By Cacho, Mark S.
Corrections Today , Vol. 65, No. 4
Correctional administrators have battled for decades on how to uphold an inmate's constitutional right to access the courts while, at the same time, being fiscally efficient in providing access to some type of law library service. Traditionally, the inmate welfare fund has satisfied this expenditure. However, privatization of inmate commissary stores across the country has altered from where the resources to pay for law library services come. To complicate matters, in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Lewis v. Casey. In that decision, the justices revisited the "meaningful access to the courts" requirement established in their prior decision in Bounds v. Smith. The court held that an inmate must show actual injury from the lack of access to the courts or law libraries in order to have standing to bring suit. This led corrections officials to a crossroad regarding what to do about these libraries. Where do we go from here? Do we keep and efficiently improve what we have or do we do away with the law library altogether? Fortunately, there are organizations and correctional agencies that are being proactive in helping correctional administrators make an informed decision.
The right of inmate access to the courts was established in 1977 in Bounds: "[T]he fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law."
Lewis generally reaffirms Bounds, but there is no right to a law library or legal assistance; only a "right of access to the courts." After this decision, many prison and jail law libraries were totally eliminated and the decision posed a threat to many others. The American Association of Law Libraries and the American Civil Liberties Union both have been proactive in helping inmates secure the right of access to courts. AALL has been committed to serving inmates and prison law libraries since the early 1970s. To fulfill this mission, it has undertaken a variety of projects, including publications, consultation activities and official representation to related organizations. In addition, the AALL publication, Recommended Collections for Prison and Jail Law Libraries, has been frequently cited in litigation focusing on inmate access to the courts. The association also has a standing committee on law library service to institution residents (visit www.aallnet.org/sis/srsis/lsirhome.html) and has an online database that institution residents across the country can use to locate local law library services (http://weblaw.barry.edu/Ilsp/). ACLU also has been active for decades in ensuring inmate access to the courts and represented the plaintiff in Lewis. …