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Article: Ineffective Assistance of Library: The Failings and the Future of Prison Law Libraries

There is a very interesting article in the June 2013 edition of the Georgetown Law Journal (101 Geo. L.J. 1171) about prison libraries. (available via Westlaw and LexisNexis)

From the abstract:

The prison law library has long been a potent symbol of the inmate's right to access the courts. But it has never been a practical tool for providing that access. This contradiction lies at the core of the law library doctrine. It takes little imagination to see the problem with requiring untrained inmates, many of them illiterate or non-English speakers, to navigate the world of postconviction relief and civil rights litigation with nothing more than the help of a few library books...

This Article uses original historical research to show how prison law libraries arose, not as a means of accessing the courts, but rather as a means of controlling inmates' behavior.

Curious about the meaning behind that last phrase, I took a closer look at the article. It seems that during the 1950's, the law library that served Illinois's prisons became so popular that in just a nine year period "inmates at the 4,400-man Stateville facility shot off 27,890 filings to the courts, not including those filed by their attorneys." This apparently didn't sit to well with some in the legislature and judiciary.

Author Jonathan Abel wondered, "with legislators and judges criticizing the law library, what could have motivated Stateville and Joliet Warden Joseph Ragen to let it grow so big? Not constitutional requirements. Not a sense for the future development of the law. No, it appears the warden had more practical reasons, at least according to the newspaper. Ragen said he was 'not too unhappy' with the situation because 'the job of preparing petitions keeps the prisoners occupied.'" (p 1183)


Here's more from the abstract

By placing the origin of the prison law library in the first decades of the twentieth century-half a century earlier than typical accounts-this Article shows how the law library evolved to take on a new purpose in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Supreme Court and other courts first began to fashion a law library doctrine.

The central argument of this Article is simple: The courts' attempts to graft an access-to-courts rationale onto a law library system that had developed for other purposes led to a law library doctrine riddled with contradictions and doomed to failure. This historical account helps explain a prison law library system that never really made sense in terms of providing access to the courts.

Hat tip to Legal Research Plus