When you hear of prisoners working in law libraries trying to get out of jail, does that rankle you?

When you hear of prisoners overturning their convictions on a ‘technicality,’ does that anger you?

When you hear of prisoners costing your state millions of dollars in court costs, does that confuse you?

Many people react with negative emotion when they hear of such things. Many people think it absurd that prisoners retain certain rights even after incarceration. Many people think it’s a crime that prisoners have free access to the courts when law-abiding citizens have to pay hefty attorney fees and court costs. Many people find it disgusting that inmates manipulate the law after they have broken it. Many people hear about ‘cold scrambled eggs’ civil suits filed by disgruntled inmates and wonder why the system allows this abuse in the first place.

Here’s the thing —

When contemplating the rights of the incarcerated, don’t think of the folks in jail. Rather — think of yourself.

If you were unconstitutionally detained, illegally searched, wrongfully accused, or unjustly convicted, what would happen? Would anyone care? Could you help yourself? Would you be able to get the attention of the system who wronged you? Would you be able to regain your freedom? Would you  be able to clear your good name?

The American system of criminal justice says:

“As citizens, we all of us have post-conviction remedies that can correct these egregious mistakes.”

“Citizens will retain the right of unimpeded access to the courts.”

“Citizens may be represented by state-appointed counsel.”

“Post-conviction remedies exist that citizens may take advantage of, including ineffective assistance of our trial counsel.”

“Citizens may submit civil suits describing a problem with conditions of confinement.”

“And we will make this access free, so that all who find themselves ill-used by the justice system may have their day in court to obtain justice.”

Law libraries and the concept of access to the courts do not exist to give the idle and the cunning a way of cluttering up the court system or a way of manipulating the law to their own sordid ends. They exist for you and for me, the free, law-abiding citizen. Why? Because the criminal justice system is imperfect and occasionally unjust. Without these remedies and procedures, you’d rot in jail, or stay there until they let you go.

For most of us, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to imagine how you could be going about your business in the world, and then suddenly become mixed up in a tragedy of circumstances that ultimately leads to your imprisonment. But you must understand that this scenario happens. And it happens more often than we realize. What if it happened to you? I know if I was on the wrong end of the law, I’d want legal remedies and procedures in place that gave me the chance to regain my freedom.

Thankfully for us, we have such a system. The wrongfully accused and unjustly convicted have the right of unimpeded access to the state and federal courts for appealing problems pertaining to their criminal convictions,. and for filing civil suits addressing some problem pertaining to their incarcerated lives.

Folks who don’t have this enlightenment of why the justice system works as it does are prone to say with exasperation, “Only in America!”

Ad thank God, or your lucky stars, that this is true. Because America gives you the chance to get out of jail, clear your name, and come home again.

The court vigilantly screens all submissions, and when it discovers a charlatan, it uses language like “Without merit,” “Failure to state a claim,” “Malicious,” “Harassing,” “Frivolous,” or “Abusive of the judicial system.” The courts know the games some inmates try to play. Do not, therefore, think of the jailhouse manipulator of the law who just wants to get out of jail — he’s the one who gives the post-conviction system the bad reputation that it has. His ilk and their machinations are the price we pay for post-conviction remedies.

Rather, think of a loved one, and the remedies they would need in order to convince the system that they were wronged and must be let go.

Prison law libraries are not about law-breakers. They’re about us — the law-abiding citizens who occasionally find ourselves on the wrong side of the prison walls.

9 thoughts on ““Only in America!” PRISON LAW LIBRARIES ARE YOUR FRIENDS

  1. While most people don’t like to hear about frivolous laws suits, prisoners do have rights and they do need to be able to contest unlawful treatment in prison. In Fulton County Georgia inmates sued because the plumbing was backing up into their cells, there were broken locks on cell blocks, there was a shortage of showers, and there was no air conditioning (a necessity in those conditions and that type of climate). These conditions were unsanitary and dangerous both to inmates and prison employees. This certainly goes above and beyond a complaint about cold eggs. While it is quite possible a case of this magnitude was handled exclusively by lawyers it lays out some valid issues concerning the rights of the incarcerated. Prisoners need to have the legal means to contest unlawful treatment, even when it doesn’t garner headline attention.

    • Quite often, the DOC knows what’s going on, and is preparing a solution for the problem, but the impatient inmate is compelled to file a suit and present the situation in a skewed light, saying “If we hadn’t filed this suit, they would have done nothing.” Most of the time, that scenario is a crock, and the court knows it, or soon finds out, because now the Department has to file records of what action has been taken to address the problem.

      Certain prisoners would have you believe that corrections hates them and tries their level best to kill them. I say — folks who fall for that should be ashamed of themselves.

      Our prison meets with the inmates formally each week, to talk things out to see if there are any real problems, and what can be done on both sides before the courts have to become necessary. That’s as fair a system as I’ve seen, and it even works — again, when the inmates can find the patience it takes to rectify an Administrative problem.

