Inmates DON'T Get the Books Thrown at Them

Imagine going into your local library and trying to check out a book–only to have the librarian tell you that he’s taking away your library privileges. What for? you indignantly ask…and rightly so. I don’t like the way you’ve been looking at me, and besides, you smell kind of funny. Does this scenario sound absurd? It is, and yet this is what will happen in California’s prisons if the California Prison Authority decides to go ahead and implement drastic changes to the rules governing prisoners access to prison law libraries.

These new laws come at a time when California’s prison population is growing at an unprecedented rate, largely because of the drug laws and the Draconian Three strikes, you’re out law. The proposed restrictions on access to these libraries are also unprecedented. The Supreme Court had protected the rights of prisoners to law books in a series of decisions, starting with Gilmore v. Lynch in 1970. In this decision, the Court guaranteed prisoners reasonable access to the courts, and noted that the prisoners’ current access to the courts (and thus the law books) was so bad as to be unconstitutional.

Another landmark decision came in Lewis v. Casey, decided in 1977. The Court, which by this time had changed composition with a majority of Justices in favor of expanded civil rights, ruled that inmates have a constitutional right to meaningful access to the courts, and they must be provided with law libraries or legal assistance while incarcerated. The direct effect of these two decisions was the exposure of injustices within the prison system by informed inmates. Not only were abuses in prisons brought to light, but the court system itself was exposed as abusive and negligent of the rights of the poor prisoners.

This situation, however, is soon to change. The Prison Litigation Reform Act, introduced, fittingly enough, by former Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), and sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), was designed to make it harder and more costly for inmates to file lawsuits while in prison, as well as to limit the federal court’s power to oversee conditions in local jails.

The loosely worded PLRA gives a green light to local authorities to not only violate prisoners’ civil rights, but to violate their right to access to the courts.

The first county to use the PLRA is Santa Clara County in California. The county is using this blank check to invalidate existing civil rights agreements in their prisons. The first state to make use of the PLRA is California, and it is not a coincidence that this state has the most electoral votes as well.

On 30 June 1997 the California Department of Corrections posted changes to the Prison Director’s rules. Under the guise that these new measures will save the State of California one million dollars, as well as ending the staggering number of frivolous lawsuits filed by those incarcerated, the Dept. of Corrections has instituted drastic new changes. One of the biggest problems inherent in these changes is that inmates are now restricted solely to initial pleadings. Initial pleadings are only the first step to a lawsuit, a notice of a lawsuits beginning. In other words, a prisoner can begin a lawsuit, but can do nothing to carry it out. A prisoner, for example, cannot fight for child custody under these new rules.

In reality, these changes in the rules are not to stop frivolous lawsuits or to save the taxpayers any significant amount of money. Rather, the intent of these changes is to restrict the prisoners access to the laws so much so that they will remain in prison, docile and impotent to do anything about their situation. Needless to say, this is great for the prison industry as well as for companies that contract with California’s prisons to exploit the cheap, captive labor.

The way these new rules will work in fact is simple. If a prisoner even raises his or her voice in the library (or if the librarian has a personal grudge against the inmate), the librarian can fill out a little slip of paper that bans the prisoner from the law library for three months. The wording: …upon documentation of abuse or misuse of law library resources, faculty, or staff working. An inmate could conceivably be banned from the library for writing in the books with a pencil.

If the inmate wished to contest this slip of paper, no longer would he or she be granted a hearing in front of three correctional officers. Instead, one administrator will decide the fate of the inmate’s privileges. There is no possibility of contesting this administrator’s decision.

These amendments to the Prison Director’s rules make it much more convenient for prison institutions to control the information inside the prisons and give a rosy picture to the public. Another effect of these amendments is an irony straight out of Kafka (or dictatorial governments): the prisoner is sentenced by a court of law, yet is denied access to that same law. The situation is akin to changing the rules of the game midway to finishing. That would be cheating in any reasonable game, yet that is exactly what will and is happening as we speak.

Write to the Department of Corrections to demand that these changes not be imposed:

Department of Corrections
Regulation and Policy Management Branch
PO Box 942883
Sacramento, CA 94283-0001.