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Prisoners' Access to the Courts - Legal Requirements and Practical Realities

NCJ Number
Loyola University Law Journal Volume: 16 Issue: 2 Dated: (Winter 1985) Pages: 273-317
W T Westling; P Rasmussen
Date Published
45 pages
This paper reviews the statute most often used to enforce prisoner rights and U.S. Supreme Court decisions pertaining to inmate access to the courts, followed by a discussion of the practical barriers to inmate litigation.
Most inmate civil rights actions are brought under section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This section is used to challenge confinement conditions, violations of due process, and denial or restriction of inmates' right of access to the courts. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have defined inmates' right of access to the courts, including access in varying degrees to legal assistance from other inmates, trained legal assistance, law libraries, writing materials, mail privileges, and communication with attorneys and courts. The benchmark of the right is 'meaningful' access. Court costs impose a practical barrier to inmate court access. Inmates' proceedings in forma pauperis may have all court costs waived. It is more likely, however, that they will be required to pay a percentage of the costs. Subsidization is decided largely by court determination of the case merits. Usually, counsel are not appointed for indigent inmates in civil rights cases. For the 4 percent of cases that reach trial, inmates have an outside chance that they or their witnesses will be allowed to appear personally. Although courts have a high volume of inmate lawsuits and must distinguish frivolous from meritorious cases, summary dismissals should be curbed as a means of reducing the number of inmate suits filed in Federal courts. 236 footnotes.