Inmates housed in the Federal Bureau of Prisons have the right to access law libraries where they can research legal issues and prepare legal filings. This right was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 821 (1997), which required each institution to “establish a main law library[.]” The law library is typically located adjacent to, or inside, the Education Department, and typically consists of Trust Fund Limited Inmate Communication System (TRULINCS) Electronic Law Library computer terminals, electronic typewriters, and a copy machine. Seasoned jailhouse lawyers are often present in the law library.

 TRULINCS Electronic Law Library

The age of large, case-bound law books is now over in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In their place an electronic case research system which utilizes TRULINCS computers has been installed. This system provides federal inmates with access to a large array of legal research materials free of charge.

Accessing the TRULINCS Electronic Law Library provides federal inmates with access to a substantial electronic legal resource database provided by LexisNexis. Along with other legal research materials, access is provided to:

– Bureau of Prisons program statements (in English and Spanish)

– U.S. Code (annotated)

– Code of Federal Regulations

– Reported decisions from all U.S. district courts

– Reported decisions from all U.S. circuit courts of appeals

– U.S. Military court decisions

– District of Columbia decisions

– Supreme Court decisions

– U.S. Constitution (annotated)

– Other legal materials (e.g., local court rules, sentencing guidelines, etc.)

In addition to these primary sources of legal research, a number of secondary sources are also available for inmate use. These include, among others, Shepard’s Federal Citations, BNA Criminal Law Reporter, Constitutional Rights of Prisoners, and Federal Habeas Corpus Practice and Procedure.

All of these legal materials are available for viewing by all federal inmates, though access is usually restricted to the TRULINCS terminals in the law library as opposed to inmate housing units. While a limitation of 2 hours is imposed during each session, there is no limit to the number of sessions in any given day. Inmates must simply log off for a minimum of 30 minutes between sessions. The only cost for the TRULINCS Electronic Law Library is if inmates want to print materials. In this case, they must pay $0.15 per printed page.

Electronic Typewriters

All federal prisons generally provide inmates with access to electronic typewriters. While prisons are not required to do so, as decreed in Taylor v. Coughlin, 29 F.3d 39, 10 (2d Cir. 1994), Title 18 of the Code of Federal Regulations at § 543.11 provides that unless it is “clearly impractical, the Warden shall allow an inmate preparing legal documents to use a typewriter[.]” These typewriters tend to be the clear, plastic Swintec variety which do not contain any memory.

While all inmates have equal access to these typewriters, which are typically located in the law library, there are some limitations. For example, some institutions strictly limit typing to legal work (as opposed to school work, personal letters, or non-legal manuscripts). Also, inmates who are not deemed indigent must purchase their own print wheels, typewriter ribbons, correction tapes, and paper from the institution commissary. Total initial costs run around $25 to $30, though this is largely due to the $20 print wheel and $7 typewriter ribbon. Indigent inmates can receive these supplies for free by checking them out from the law library staff who check their names against a list of indigent prisoners.

At some institutions, modified word processors are available. One such word processing system available at USP Tucson, Arizona is Alphasmart’s Neo. This handheld word processor can be checked out by inmates and used in the Education Department or law library during normal operations. Inmates then bring the device back to a staff member who prints off their typing, reviews it to ensure that it is, in fact, legal material, issues the printed pages to the respective inmates, and then clears the memory.

Copy Machines

Federal prisons also often provide access to an inmate-use copy machine, which is usually located in either the Education Department or the law library. While costs and procedures can vary, inmates are typically required to purchase copy cards in the institutional commissary and then use these copy cards to make copies. A typical copy card costs $6.50 and allows an inmate to make 50 copies, which equates to $0.13 per copy.

While at some institutions the copy machine is limited to the copying of legal papers, at others inmates can copy virtually anything, as long as it is allowed for inmate retention by policy.

Institutional staff are allowed to make legal copies for inmates deemed indigent. Such copies are typically made by the inmate’s unit team, not the Education Department.

Jailhouse Lawyers

Consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483, 489 (1969), inmates are allowed to assist fellow inmates with their legal needs, to include the preparation of legal papers and filings. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, “[A]n inmate may assist another inmate in the same institution . . . with legal research and the preparation of legal documents for submission to a court or other judicial body.”

Within every federal prison there is an informal cadre of inmates who assist others with legal needs. Typically called “jailhouse lawyers,” these inmates take on cases for fellow inmates who are not experienced in matters of law. While against the rules, most jailhouse lawyers do such work for money, often being paid in postage stamps or packets of mackerel (standard currency inside federal prisons). While a grievance could run as little as $5, a criminal appeal could cost several hundred dollars, both a far cry from what an attorney would charge.

While jailhouse lawyers play an important role in providing legal services to federal inmates, the rule of caveat emptor certainly applies here. There are good jailhouse lawyers and there are snake’s oil salespersons. Before an inmate engages a jailhouse lawyer for any matter, they should inquire as to past successes that are relevant for their current need, and then speak to references. This is vital because there are huge fluctuations in quality and expertise amongst jailhouse lawyers. The best rule of thumb is to seek out an incarcerated (and probably disbarred) attorney.

If an inmate is inclined to file their own legal pleadings without the aid of an attorney or jailhouse lawyer, there are several books which can be of considerable assistance:

  • The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel (2nd Edition), by Brandon Sample and Alissa Hull (available at This book assists with filing habeas corpus petitions due to ineffective assistance of counsel. These proceedings are the primary post-conviction relief vehicle for federal prisoners outside of a direct appeal.
  • The Prisoner’s Self-Help Litigation Manual (4th Edition), by John Boston and Daniel E. Manville (available at This book assists with filing lawsuits concerning prison conditions. The book also provides a wealth of information concerning prisoners’ rights.
  • The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook published by the Center for Constitutional Rights (available for free at This book assists with filing lawsuits concerning prison conditions along with standards for conditions of confinement.About Christopher Zoukis:
    Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at and

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).