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Waupun Law Library Declared Unconstitutional

By Adrian Lomax

In the late 1980's, administrators at Waupun, Wisconsin's largest prison, devised a grand scheme to increase the difficulties facing any prisoner attempting to vindicate his rights in court. In May, 1988, the keep disbanded the Paralegal Base Committee (PBC), an organization made up of inmate paralegals who provided legal training and other assistance to prisoners. The PBC also conducted fundraising activities and used the money to purchase legal materials for the Waupun law library. As an excuse for disbanding the PBC, administrators said they were concerned that the group might become a front for gang activity.

In January, 1989, Waupun officials executed an even bolder stroke. They combined the prison's general library with the law library by physically moving the general library into the area previously used solely for the law library. Many law books and other legal materials were discarded in order to make room for Stephen King novels.

Combining the two libraries reduced the number of inmates that could be served by the facilities. Prior to the consolidation, the general library sent out 15 passes for each one hour period, and the law library sent out 20 passes for each period (in Waupun prisoners are allowed to use the libraries only by receiving a pass). The combined library sent out only 25 passes for each period. The consolidation was undertaken at a time when the prison's population was increasing.

Not surprisingly, a backlog of pass requests developed. Prisoners requesting library passes after the consolidation had to wait at least two weeks, and often as long as four weeks, before receiving a pass.

Several prisoners filed a § 1983 action in federal court alleging inadequate access to legal resources. In April, 1992, the court issued a sweeping decision finding that Waupun's library program was so inadequate it violated the prisoners constitutional right of access to the courts. Dugan v. Sondalle, Case No. 89-C-332, ___ F. Supp. ___ (ED WI, 1992).

The court found that the library was physically inadequate in that it did not allow for use by a sufficient number of inmates. Also, the court found that outlawing the PBC left prisoners with inadequate assistance in using the legal materials available in the library.

Negotiations over the terms of the permanent injunction are in progress. It appears likely that the injunction will require separating the two libraries and the establishment of some type of program for law library users to be assisted by inmate paralegals, possibly the reinstatement of the PBC. The Waupun keep thought they were real slick when they were destroying the law library a few years ago. In the end, they didn't accomplish anything but wasting a lot of taxpayer money and making themselves look stupid in court.

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Related legal case

Dugan v. Sondalle