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Your Right to Learn About the Law - Jailhouse Lawyers and Law Libraries

NCJ Number
Columbia Human Rights Law Review Volume: 9 Issue: 2 and V 10, N 1, double issue Dated: (Fall-Winter 1977-78, Spring-Summer 1978) Pages: 33-41
C Hotchkiss
Date Published
9 pages
This article for New York prisoners discusses their right to receive legal assistance from jailhouse lawyers, their right to law library access, limitations on these rights, and pertinent cases.
Access to the courts is a constitutional right of all citizens, but this right is meaningless for prisoners if they lack access to legal aid. Because legal assistance to prisoners is generally inadequate, courts have been forced to recognize the right of prisoners to help other prisoners prepare legal papers. Johnson v. Avery (1969), in which Tennesee was prohibited from preventing inmates from helping other inmates with habeas corpus petitions, is the landmark decision regarding this right. Although, under Avery, prisons may still regulate activities of prisoner lawyers for management purposes, this power is severely restricted. In Bounds v. Smith (1977), the United States Supreme Court supported numerous lower court decisions requiring prisons to supply law libraries where State legal aid is inadequate. Morever, prisons must allow sufficient time for law library use, furnish paper and other supplies, and even allow prisoners to buy and keep their own law books. They may not forbid use of the law library because of solitary confinement or other punishment and must not interfere with prisoners' preparing claims against the prison itself. However, the right to assist other prisoners and the right of access to law libraries have two important limitations. First, it is unclear whether the rights extend to all cases or merely to those cases asserting violations of fundamental constitutional rights. Second, right of access and to assist are derivative; they are only one possible way of ensuring access to courts and may be eliminated if the State provides adequate legal aid. Footnotes and a list of the minimum collection for a prison law library are included.