Are Prison Law Libraries Set Up to Fail?

by Jeffrey Isabell-Taylor
New Haven, MI

Prison law libraries are the last line of defense for those appealing convictions. Usually incarcerated individuals rely on these libraries as the only way to seek justice and gain their freedom.

However, here in Michigan, we are given restrictions and limitations that effectively turn our law libraries into a bad joke. We are restricted to no more than 4 hours per week. All material is on the computer, but no class on the use of the program, Lexis Nexis, is offered. We are also told that if we have a GED or diploma, we are too smart to qualify for legal writer assistance. As a result, we have no choice but to go through it by ourselves.

The version of Lexis Nexis that Michigan uses gives us access to court rules as case law rulings, but has a vital flaw. We do not have access to a brief bank, like the legal writers do. Every motion someone tries to write is like reinventing the wheel. Why is that?
The answer is not “security” because the inmates who are legal writers have access. The answer is not cost, because it would only require one or two computers dedicated to a brief bank and the Prisoners Benefit Fund, money donated by prisoners, would pay for it.
So why does the department of Corrections not offer basic training or a brief bank? The answer is simple: they don’t have to. It is not their problem. However, not having these things sets prisoners up to fail. Very few prisoners, if any, come to prison with legal knowledge. We don’t qualify for legal writer help. We are told, “here is a law library. If you want your freedom, figure it out.” How fair is that? How is that justice? Most people get frustrated and quit. That is not right either. Is this the best we can do? Is this how you would want your loved one to be treated?

So, what can be done? One thing is to have law schools partner with prisoners to form a committee including both “inside” and “outside” individuals to educate everyone on what would make an effective law library. I know for me, a brief bank would be very helpful. If you’re researching a case and you see where someone received a favorable outcome, why would you not want to see the motions that accompany the judgment? What case law did they use? How did they form their argument?

Though this is beyond a brief bank, there are other things we can do to make law libraries more effective. Another way is to hold classes to teach people how to use Lexis Nexis or Westlaw. There could be a paralegal program with volunteers from local law schools. Possibly some form of mentorship program for those interested in continuing in the law profession upon their release, like myself. We could even have “inside” chapters of the National Lawyers Guild. These are but a few of the ideas I have had, but I am sure there are many others.

I believe that working together and getting involved is the only way we will see change. That is why I recently submitted my nomination for the “inside” Jailhouse lawyer VP of the National Executive Committee. That is why I am currently enrolled in the Blackstone Career Institute paralegal program. And that is why I am writing to you today.

Will you work with me to make this legal system of ours fair and just? Or will you be like the corrections department and say, “Oh, that is someone else’s problem”? Every little bit helps. Simply by telling someone else about this is a start. Small conversations lead to larger discussions which leads to action and change. It all starts with us. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and effort. ■