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Georgia Court Access Consent Decree Terminated

After being in effect less than a decade, a consent decree stemming from a class action lawsuit and providing for a mixed system of court access for Georgia state prisoners was dissolved on November 11, 1998, as U.S. District judge Anthony Alaimo vacated his previous orders of 1988-89 and terminated the case of Lewis v. Evans.

Under the consent decree termination provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626, and Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b), Georgia prison officials announced on September 19, 1997, their intention to eliminate the existing court access system which provided for prison law libraries and assistance from the Center for Prisoners' Legal Assistance (CPLA), and proposed instead to maintain the CPLA, without a copying service, and to place approximately fifteen law books in each prison's library.

A show cause order was soon posted throughout prison facilities in Georgia and prisoner/plaintiffs were invited to submit objections to class counsel, Robert Cullen, and the court, giving reasons why the decree should not be terminated. The goal was to show the court that CPLA was ineffective and the removal of the law libraries would result in constitutionally inadequate court access.

CPLA itself was only recently created when two Emory University law school graduates formed it in March, 1996. Not long afterwards, then Corrections Commissioner Wayne Garner, abandoned the Georgia DOC's longstanding contract with the Prisoners' Legal Counseling Project of the University of Georgia and hired CPLA in its place. CPLA was paid $850,000 a year for its services, $600,000 less than had been paid to the University of Georgia legal group. Garner praised the switch as a "highly efficient and cost-saving success."

However, as the court's inquiry focused upon CPLA during the first hearing on the state's motion to terminate, class counsel submitted a report prepared by habeas corpus expert Timothy McGlasson, stating that CPLA gives bad advice, refuses to file appeals when there is a meritorious basis for an appeal and seemed more concerned with pleasing the Department of Corrections than with helping prisoners.

Former prisoner Terry Lefebure testified at the hearing that he had sought assistance from CPLA only to be told that he had no case. Lefebure, who was erroneously sentenced twice for the same crime, ultimately filed his own appeal, which was granted, and was released from prison two and a half years sooner than he would have been had he listened to CPLA and done nothing.

On the second day of the trial the parties reached an agreement which allowed for the termination of the Lewis v. Evans consent decree with two key stipulations: 1) That the state hire an independent legal auditor to do annual audits to determine whether CPLA is providing prisoners with meaningful access to the courts; and 2) that the law books currently on the shelves in Georgia prison law libraries remain there for five years and if the state should decide to remove them copies of case law must be provided to prisoners on request.

The effectiveness of the new system for court access has yet to be seen and is open to a wide margin of abuse. Whether the existing law books will remain for the full five years is uncertain. Access to the courts has clearly been burdened and the perverse effects of the PLRA are being felt by Georgia prisoners.

Judge Alaimo's order of November 10, 1998, vacated and terminated the action and dismissed the suit. The court held the prisoners were the prevailing parties for purposes of attorney fees and awarded plaintiffs' counsel $5,000 in attorney fees and costs. The court summarized the actions the Georgia DOC is supposed to take to include: a member of the Georgia attorney general's office will review the legal services provided by the legal contractor to determine if it satisfies the DOC's obligation to provide prisoners with constitutional access to the courts. The review is supposed to focus on services provided to mentally retarded, mentally ill, illiterate and non English speaking prisoners. The review is then provided to the DOC. [Editor's note: this seems to be a clear conflict of interest as the Georgia AG's office duty is to defend the actions of the Georgia DOC, no matter how unconstitutional they may be. Moreover, the AG's office represents the DOC in this and other litigation.]

In other provisions, the contractor must notify the DOC of any bar complaints, malpractice actions and section 1983 actions brought against the contractor. The Georgia DOC grievance procedure will allow grievances to be filed against the contractor. While existing law books will not be removed from Georgia prisons for five years the books will not be updated, which means Georgia prisoners will no longer have a means of following or researching recent legal developments. The court listed the 16 law books the DOC will maintain in its libraries. While the contractor will provide prisoners with photocopies of decisional law pertaining to a prisoners' action or potential action, this is subject to the contractor's "exercise of its professional judgment and discretion." As is often the case, contract legal services frequently means no legal services at all in reality. See: Lewis v. Evans, USDC SDGA, Savannah Division, Case No. CV484-251.

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Related legal case

Lewis v. Evans