In 1871 a Virginia court, in Ruffin v. Commonwealth (62, Va. 790, 1871), commented that a prisoner "has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the state." Eighty years later, in Stroud v. Swope (187 F. 2d. 850, 9th Circuit, 1951), a federal circuit judge asserted: "We think it well settled that it is not the function of the courts to superintend the treatment and discipline of persons in penitentiaries, but only to deliver from imprisonment those who are illegally confined." Correctional administrators held that prisoners lost all of their constitutional rights after conviction. Prisoners had privileges, not rights, and privileges could be taken away arbitrarily (William C. Collins, Legal Responsibility and Authority of Correctional Officers, American Correctional Association, Laurel, Maryland, 1982).
A significant change in the legal view came in the 1960s. In Cooper v. Pate (378 U.S. 546, 1964) the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 USC 1983) granted protection to prisoners. The code states that:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.
With the Cooper decision, the Supreme Court announced that prisoners had rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and could ask the judicial system for help in challenging the conditions of their imprisonment. Cases brought later came to be known as Section 1983 lawsuits because the Court had based itself on Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code. Prisoners' suits in federal courts skyrocketed from 218 in 1966 to 26,824 in 1992. After 1992 new laws made it more difficult for prisoners to sue.
Observers differ about the nature of the lawsuits, how the federal courts process them, and the manner in which they are resolved. Many consider some of the lawsuits to be frivolous and undeserving of the limited resources of the federal courts. Others assert that some lawsuits have merit, but that the federal courts tend to treat all Section 1983 lawsuits in an assembly line fashion with little or no individual attention.