The elimination of Arizona prison law libraries is an experiment that other states (and the courts) are watching. Does the contract paralegal system work? And does it provide constitutionally adequate access to the courts? After one year of this experiment, I'd say the answer to both is "No".
I have personally observed numerous meetings between the contract paralegals and prisoners. The paralegals offer zero advice, and are pretty damn quick to explain in no uncertain terms that they are not required to provide advice. Instead, they tell the prisoner to 1) read the Self-Help Litigation Manual , or 2) write to an attorney. Average time with each "client'' [prisoner] is 5 to 10 minutes.
In the rare instance when a prisoner has an actionable complaint, the paralegal hands him a fill-in-the-blanks §1983 form. They don't help one bit in preparation of this form; the prisoner is left to fill it out himself with no instructions. After the "initial filing" of this form, the prisoner is on his own.
If there is a motion by the state to dismiss or for summary judgement, the paralegals strictly adhere to the clause in their contract that forbids them from offering assistance beyond the "initial pleading" stage. (One paralegal I know of was reportedly fired because she did some research for a prisoner and took an active interest in his case.)
Another problem is getting an appointment to see a paralegal in the first place, especially from a lockdown or control unit position. They schedule one day a week, about an hour total, and cram all the "clients" into that short time. On the lockdown yards (which includes an increasing number of Arizona prison units) you have to give the guard a "Forms Request Form" to obtain whatever form you want (kite, medical request, etc.). There is no listing of "Paralegal Request" on this form. So when you ask the guard how you can obtain a request form to see a paralegal, you are told: "All forms listed are what you are allowed."
The contract paralegal system is what our worst fears said it would be and more! The program is set up and operated to be an obstacle to court, not a stepping stone. They do NO research, offer NO advice, and show NO interest in anybody's case. Really, talking with one of these paralegals is about as useless as sitting down with a hack to tell them your woe-is-me story.
Lastly, the box where the paralegal request forms go, by policy, is opened by the graveyard guards who sort through the requests and forward them. The fear of retaliation (which, believe me, is absolutely justified) leaves many prisoners very reluctant to write their issues and complaints down on the form, or even to submit one in the first place.
It's all designed to show "success" by reducing the number of lawsuits filed. That is the sole aim not providing any meaningful access to the courts. The DOC has a vested interest to show such "success". And once they do and the truth is not told about how they are doing it then other states will be certain to follow.
I only hope that with the revelations of fraud and mismanagement brought to light by Middle Ground, and the reporting of this story by Prison Lega1 News and other media, other states will think twice before they believe any claims made by the state of Arizona that their "Experiment in Access" contract paralegal system offers any kind of monetary savings or success.
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