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Nebraska Supreme Court Says Prisoners Have No Constitutional Right to Own a Typewriter

On September 9, 2016, the Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed a complaint filed by a prisoner who was not allowed access to his personal typewriter, ruling that under the United States Constitution, prisoners do not have a Sixth Amendment right to access a typewriter.

The case started when Nebraska state prisoner Steven M. Jacob sent out his typewriter for repairs. For years, Jacob had legally possessed a Brother ML500 typewriter with text memory capabilities. In March 2013, the Nebraska Department of Corrections (DOC) changed its rules and no longer allowed typewriters with memory. Jacob was told prior to sending out his typewriter that it would not be allowed back in to the institution. He sent it out anyway.

Jacob grieved the DOC, arguing that his right to access the courts was being impaired by DOC's refusal to return his typewriter to him. Jacob also sought a declaratory order in the district court for Lancaster County, stating that he had a right to possess his typewriter under Neb. Rev. Stat. Sect. 83-4, 123 (Reissue 2014). The DOC denied Jacob's grievance and the district court likewise dismissed his claim.

Jacob then filed a "Petition for Review of Administrative Order and Declaratory Judgment," again in the district court, where he admitted he was advised prior to sending his typewriter out that he would not be allowed to have it back. Jacob claimed that without his typewriter his access to the courts would be seriously impaired because access to the prison's law library typewriter is limited to one hour every other day. The district court dismissed this petition as well for failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted.

The case ultimately wound up before the Nebraska Supreme Court, which first held that the denial of Jacob's grievance did not constitute an "Administrative Order or Declaratory Judgment" from which he could file a court challenge. Second, the state's high court found that the DOC did not violate or restrict Jacob's access to the courts under Nebraska law because that law (Sect. 83-4, 123) only prohibits the DOC from adopting disciplinary rules which would restrict or impair a prisoner's right to free access to the courts. Since Jacob wasn't being disciplined, the statute did not apply, the court said.

Finally, the court found that prisoners do not have a federal right to access a typewriter to prepare legal pleadings, and can only show a violation of the right to access the courts if they suffered "actual prejudice with respect to contemplated or existing litigation, such as the inability to meet a filing deadline or to present a claim," citing the U.S. Supreme Court case of Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 348 (1996).

Because the right of access to the court is the same in Nebraska as the federal standard, the Supreme Court ruled that Jacob's case was properly dismissed by the district court.

"The constitutional right to access the courts does not guarantee inmates the wherewithal to transform themselves into litigating engines," but only requires they be provided the tools needed "in order to attack their sentences directly or ... to challenge the conditions of their confinement," wrote the court. See: Jacob v. Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, et al., 294 Neb. 735 (No. S-15-826), September 9, 2016.

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Related legal case

Jacob v. Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, et al.