Law Library Requirements and Access for Isolated Patrons

As a non-law fluent person, this was the best resource to understand what the law says about legal libraries in prisons. If you are looking for the same information. This should be your first stop! Sources are so abundant that the notes on each page of this book are more than half of the page which includes further information such as cases and laws with quoted text.

I’m not really comfortable to talk about what the law is right now, but what I found interesting that could apply to non-legal libraries is the following quote:

Courts understand that a “cell delivery” or “paging” system, by itself, does not provide adequate court access because prisoners who cannot visit the library generally will not know what materials to ask for. If prison officials do permit segregation inmates to have physical access to the law library, that access must be adequate. (242)

This might make us rethink how delivery services to hospital and mental health (and other) locations in the prison system might be improved for better access. For example, bringing a cart full of books might be better suited in addition to books requested from patrons instead of just the requested reads.


Boston, John and Daniel Manville. Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Screening of Music From the Big House – And a Strong Hug When You Need It

Yesterday was the screening of Music From the Big HouseYou might remember that I already wrote a post about it: You Can Hear It Through The Prison Walls: Music with Rita Chiarelli and of Johnny Cash.

The making of this documentary, Music From the Big House,  began when Rita began her journey down the Blues Highway – U.S. Route 61. Her first visit into the Louisiana prison, Angola, began by a cold call from a near by gas station to ask if she could come in a visit, to see the prison where there is a rich history of blues music – including Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene.

Within the documentary’s soundtrack, Rita writes:

While doing research, with the intent that I would make every stop that is a must on this pilgrimage, I came across Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola.

The information about this place jumped out at me. This was a place that had a musical history, a history that had been archived in recordings – inmates recorded as they worked, spirituals, work songs, and blues… and songs by their famous ‘son’ Lead Belly.

It was my quest to add to the prison’s musical history, or maybe I should say ‘to provide an update’.

During her visit, a discussion with the warden began… after hearing that many musicians have performed concerts in the prison, Rita had a unique idea – to perform a concert with the men of Angola. That was something that had never been done before and the documentary was part of documenting this new experience and the present state of music at Angola. Music is performed in the genres of jazz (The Jazzmen), country (Little Country), and gospel (Pure Heart Messenger).

From each of the bands, the audience has the opportunity to get to know the some of the men via conversations with Rita. One of the men we get to meet is Ray Jones from the band Pure Heart Messenger. Ray is also Angola’s law librarian and in the film we get to see him in the law library where he also religiously counsels fellow men behind bars.

Through the documentary, we see Rita struggle with being in Angola… one scene is of her in her hotel room and after a verse on her guitar she becomes heavy and embraces her guitar. Later on we see her express getting to know the men who are truly sorry for the crimes that they have been committed (and that perhaps their sentence and confinement is unjust) and then she expresses that we also cannot forget the victims. During Q and A, an audience member asked if the men in the film had a chance to see it. They did. Rita stated that she was nervous during the scene when she talked about the victims, unsure how the men would take it. They expressed that thinking about the victims was part of their journey too. At the end of the screening in Angola, Rita received a standing ovation.

Lately I’ve been struggling with handling the emotions of being in the PIC and being aware of how unjust the system is and how to handle the stress of the atmosphere. Being in the jail library isn’t necessarily stressful nor do I feel in any danger, but getting to know the patrons and having an understanding of their situation, etc. has been difficult lately. I attempted to ask Rita how she handled the situation of being in and out of Angola…

In the Q and A, an very young boy asked her how the first time in the prison made her feel; her answer was that she couldn’t get it out of her head – the size of Angola is the size of one of the New England sates… which one I don’t remember now that I’m home.

And, in the jacket of the sound track she wrote:

To say the experience changed me is an understatement. I’ve been changed forever.

