Prisoners’ Access to the Courts

By Christopher Zoukis
In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), the Supreme Court held that “the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to 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.” Id., at 828.

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Access to the Courts

This right of access to the courts is not an “abstract, freestanding right to a law library or legal assistance.” Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 346 (1996).  In order to establish a violation of the rights provided under Bounds, a prisoner must show “actual injury.” Id., at 348.  As such, a prisoner cannot establish injury under Bounds by demonstrating only that his or her prison’s law library (or legal assistance program) is subpar, or even non-existent.  As the Lewis court noted, “That would be the precise analog of the healthy inmate claiming constitutional violation because of the inadequacy of the prison infirmary.” Id.

Thus, prisoners who are housed in a facility that lacks adequate access to legal materials must go one step further to demonstrate that their right to access to the courts has been curtailed, that his or her access to the courts was actually impeded by the inadequacy of the law library or legal assistance program. Id., at 823.

For example, a prisoner may show that a complaint he or she prepared was dismissed for failure to satisfy some technical requirement which, because of deficiencies in the prison’s legal assistance facilities, he or she could not have known, or that they had suffered arguably actionable harm that they wished to bring before the courts, but were so stymied by inadequacies of the prison law library that he or she was unable to even file their complaint. Lewis, 518 U.S. at 351.  In other words, the inmate must show that the alleged deprivations actually hindered his or her efforts to pursue a valid legal claim.

Meaningful Access

The touchstone of prisoner legal access is whether that access is “meaningful.”  A denial of access to legal materials for a short period of time may be permissible, as can restrictions on legal access for legitimate security concerns. See Akins v. United States, 204 F.3d 1086, 1090 (11th Cir. 2000)(prison lockdown causing untimely motion not actionable, due to its relationship to legitimate concerns).  Still, “meaningful” access must include real access to the materials required to plead cases in the courts. See, e.g., Phillips v. Hust, 477 F.3d 1080, 1078 (9th Cir. 2007)(right of access claim stated where prison librarian refused prisoner’s request to use comb-binding machine as required by court).

The courts generally allow for relaxation of procedural rules when it comes to pro se, incarcerated litigants.  For example, the “prison mailbox rule” establishes that legal materials shall be deemed filed on the date they were delivered to prison officials for mailing. Houston v. Lack, 487 U.S. 266, 274 (1988).  Likewise, the United States Supreme Court permits indigent prisoners to file only a single copy of their pleadings, instead of the 10 copies for non-incarcerated indigents. S.Ct. Rule 39(2).  Most other courts make similar concessions.

PLRA Restrictions

Prisoners are not permitted to use their right to access to the courts to repeatedly file vexing or meritless pleadings.  Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996, prisoners found to have filed three in forma pauperis (“poor person”) suits that were “frivolous, malicious, or lacking a legal claim” may be barred from further suits with such in forma pauperis status unless they are in “imminent danger of serious physical injury.” 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g).

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