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South Dakota Eliminates Law Libraries

On May 17, 1999, the South Dakota Department of Corrections settled a lawsuit that eliminates law libraries in the state's prisons and replaces them with limited assistance from a legal contractor.

Under the terms of the settlement, South Dakota's four main prisons will maintain a collection of about forty books related to law (i.e., annotated South Dakota statutes, court rules, the United States Code Annotated for the U.S. constitution, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and selected volumes from the American Jurisprudence second series.) The book list is only in effect for two years after which the South Dakota DOC can eliminate or substitute all or any of the volumes. Prisoners   desiring copies of actual case law can request them from the DOC's legal contractor and pay 15¢ per page for the cases.

To provide for court access, the South Dakota DOC has hired Sioux Falls attorney Bill Delaney to research and draft state or federal petitions for habeas corpus relief and/or civil rights suits challenging conditions of confinement. He is to be paid a flat fee of $41,600 a year for his services, regardless of how much assistance he does or does not provide. Prisoners seeking court access will contact Delaney who will then research the matter, ghost write the pleadings, and file them once the prisoner signs the documents. Once the petition or suit is filed, no further assistance will be provided and the prisoner is on his or her own. At no time does counsel provide actual representation for the prisoner. The DOC can designate up to five people to monitor the quality and quantity of legal services provided under the contract.

Prison law libraries were initially eliminated in South Dakota in September, 1997. South Dakota prisoners Neal Morris and Charles Scholl filed suit in federal court claiming that the elimination of the law libraries and their substitution with contract lawyers who did little more than provide prisoners with forms to fill out, violated their right of access to the courts. The court appointed attorney Doug Hoffman to represent them. As part of the settlement, which came one week before trial was scheduled to begin, Hoffman was paid $18,000 in fees. Readers should note this is an unpublished settlement. See: Morris v. Janklow, US DC, D SD, case No. 98-4118.

Since the Supreme court decided Lewis v. Casey, 116 S.Ct. 2174 (1996) and ruled that prisoners have no right to law library access and must show "actual injury" to prevail on court access claims, it has become virtually impossible to achieve systemic relief on court access issues. Following Lewis, several states including Arizona and Idaho, have eliminated all prison law libraries, with others states, such as Georgia and California, attempting to do so.

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Related legal case

Morris v. Janklow