I was nervous to talk to her… not everyday do you meet someone with the title of Queen of Blues! Oh, goodness! I could barely ask my question without crying because I’ve let the emotions of trying to find the right balance dwell for so long without knowing how addressing them. Rita gave me a big hug and let me have my moment. She pretty much told me I would figure it out. I don’t really remember what else she told me, but before I left, she held my hand tight and it felt like she wouldn’t let it go. Having someone who understood what it is like to have to deal with one’s emotions of being in the PIC expressing that I’ll find my way and provide physical comfort through a hug and holding my hand was incredibly comforting (especially when being far from home and away from a community where long hugs were abundant)!

So, Rita Chiarelli, thank you for the hug and sharing your musical journey with us. What you have shared is shaping my journey with prison librarianship.

For more information on Rita Chiarelli’s documentary visit the documentary’s website. Rita’s tour is half way done – check out the rest of the tour dates on the website! Part of the sound track’s proceeds are going to Angola’s music department.

In case you missed it before, here’s the trailer:

Prisoners’ Rights to Legal Material

I was under the assumption that people behind bars did not necessarily have the right to a library, but did have rights to legal material to help represent themselves in their case.

A Library Science classmate of mine, who also  also has her law degree, enlightened me about some legal material after I told her about what I saw at the jail library I volunteer at. What I saw was the contents of the jail law library was 2 multi-volumed book sets that were HUGE; to use these books, you have to request to see them and they cannot be checked out. My classmate told me that 1. they are bad law books, just like regular books and 2. law books like these contain just the law, nothing else.

The organization that I volunteer with is not allowed to bring in legal material because of the collection that already exists. If these huge books are slightly bad or incomprehensible how is being able to be with these books true access if you cannot understand them? So, in this case there are no how-to-interpret-the-law books to aid prisoners.

So, what are prisoners rights to legal material?

Author of Prison Libraries in Wikipedia pulls the following information out of the 2011 Library Trends that focuses on Prison Librarianship and the Law Library Journal:

In addition, in 1977, Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), ruled that prisons were required to provide access to people trained in law or law library collections in order to meet the constitutional requirement of meaningful access to the courts. In 1996, Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 804 (1996), limited the requirement placed on correctional facilities. Following Lewis many libraries reduced their collections.[2]

Lewis v. Casey ruled that prisoners do not have an absolute right to a law library. Rather an inmate must show that he was unable to pursue a legal claim because of the inadequacy of the law library.[6] In other words, lack of an adequate law library caused the inmate actual injury. The ruling in Lewis makes it much more difficult to seek improvement to a prison’s law library. As one court pointed out, the ability to litigate a claim of denial of access demonstrates that the inmate has no denial of access.[7] However, some believe that Lewis is not as devastating as it appears to be and Bounds v. Smith still remains good law.

Even if a person behind bars is allowed access to legal material, who decides how much time is adequate and how long a wait should be for trial when a prisoner is providing their own defense?

In a recent article, Suspect in 2010 Branford murder claims limited access to prison library not enough to prepare his own legal defensehow much time Dr. Lishan Wang is allowed to use legal material to defend himself (with LaPierre as a standby defender) is the issue:

“I didn’t know until today that it was just one hour,” LaPierre said. “It’s not enough time to prepare for his defense. I will pursue that issue (with Murphy). He should have enough access giving him sufficient time to prepare his case.”

“On that schedule,” LaPierre said of the current access, “it would take a long time for him to prepare.”

Trying to understand legal material and prisoner’s rights to the material is too much for me to comprehend in just one blog post! I am frankly glad that someone well versed shared their knowledge in Wikipedia. This is a subject that needs more time to explore and understand.


AALL – – American Association of Law Libraries – Search for “prisons” to see some of their content on prison law librarianship and issues similar to Out of Bounds.

Prison Libraries Wikipedia Page

Suspect in 2010 Branford murder claims limited access to prison library not enough to prepare his own legal defense.

This is part of a series on exploring some prisoners’ rights that affect prisoners as patrons. Other blog posts include: