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Help Yourself Legal Information

By Paul Wright

Part of the purpose of PLN is to try to help prisoners help themselves when it comes to using the courts to extend democracy to all and to vindicate our civil rights. We pretty much concentrate on federal court rulings and actions, because they can be used in any federal court across the country, rather than state law that is binding only in that state. And we also consider the fact that many state courts are not responsive at all to prisoners complaints about prison conditions while the federal court § 1983 is the much used lawsuit of choice by prisoners because it provides the means for federal courts to review the deprivation of federal rights by state officials.

We get numerous requests for legal assistance from our many prison readers and non subscribers as well. Everything from "how do I file a lawsuit" to questions about specific practices by a state's criminal statutes. While we would love to be able to help everyone that writes to us the fact remains that Ed and I are still prisoners and in pretty much the same boat as the rest of our prison readers are in. Publishing PLN and keeping up with civil rights litigation in our respective prisons as well as our work on other legal and political projects pretty much take up all of our time.

What we try to do with PLN on the legal front is to help prisoners help themselves. I can tell you from my own experience that no one is as concerned about your rights as you are. To be able to safeguard your rights you need to know what they are and then how to seek relief from a court if they are violated. The vast majority of us have no specialized legal training and what we do know we've picked up by studying it in prison and going through the trial and error process of doing litigation. I think a good reason every prisoners should know a bit about the legal system is to be able to seek relief from the courts themselves, even when assisted by a jailhouse lawyer there is the possibility that a court deadline will come up and one or the other of you will be in the hole, the person helping you do the lawsuit or yourself are transferred, paroled, etc. If you are responsible for your own litigation that isn't a problem and you won't wonder if you lost your case because the person doing it didn't care about it, etc.

There are a number of books and publications available with the prisoner litigant in mind. Virtually all law books and publications are pretty expensive, that's because the market for them consists of lawyers, legal groups and libraries, all of which have money. By contrast the materials for prisoner litigants are usually written by public service attorneys and are either free or modestly priced. Here's a rundown on the basic materials that I know of that are available to prisoners. If I haven't seen them myself I will say so. Before ordering you should write the address given and find out if the prices are still up to date, if the title is in stock and also see about getting their whole catalog if they have one. You also may want to check your prison law library and see if they have the materials and if they don't, maybe they can be encouraged to purchase them for use by the entire population.

"The Prisoners Self Help Litigation Manual " by Dan Manville is the bible of prison litigation. It covers everything from prisoners basic rights, how to file a lawsuit and a habeas corpus action in federal court and everything else you need to know to file your lawsuit and get it going in federal court. It applies to both federal and state prisoners. While it is a little dated now, having been last revised in 1983, it is still the most comprehensive and complete book of its type. It costs $20.00 and is available from: Oceana Publications, 75 Main Street, Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522. Another similar book is "A Jailhouse Lawyers Manual " published by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Box 54, Columbia University School of Law, 435 West 116th St., NY, NY 10027 for $8.00. This book has a lot of materials and information dealing with New York state law as well as federal law that is useful to New York prisoners. Both books have sample forms, explain how to do legal research, make legal citations, etc.

Also available from Ocean Publications is "Post Conviction Remedies: A Self Help Manual" also by Dan Manville for $16.50. It details the use of habeas corpus to-get out of prison.

"The Rights of Prisoners" is a small paperback by the ACLU that gives a brief rundown and discussion on prisoners rights and also cites cases where the rights were developed. The book is free to prisoners and available from: ACLU, 132 West 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.

The National Prison Project at 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., #410, Washington D.C. 20009 is part of the ACLU and is in the forefront of prisoners rights litigation across the country. They offer their quarterly "Journal" for $2.00 a year to prisoners, which I highly recommend for it's articles, analysis and citations of recent court decisions. They also offer other valuable resources such as "The Prisoners Assistance Directory " for $30.00, bibliographies of AIDS in prison, bibliographies of women in prison issues and a "Primer for Jail Litigators" for use in challenging conditions in county jails.

The Lewisburg Prison Project, P.O. Box 128, Lewisburg, PA 17837 publishes several books on prisoner suits in federal courts, explaining liability of prison officials and they have collected sets of their "Bulletins" that deal with topics such as medical treatment, disciplinary hearings, assaults, AIDS, etc. Filled with case cites as well as analysis they are all very reasonably priced in the $6.00 to $8.00 range though the bulletins are getting a little old last being published in 1987 they are still a good starting point.

The Prisoners Rights Union, 1909 Sixth St., Sacramento CA 95814 publishes and sells "The California State Prisoners Handbook" for $43.00 (which I have not seen) that is intended primarily for California prisoners in gaining and asserting their rights. They also have available materials from Inside/Out Press that consist of pre-written motions and similar self help materials most of it designed mainly for CA prisoners. The prices seem a bit high but I haven't seen them myself.

"The Citebook" is a legal assistance manual that consists primarily of case citations on a fairly wide area of federal law dealing with criminal and civil rights. It is a good book to have when you need some quick reference points. It costs $16.95 and is available from Starlight General, P.O. Box 20967, St. Petersburg FL 33742.

Nolo News, 950 Parker St., Berkeley, CA 94710 doesn't deal specifically with prisoner rights or criminal law but is intended to help citizens with common legal problems like doing wills, divorces, small claims courts, patents, etc., as well as an entire book on doing legal research. Most of their books are reasonably prices as books go, mainly in the $15.00 to $30.00 range. They have a free catalog available.

"Criminal Procedure Project, " Georgetown Law Journal, 600 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington D.C. 20001 is an annual publication by the Georgetown University law school, it is about 1,300 pages long and contains a breakdown and extensive citing of all significant criminal cases and prisoner rights cases that year. It only costs $5.00.

"Criminal Law Outline " costs $12.00 and is available from The National Judicial College, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557. It is 186 pages long and lists all Supreme Court cases (no appellate or district court rulings) dealing with the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th amendment rights of defendants and prisoners. An excellent starting point.

Legal Associates West, P.O. Box 255784, Sacramento, CA 95865 offers several publications designed to help prisoner litigants file a 1983 suit, appeal it if they lose in the Court of Appeals as well as to the Supreme Court. The books are written by William Ravenscroft, an attorney and the director of L.A.W. He also wrote the article on doing writs for certiori that appeared in the August PLN. All the books contain forms and answer most questions. They are priced in the $10.00 range for prisoners.

This listing is not meant to be all inclusive. If you know of any materials designed for prisoner litigants that are still in print and available let me know about them so I can inform our readers.

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