Across the country, prisoners and their advocates contend that prison law libraries provide inadequate access to legal resources, according to an article by Law360.
The United States Supreme Court established that prisons must provide inmates with “adequate law books or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law” in the 1977 case Bounds v. Smith. But, most states provide only limited, local and outdated materials, and even those can be difficult to obtain.
Anders Ganten, a Lexis-Nexis executive in charge of providing electronic legal resources to departments of corrections, testified in a South Dakota federal court that prisoners are often restricted to legal opinions from their own state and only from their state’s supreme court and its federal court jurisdictions,
Wisconsin prisoner Gregory Tucker filed a lawsuit in the state of Wisconsin alleging that the state considers law library access a “leisure activity.” Tucker had to apply for a special pass to use the library, which he said hindered his access to resources he had a right to use.
But, a 1996 Supreme Court decision, Lewis v. Casey, makes it difficult to challenge the adequacy of a prison’s law library. The decision states that a prisoner must prove that a specific shortfall in a prison library hindered his or her case.
Tucker lost his case. In its decision the court said, “The plaintiff has not alleged any facts indicating that he is suffering any- thing more than an inconvenience in being allowed to go to the prison library only once a week,” according to Law360.
States often cut corners to satisfy Bounds v. Smith while spending as little money as possible. South Dakota, for example, got rid of its old system of providing a contract lawyer to inmates, and instead now provides inmates with tablets, which saves about $200,000.
Despite the fact that South Dakota inmates lack both physical libraries and trained professionals, the tablets will provide them greater access to resources than those in many other states. Tablets, provided they are functional and haven’t been confiscated, allow access to law library data bases 24/7.
Margo Schlanger, a civil rights expert at the University of Michigan Law School, believes access to courts for prisoners would improve if federal and state authorities adopt common guidelines and set universal standards for law library materials, hours of operation and other procedures.