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Federal Judge Says Prisoners Denied Access to Courts

Prisoners in Arizona have been denied adequate means to communicate with lawyers, perform legal research, and otherwise receive legal assistance, according to a recent decision by United States District Judge Carl Muecke in Phoenix, AZ.

Ruling in Casey v. Lewis, a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of all Arizona prisoners, Muecke wrote that the Department of Corrections' system for allowing prisoners access to the courts "fails to comply with constitutional standards."

"It's an important victory for the Constitution," said Stuart H. Adams, Jr., a lawyer with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., which represents the prisoners. "The right to petition the courts is in many ways the most basic and important right prisoners have." In a 36-page opinion, Muecke found that prison officials failed to provide adequate legal assistance to prisoners in segregated housing, and to those who are illiterate or do not speak English; failed to provide confidential photocopying services for prisoners' legal documents; and arbitrarily denied prisoners confidential telephone calls with their attorneys. Muecke added that he will appoint a Special Master to work with lawyers on both sides of the lawsuit in developing an order to remedy these deficiencies.

In an earlier lawsuit involving only the Central Unit at the Arizona State Prison at Florence, Muecke ordered prison officials to provide training for inmate legal assistants, to allow prisoners a reasonable amount of time in the prison law library, and to provide basic legal supplies, such as pens and paper, to indigent prisoners. That decision, Gluth v. Kangas, was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in July 1991. In his ruling in Casey, Muecke stated that he would now order that the Gluth policies be implemented throughout the Arizona prison system.

Casey v. Lewis was filed in January of 1990, and the trial took place before Muecke between November 1991 and February 1992. The prisoners are represented by the National Prison Project and by Alice L. Bendheim, a Phoenix attorney. The lawsuit also alleges inadequate medical and mental health care, failure to provide for the special needs of handicapped prisoners, and assignment of prisoners to segregation based on unreliable confidential information. Muecke is expected to decide these issues before the end of the year.

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Related legal case

Casey v. Lewis