Books Behind Bars : The War on Prison Law Libraries

photo by teachandlearn on Flickr

Mona Lynch is an associate professor in the Criminology, Law and Society department at UC Irvine. Her research and writing focuses on the social, psychological, and cultural dynamics of contemporary punishment processes, and has been published in a wide range of journals and law reviews. Her new book, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment is due out this fall with Stanford University Press.


I am just coming off of a ten-year obsession with Arizona’s punishment practices. There is an aspect to the multiple assaults on prisoners’ rights and dignity that I have yet to articulate until now–the “tough” punishment policies instituted in this state that directly assault the autonomy of the prisoner’s soul. This guest post is my attempt to make sense of these policies by sharing just one such episode in Arizona’s recent penal past: the war on prison law libraries.


The legal battle began in 1984, when a class action suit brought by inmates at the central prison unit alleged that prisoners were denied meaningful access to courts due to inadequate law library facilities. Under order from the Court, the state agreed early on to improve the access, but the plaintiffs soon returned to court, alleging continued violations of prisoners’ rights.


Federal District Court Judge Carl Muecke ordered  the Department of Corrections to supply trained legal assistants to help prisoners who were denied physical access to the library with their cases. The department, however, simply assigned prisoners–many with no legal skills whatsoever–to the job of “legal assistant.” The prison only allowed inmates to use the library on a very limited and arbitrary schedule and forced  many prisoners to pay for basic supplies for filing cases, such as paper and stamps, even if it meant that they had to forego other necessities to do so.


Read more after the jump.


In 1990, Judge Muecke issued a detailed order that laid out very specific requirements for maintaining a constitutionally acceptable level of legal access at the prison, and in a later case, extended these requirements to all the prison law libraries in the system.The state appealed this ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Judge Muecke’s injunction. Arizona later appealed the 9th Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, who handed down their decision in 1996.


Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in Lewis v. Casey (1996), determined that prisoners do not have “an abstract, freestanding right to a law library.” The ruling also required that prisoners show that an “injury” resulted from lack of access to legal materials in order to prevail on a denial of legal access claim . They must also prove that the lawsuit filed would be “nonfrivolous” in nature. It was this decision that opened the doors of  institutions across the country to the demise of a very longstanding tradition—the prison law library.  


In Arizona, that is exactly what happened. Terry Stewart, who had recently assumed the Department of Corrections directorship, from his mentor Sam Lewis when the Lewis v. Casey decision came down, enthusiastically set out to close down the system’s law libraries. Within a year, he had closed 34 of the 35 prison law libraries in place at the time, replacing them with a new “legal access” process that provided inmates with preformatted legal forms on which they could write in their complaints.


The completed forms were then screened by state hired paralegals, who advised whether the cases were meritorious or not. The paralegals–largely unqualified and untrained–operated under contractual orders not to assist inmates with the litigation process past the filing of initial petitions. 


The consequences of this case have clearly been significant in terms of prisoners’ ability to protect their rights in this and other states. Following Arizona’s lead, a number of jurisdictions have fully dismantled their law libraries or stopped updating their printed legal materials, functionally destroying their libraries’ utility. Most systems that have gone this route have replaced the books with “procedures” that involve external screening of claims and/or mechanisms that do not allow inmates to freely explore cases or legal issues. Although often justified on economic and security grounds, the alternative approaches are generally more expensive in the long run and do nothing to make prisons more secure.


Beyond that, the elimination of law libraries strips away one more outlet for inmates to exercise independent thought and analysis while in custody. The new methods of providing legal “access” deny inmates the ability to investigate and understand their own grievances through the use of legal texts as analytic tools. As such, they strike at a fundamental human necessity, especially useful in surviving the prison process: engaging the imagination.


To say that something as instrumental as the prison law library is also a venue for intellectual exercise and autonomy may seem like a stretch. But we know from scads of research that the most psychologically damaging forms of confinement are ones that deprive the prisoner of social, emotional, and/or intellectual stimulation. Such conditions cut not to the body, but to the soul of the human captive.


While taking away law libraries may in itself only be a surface wound, it is just one of many that have been inflicted in the “get tough” era, with a cumulative effect that is devastating for those confined to our nation’s prisons.


8 thoughts on “Books Behind Bars : The War on Prison Law Libraries

  1. People in prison are usually there for a reason. Why should tax payers pay for libraries? Why not just give them a tv in every cell to?

  2. Thanks Mona for this important discussion. Libraries are central to the American ideal, and their presence is a sign of our humanity and our democracy. To me, to limit access to libraries in anyway is a denial of the best in all of us. As you eloquently suggest:” “.. we know from scads of research that the most psychologically damaging forms of confinement are ones that deprive the prisoner of social, emotional, and/or intellectual stimulation. Such conditions cut not to the body, but to the soul of the human captive.” Libraries call to all of us; they call not only to our body, but to our very soul.

  3. The real issue, of course, is what is the purpose of prison and prison libraries. The assumption of “innocent until proven guilty” is basically a lie. Most people accused of crime are pressured to plea bargain with the promise of a more lenient sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Once imprisoned, confessing guilt is a prerequisite for parole. The most of serious of all crimes is suggesting the authorities can be wrong. Certainly, the prisoner cannot be encouraged to maintain his innocent and possibly even prove it. The last thing the prison wants is to give the inmate the tools to do so and perhaps undermine the system’s legitimacy. Law libraries might give the incarcerated victims confidence and undermine their dependency upon their oppressors. We should hardly be surprised that the prisons want to undermine and maybe even close law libraries.

  4. Raven, please consider that if you put a broken person in jail and then do nothing to “fix” them eventually they get out and are still broken. Getting tough on crime is popular with politicians but doesn’t really work. If changes aren’t made then nothing changes.

  5. Wayne’s wise comment reminds me this issue involves both compassion and self-preservation. Somewhere on the Changing Lives website, a judge is quoted as saying, “We may be liberals, but we’re not damn fools.” I work with an adult literacy organization and find the most frequent question from literate citizens is “Why didn’t they learn to read in school like I did?” They express reluctance to support services they feel were provided and squandered. I can leave compassion out of the equation and point out that our clients’ illiteracy affects everything from public safety to the economy of our community — but some folks just aren’t ready or able to see it that way.

  6. It is a sad place where the judicial process knows it can abandon its need not only to be just, but to demonstrate that it is being just.

    Anyone incarcerated by the rule of law who is unable to see the language of the rules cannot fail to believe that they may have been unjustly judged (no matter what they have done.)

    This is the residue of a relentless distinguishing between them and us, bolstered by the vast literature of movies, television, thrillers, newspaper articles, sermons, and gossip– constant reminders that Them are evil and not like Us.
    When this thinking becomes politically expedient, we know how frightened society has become.

  7. I am currently in the middle of a law suit with one of my former tenants..I am confident it will be dismissed as frivolous but it has cost me over $3,000 so far. The last motion they answered indicated they were being assisted. The person that was assisting them turned out to be the brother of one of the palntiffs serving 36 yrs to life for murder.I also believe this was pre meditated as a way to make money as this was a long term tenant and this suit started just after this girl moved in with him.How can a prisoner use the prisons law library to assist in outside law suits?

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