For Want of a Printer
Recently, the Colorado Court of Appeals evaluated an inmate’s complaint that the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center had violated his constitutional right of access to the courts when it removed the printer from the law library, and never replaced it. You may be wondering how the inmate filed his complaint if he couldn’t print it out, but apparently he handwrote his 22-page petition, complete with attachments. Unfortunately for him, as soon as he picked up his pen, he’d basically undermined his own claim. But more on that in a moment. First, some background:
What sorts of law library resources must a state provide to prisoners? This is an issue that arises frequently in conditions of confinement litigation. It’s not that prisoners have a right to library resources per se, but they do have a due process right — grounded in the Fourteenth Amendment — of access to the courts, whether to challenge the conviction(s) that landed them in prison as unlawful, or to seek redress if the state violates their rights in some way while they’re incarcerated.
In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), the Supreme Court listed a few basic requirements that the state must meet: for instance, the state can’t charge indigent prisoners a filing fee for habeas filings; can’t restrict inmates from helping each other with their claims; and must provide inmates with paper and stamps for mailing in their filings. Generally too, states must provide inmates with access either to “adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law” (828). However, within the bounds of Bounds, states are free to experiment with different ways of meeting these requirements; there’s no specific checklist of materials or equipment that the state must provide. (For a general overview of the rights afforded to “jailhouse lawyers,” check out the National Lawyers Guild Jailhouse Law Handbook.)
Note that a subsequent Supreme Court case, Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996), limited Bounds further by holding that a prisoner must show “actual injury” and the existence of a “nonfrivolous legal claim” in order to prevail on an access-to-the-courts lawsuit. So in the case of the missing printer mentioned above, the Colorado appellate court applied the Lewis “actual injury” prong to uphold the trial court’s dismissal of the inmate’s claim:
The district court found that plaintiff’s twenty-two-page, handwritten petition with attachments showed that plaintiff is capable of communicating his needs and legal issues. Because the district court properly found that removal of the printer from the prison law library did not prevent plaintiff from raising legal claims in the courts, plaintiff’s claim was correctly dismissed.
Lewis v. Casey has been praised by at least one lawyer for “protect[ing] the States from unwarranted federal interference in their governance.” But other commentators have observed that Lewis sets up something of a catch-22, in that “the ability to litigate a denial of access claim is evidence that the plaintiff has no denial of access claim” (Joseph L. Gerken, “Does Lewis v. Casey Spell the End to Court-Ordered Improvement of Prison Law Libraries?,” 95 Law Library Journal 491 (2003) (quoting Walters v. Edgar, 163 F.3d 430, 436 (7th Cir. 1998)).