 2008 were African American or Hispanic, despite these groups only making up 25 percent of the general public.[3] Recent events have shown how difficult it can be for members of these groups to find justice in all walks of life, but nowhere is it as difficult as in a prison.

This report details the ways courts have expanded nearly every element of the so-called “three-strikes” rule of the Prison Litigation Reform Act to keep inmates out of courts, in ways Congress never intended. Later this year, the Supreme Court will decide Coleman-Bey v. Tollefson, and with it, the future of inmate justice. AFJ calls on the Supreme Court to restore the right of all Americans to petition their courts. Access to justice is far too important an American value to take away from one of our country’s most vulnerable populations.


[1] Access to Justice, Alliance for Justice (last visited Feb. 5, 2015).

[2] Margo Schlanger, Trends in Prisoner Litigation, as the PLRA Enters Adulthood, 5 U.C. Irvine L. Rev., at *11 (forthcoming 2015), available at

[3] Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, NAACP (last visited Jan. 23, 2015),