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Are Prison Law Libraries Adequate?

If you’ve ever had to rely on a prison law library to research for a court filing, you know just how sorely lacking they can be. And that’s if you were even able to access the law library. Many states do not provide law libraries for prisoners.

Over 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 813 (1977), that “the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the presentation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”

But what is an “adequate” law library? This has never been defined by the Supreme Court, and no clear standard says what a prison must provide in its law library to meet the mandate of Bounds. The defendants in Bounds never provided North Carolina prisoners with law libraries.

Nearly every prison has its own idea of what an adequate law library means, and nearly every one of them has tossed books and gone digital (except Oklahoma). But what’s on the computers may not be what the public has access to. Instead, prison administrators’ contract with providers, like LexisNexis, to tailor the cases and materials available to prisoners, said Kevin Taylor, an account manager for LexisNexis.

Is this legal? Can prisons block access to cases and materials on prison law library computers? “There really is [not] a bright line in the sand in what you have to have and what would be nice to have,” says Taylor when asked about what’s required to be on the law library computers.

“It’s certainly not a level playing field,” said David Shapiro, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University. “What’s available digitally doesn’t mean everything that was available in print. Often it’s a real narrowing of what’s available” in print.

And Bounds doesn’t mean unlimited access to the law library. Courts have routinely upheld restrictions on access to law libraries for a variety of reasons. In some prisons, a request must be submitted two weeks ahead of time to get just a few hours in the law library. And some prisons don’t even provide a law library but instead a “trained” person (not necessarily a lawyer) to help prisoners file papers in court.

Even if a prison improperly restricts a prisoner’s access to the law library or provides an inadequate law library, the prisoner faces an almost impossible task of showing that his constitutional right to access the courts was violated.

In Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996), the Supreme Court severely limited Bounds, requiring that a prisoner must show “actual injury” from being denied access to the courts because of a law library problem. Most courts say this means the prisoner must prove that his claim would have been meritorious had it been filed and not been dismissed by the court because of denial of access to the law library or an inadequate law library. After Lewis was decided a number of states including Arizona, Georgia, South Dakota and others simply closed their prison law libraries. Ironically, North Carolina, the state where Bounds arose from never did provide law libraries to their prisoners.

This is a “paradox,” experts say, because in order to file a meritorious claim in court, a prisoner needs access to an adequate law library to research and argue his claim. And while courts are supposed to give pro se prisoner filings some leeway, they’re too quick to clear their dockets of these cases. “The basic thing is that most judges regard these people as kind of trash not worth the time of a federal judge,” Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit told The New York Times after he announced his retirement from the bench in 2017. The result is that only one prisoner, at the district court level, has won a court access claim since Lewis was decided in 1996, none at the appellate level.

Another judge has also advocated for better access to the courts by prisoners, saying that prisoner filings serve as a “check” on the dysfunction and abuse in the nation’s prisons. “An awful lot of legitimate grievances go unresolved because of the difficulty in accessing the courts and that’s really a tragedy for our society,” says Donna Leone Hamm, a retired Arizona judge who now runs a nonprofit called Middle Ground Prison Reform.

Georgetown Law School has also opened its library’s doors to help prisoners. In just five months after changing its policy in 2015 to allow prisoners from every state to ask for help, the school’s law library received over 610 requests. Staff there said that opening its resources to prisoners lets them make a case for their rights the same way anyone else can.

But in a 2019 report, the John Howard Association, an Illinois-based prison watchdog group, said access to prison law libraries remains a “pressing, chronic issue.”

Thomas O’Bryant, a respected jailhouse lawyer from Florida, explained it perfectly: “The prosecution has experts available to help prepare their cases, medical doctors, biomedical engineers, psychologists, etc. The pro se litigant? He gets a boilerplate form to fill out and copies of case law. Good luck.” That sums up much of what constitutes “adequate” in prison law libraries across the country. In the prisons which even have them.