      Often the solution is simply money the DOC doesn’t have. In these instances, it’s better that the inmates bring it to court and get an injunction or decision. That way, the Department can go to the state & say, “We told you so. Now this is something you have to do.” It’s aggravating, but it works.

  2. I’m assuming most prisoners know that they need to try to resolve disputes with the prison administrators before filing lawsuits, but I wonder if some of them think it would be easier just to file a lawsuit. If prisoners feel that “corrections hates them,” they probably don’t think it’s worth the time and effort to complain to administration. Also, it seems an inmate who might want to try and solve the problem outside of court might have a hard time even figuring out exactly how to do that (i.e., which forms to fill out, where to get them, who to talk to, etc.) You mention that your prison meets with inmates weekly to deal with complaints, but I wonder if all prisons do this. Do they speak with all inmates in the prison, or just the podfathers, or a random grouping of inmates?

    The library has law clerks who help inmates navigate through the court system, but who helps inmates get through the process of filing complaints at the administrative level?

    • In my CONSentrating On The Law course, I teach them about exhausting state remedies — a process that begins by using the prison’s grievance mechanism. Good jailhouse lawyers will encourage inmates to file grievances, knowing that court actions cannot commence until available remedies are exhausted. Even the cynical con knows he won’t get ‘play’ in the courts unless he ‘jumps through the hoops.’ And, of course, this is how new law clerks are trained to help people in the law library who don’t yet know the ropes.

      Our Administration meets with inmate representatives of a group called the Inmate Resident Council. These are elected representatives whose responsibilities include alerting the Superintendent to what they see as problems that affect the whole population (e.g., water quality), and try for an in-house solution before the courts have to become necessary. Admittedly, not every prison is run in this way. From its beginning, Norfolk was designed to function like this. Some other prisons have this kind of inmate co-governance.

  3. I thought this was an interesting, somewhat-on-topic article.

    “CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY–The family of an accused killer who plunged to his death while trying to escape from the Camden County Jail has filed a lawsuit seeking damages. The lawsuit filed in Superior Court on behalf of the estate of Giovanni A. Almovodar, 18, of Camden, charges jail officials failed to maintain a “reasonably safe facility”…Almovodar was in jail awaiting trial in the April 18, 1992 shooting death of a shopkeeper. Officials said he was the first of five inmates who climbed through a hole in the jail wall…Almovodar climbed out headfirst, falling…to his death. The other four escaped.

    –From an article in the Legal Intelligencer.”

    Source Citation: “Only in America.” Fortune 131.n10 (May 29, 1995): 176(1). General OneFile. Gale. Tulare County Library. 7 Apr. 2009. Gale Document Number:A16934654

    • I hope the judge throws this out immediately. Escaping from prison is a criminal act, and is punishable by statute to a term of years in the state penitentiary. Most fugitives are apprehended, and get re-classified to a higher security status, along with criminal charges lodged against them. If proven, they’ve just earned several more years in jail.

      This kind of thing happened in our system about 15 years ago. Four young men made an escape plan. The fourth one through the second-floor window fell to his death.

      Corrections always feels embarrassed when these things happen and I’ll never understand why. It is forever certain that some prisoners will try a jailbreak. Some will succeed, some will fail. No system can plan for every eventuality. No security system is fool-proof or fail-safe.

  4. It does concern me when I read of prisoners getting out on a “technicality” or filing frivolous lawsuits. But, after reading the lecture and this week’s textbook chapter, it has become clearer to me that inmate rights (which just as easily could be MY rights) are guaranteed by the Constitution and should be upheld.

    Simply put … when you’re walking on the beach and there are hundreds of starfish that have been washed up on the sand and you throw one back into the ocean — it made a difference to that one starfish. So too, if one innocent man is released from prison after being wrongly accused and unjustly convicted, then it has made a difference to that one man (and his wife, children, parents, friends, etc).

  5. One reason I think people justify impeding access to the courts, or why they might excuse illegal searches, or a mistake in the legal system is they believe that the criminal, if not guilty of this particular thing, is probably guilty of something else. This kind of thinking is dangerous because it is often motivated by prejudice or bigotry. “That’s the part of town that drugs are sold, so anybody pulled over by the cops MUST have something in their car.” “Everybody knows that guns are like water in that neighborhood.” I wouldn’t want to be subjected to unjust imprisonment on the basis of my race, sex, neighborhood or other characteristic, and I don’t want the government to unjustly imprison someone in my name, so I support access to the courts.

    • Once I spoke with an officer about the law library, and he said,”Even if a con didn’t do what he’s doing time for, he did something else he never got caught for. What goes around, comes around.”

      I’ve had inmates admit as much to me. “Billy, I swear I didn’t do what they’ve got me for. But I figure this is for all the stuff they never caught me at.”

      Justice is a fascinating process.

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