Prisoners Rights to Legal Material

Prisoners’ Rights to Legal Material

I was under the assumption that people behind bars did not necessarily have the right to a library, but did have rights to legal material to help represent themselves in their case.

A Library Science classmate of mine, who also  also has her law degree, enlightened me about some legal material after I told her about what I saw at the jail library I volunteer at. What I saw was the contents of the jail law library was 2 multi-volumed book sets that were HUGE; to use these books, you have to request to see them and they cannot be checked out. My classmate told me that 1. they are bad law books, just like regular books and 2. law books like these contain just the law, nothing else.

The organization that I volunteer with is not allowed to bring in legal material because of the collection that already exists. If these huge books are slightly bad or incomprehensible how is being able to be with these books true access if you cannot understand them? So, in this case there are no how-to-interpret-the-law books to aid prisoners.

So, what are prisoners rights to legal material?

Author of Prison Libraries in Wikipedia pulls the following information out of the 2011 Library Trends that focuses on Prison Librarianship and the Law Library Journal:

In addition, in 1977, Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), ruled that prisons were required to provide access to people trained in law or law library collections in order to meet the constitutional requirement of meaningful access to the courts. In 1996, Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 804 (1996), limited the requirement placed on correctional facilities. Following Lewis many libraries reduced their collections.[2]

Lewis v. Casey ruled that prisoners do not have an absolute right to a law library. Rather an inmate must show that he was unable to pursue a legal claim because of the inadequacy of the law library.[6] In other words, lack of an adequate law library caused the inmate actual injury. The ruling in Lewis makes it much more difficult to seek improvement to a prison’s law library. As one court pointed out, the ability to litigate a claim of denial of access demonstrates that the inmate has no denial of access.[7] However, some believe that Lewis is not as devastating as it appears to be and Bounds v. Smith still remains good law.

Even if a person behind bars is allowed access to legal material, who decides how much time is adequate and how long a wait should be for trial when a prisoner is providing their own defense?

In a recent article, Suspect in 2010 Branford murder claims limited access to prison library not enough to prepare his own legal defensehow much time Dr. Lishan Wang is allowed to use legal material to defend himself (with LaPierre as a standby defender) is the issue:

“I didn’t know until today that it was just one hour,” LaPierre said. “It’s not enough time to prepare for his defense. I will pursue that issue (with Murphy). He should have enough access giving him sufficient time to prepare his case.”

“On that schedule,” LaPierre said of the current access, “it would take a long time for him to prepare.”

Trying to understand legal material and prisoner’s rights to the material is too much for me to comprehend in just one blog post! I am frankly glad that someone well versed shared their knowledge in Wikipedia. This is a subject that needs more time to explore and understand.


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