Old-School Prisoner Wants Books, Not Westlaw

By Russell Smith

Law school librarians bemoan the fact that today’s students typically turn their noses up at the bound volumes of legal decisions, in favor of electronic legal research sources like Westlaw or Lexis. If only they had Dwayne Harris as a student.

Since 1989, Mr. Harris has been serving time in an Ohio state prison for rape, kidnapping, felonious assault and aggravated assault convictions. Frustrated that the prison library replaced law books with computer access to Westlaw, Mr. Harris has sued the prison, requesting $80,000 in compensatory damages and up to $200,000 in punitive damages for the violation of his constitutional right to a law library.

The media ran with this story without analyzing the legal merits of the case. LASIS writes frequently about inmate lawsuits, covering topics ranging from prisoners’ rights to play Dungeons & Dragons, sue for damages from stun gun injuries, and poke outsiders on Facebook. Unfortunately for Mr. Harris, these analyses all share a similar theme: inmates’ rights are significantly limited under the law.

From there, it only takes a few clicks on Westlaw to figure out that Mr. Harris’s lawsuit cannot succeed.  

Although it may be surprising to some, inmates do have a constitutional right of access to a law library or legal assistance. In 1977, the Supreme Court held in Bounds v. Smith that the fundamental constitutional right of “meaningful access to the courts” required that “prison authorities … assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”

The Court’s reasoning was simple; prisoners without access to a law library or legal assistance could not possibly know whether their treatment violated the law. Accordingly, inmates could not meaningfully petition courts for remedies to violations of legal rights they knew nothing about.

In response to Bounds, nearly every state prison in the country built a law library for inmate use. Some of these facilities, however, were substandard and inmates began filing lawsuits claiming that prison law libraries were inadequate. This is precisely the claim that Mr. Harris is making.

The Ohio state prison where Mr. Harris is housed contains a library with some books, seven computers with Westlaw access and legal assistance from law librarians and inmate clerks. In his complaint, Mr. Harris asserts that the prison library is missing 14 key books from the American Association of Law Libraries minimum collection, that he is “computer-illiterate” and that even if he could use the computers, seven computers for 2,500 inmates are inadequate for him to conduct his needed research.

These gripes do not seem patently unreasonable. Mr. Harris is probably uncomfortable using computers – he has been incarcerated since 1989, and has had likely had little or no experience with them. And if his estimates are accurate, he only has access to a computer once every 30 days, making adjusting to electronic research potentially impossible for the 47-year-old. While prison officials say that the computers are “supervised at all times”, Mr. Harris may prefer to research his legal claims (possibly about violations by prison staff) more discreetly. From Mr. Harris’s perspective, the prison library may indeed be inadequate.

But the law has its own perspective. In 1996 the Supreme Court held in Lewis v. Casey that the Bounds definition of “meaningful access to the courts” required that inmates show “actual injury” as a result of any inadequacy in order to be permitted to sue. So even if a prison library is missing essential books or is open too few hours for an inmate’s taste, he does not have grounds to sue unless he can show that the missing books or the limited hours specifically hampered his ability to present a violation of fundamental constitutional rights.

This poses significant problems for Mr. Harris’s claim. Arguably, prior to Lewis, Mr. Harris could seek an order from a court – called an injunction – directing the prison to maintain an adequate print library. Post-Lewis however, it is clear that Mr. Harris has no freestanding right to such a library; he cannot ask a court to direct the prison to maintain the adequacy of the law library just in case he needs it later.

Mr. Harris could argue that a prior lawsuit in which he was involved failed because of the prison’s inadequate library. Indeed, in 2009, Mr. Harris unsuccessfully sued the prison for violating of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment when he was put on “cell restriction,” which prevented him from leaving his cell for 14 days for work, recreation or telephone use. But a review of the recent Ohio appellate court decision shows that at the time, Mr. Harris was incarcerated elsewhere, so the current prison’s law library cannot faulted for his loss of that suit.

And even if Mr. Harris believes he has been the victim of another constitutional violation, he would face a tough road ahead if he pursues his law library lawsuit.  The Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Turner v. Safley held that inmates’ rights are limited by the necessities of prison administration. As any law school will attest, it is expensive to maintain a law library full of physical books because of the constant need to update these books as more and more cases come down, and more and more statutes are enacted and changed. It is likely that courts would agree with prison administrators that the move to electronic legal research is a reasonable measure needed to run the prison efficiently.

That means that Mr. Harris is probably going to lose both his lawsuit and his beloved books. The computer age has come – even for inmates.




6 Responses

  1. […] Prisoner Wants Books, Not Westlaw Legal As She Spoke – “Law school librarians bemoan the fact that today’s students typically turn their […]

  2. cod fish says:

    i liked this one

  3. […] Legal As She Is Spoke (blog) […]

  4. Ward says:

    And who’s paying the cost of this lawsuit and the clogging up of our judges time? the taxpayer, that’s who. Give this guy a book about taxes and maybe he’ll shut up.

  5. Karen Ford says:

    you could give him a book about taxes……..but it may bore him to death! but if he croaks then he would cost less money for taxpayers, so we all win!

  6. Librarian says:

    Interesting twist, when I worked as a librarian in state prisons, computer access was so tightly controlled that I couldn’t even access online book vendor sites. It was all about the books in those days.

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