What kinds of legal research sources are jails and prisons required to provide?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The U.S. Constitution has been understood to say that because people are entitled to represent themselves in criminal court[i] and to have due process in their interactions with the government[ii] they are entitled to legal information sources with which to represent themselves when they are incarcerated.[iii]   The cases explaining why inmates should have access to legal resources do not specify exactly what kinds of resources have to be available. They say that inmates should have “tools” that enable them “to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and in order to challenge the conditions of their confinement.”[iv]

While law library access is one helpful tool, the courts more broadly require that somehow the prisons and jails confer “the capability of bringing contemplated challenges to sentences or conditions of confinement before the courts.”[v] When inmates who could not read and did not know English sued a prison for not providing them with this capability, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that a library full of standard English language law books would not make them capable of fighting their convictions or anything about their incarceration.[vi]


[i] Cases have stated that the Sixth Amendment, providing for a right to counsel, also provides criminal defendants with the choice of representing themselves. Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806 95 S.Ct 2525 (1975). An article showing how this principle has been followed throughout the country is John Herbrand, Accused’s Right to Represent Himself in State Criminal Proceedings, 98 ALR 3d. 13 (1980- updated through 2006).

[ii] Cruz v. Beto 405 U.S. 319 (1972) (about prisoners’ rights to file grievances about prohibitions against their religious practices in prison); Johnson v. Avery 393 U.S. 483 (1969) (about prisoners’ rights to get assistance with legal document preparation from other inmates); Buchalter v. NY, 319 U.S. 427 (1943). (“action by a state through any of its agencies must be consistent with the fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of our civil and political institutions, which not infrequently are designated as the ‘law of the land.’ Where this requirement has been disregarded in a criminal trial in a state court this court has not hesitated to exercise its jurisdiction to enforce the constitutional guarantee.”)

[iii] Cases declaring that jailed criminal defendants have access to law libraries in jail include Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 97 S.Ct. 1491 (1977) and Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 116 S.Ct 2174 (1996). See also William Lindsley, Penal and Correctional Institutions, 60 Am. Jur. 2d §68 (updated through 2007). Section 68 is about “inmates’ access to courts, legal assistance, and materials.”

[iv] Lewis v. Casey at 518 U.S. 355 and 116 S.Ct. 2182.

[v] Id. at 356, 2182.

[vi] Id. 

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