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Inmates Rights Preserved, at least that
is what the headlines said in
the Arizona Republic newspaper. The article was about the recent
decision of the Arizona Department of Corrections to close all the law
libraries permanently on August 4, 1997 (except the central unit library
that is covered by a separate law suit).
All this began back in 1990 when 22
inmates of the Arizona Department of
Corrections filed a class action law suit - and one of their claims was
that they were being denied effective access to the courts. The ACLU
National Prison Project took up the case on behalf of the inmates. This
was after the successful Gluth law suit that set guidelines for the
Central Unit Law Library. The case was heard by federal judge Carl
Muecke who ruled in favor of the inmates and issued an injunction that
set forth detailed and system-wide changes in the entire department’s
prison law libraries and in the legal assistance programs.
The ruling mandated he number of hours
for prison courses, the
qualifications required for the instructor (an outside certified
paralegal, trained law student or attorney), class content (one-third of
the time to be spent on lectures, two-thirds on fundamentals of research
and writing), and the method of testing (written exam, pass/fail). Also
the law clerks had to have passed this test to assist those not
requesting a legal assistant. The article stated how this was costing
the taxpayers untold dollars, when in actuality it all boiled down to a
multi-hour video tape that was played for less than a dozen inmates
every six months or so. It sounded more detailed and expensive than it
Also included in the Casey v Lewis law
suit was a list of law books that
was to be maintained in the libraries along with some self-help books.
The majority of the 34 existing law libraries aready had those volumes.
However, it seems that the Department of Corrections had its spin
doctors working overtime because the general public was and is convinced
that the cost of these law libraries was coming out of the taxpayers’
pocket. The truth is that the funds to pay for maintaining the libraries
came out of the inmate Arts & Recreation Fund. All the profits from the
inmate commissary go into this fund and the state takes this money and
uses it to purchase what is needed for the libraries. The inmates have
bought and paid for the libraries. The authorities don’t tell that to
the public, rather they present the public with lies.
The state did not like the outcome of
the law suit so they appealed the
decision to the next highest court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The state republicans being of the opinion that the Federal District
Court was micro-managing the affairs of the state considered that this
was inappropriate. The Ninth Circuit rejected their claim and upheld the
decision of the lower court.
Then came the 1994 election in which
the republicans gained a majority
in both houses of Congress. State republicans across the country united
with their counterparts in Congress and were effective in having two
major pieces of legislation passed. There was the Antiterrorism and
Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 that severely restricted our habeas
corpus rights, and there was the Prison Litigation Reform Act. This
latter act is real bad news. It allows states to dissolve consent
decrees by petitioning the courts and it also affects the habeas corpus
relief we can obtain.
With this wave of mean-spiritedness
and the success of these bills, the
state decided to appeal the Ninth Circuit decision to the U.S. Supreme
Court on a writ of certiorari. This is not an automatic appeal. You must
brief the court and ask if they will accept your case. The party
bringing such requests is unsuccessful 97% of the time. It is only the
special cases that are taken on by the court. However, since Justices
Renquist and O’Connor are both from the state of Arizona, it came as no
surprise that the case was accepted.
When the decision was announced, Justice
Scalia, writing for the
majority, said that inmates could not be guaranteed ‘ ... the
wherewithal to transform themselves into litigating engines capable of
filing everything from shareholder derivative actions to slip-and-fall
claims. The tools it requires to be provided are those that the inmates
need in order to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and
in order to challenge the conditions of their confinement. Impairment of
any other litigation capacity is simply one of the incidental (and
perfectly constitutional) consequences of conviction and incarceration.
The Supreme Court also said that Judge Muecke’s order was ‘ ...
inordinately, indeed wildly intrusive. There is no need to belabor this
point. One only has to read the order ...’
So for the last year since they won
this decision the Department of
Corrections has been drafting its new policy on access to the courts.
Officials have come up with a system in which they will permanently
close all the law libraries. All the books will be donated to various
organizations and they will hire a paralegal who will assist inmates in
filling out one of three legal forms, pertaining to: Habeas Corpus,
Civil Rights (1983), and Post Conviction Relief. That is all they will
do. Just help you fill in the blanks. They will not prepare a case for
you or give any recommendations or advice. The director stated on TV
that once the inmate has filed the forms in the court, the court will
appoint an attorney to assist the inmate. I can testify that this is not
so. I have personally handled five Civil Rights complaints for various
inmates and not once were we granted an attorney to assist us. So it
will be interesting to say the least to observe what happens to the
court protections that are supposedly guaranteed to all Americans.
The Arizona Republic editorial closed
with the statement - ‘At long
last, the balance seems to have shifted to the middle, where the rights
of inmates are protected while Arizona taxpayers no longer are required
to finance luxurious law libraries for convicted felons.’
It is amazing how little value we attach
to a human life. It seems at
times that we care more about saving the lives of stray animals at the
shelter. We abhor the thought of sticking a needle into an animal to
euthanize it. However, humans are more expendable.
Few remember back to Gideon v Wainwright
(83 SCL 792, 372 US 335).
Gideon was an uneducated black man in Florida who was arrested for a
crime, did not have the money to pay for an attorney, and was sent to
prison. In those days there was no right to a court-appointed attorney.
While in prison Gideon learned how to use the law library and filed writ
after writ until he won. In the process of gaining his freedom, he set a
precedent in which the landmark decision came down that guaranteed all
defendants the right to an attorney if he or she lacked sufficient funds
to pay for legal representation. Gideon would have died in prison if he
did not have access to an adequate and effective law library. As meager
as his library was, at least he had the tools to attack his conviction.
It is clear that the state of Arizona does not want to have anyone find
a way to fight his or her case. It is just unthinkable not to have a law
library. And also included in the new policy is the elimination of
inmate legal representatives, law clerks, and indigent legal supplies.
Also our confidential attorney phone calls will now be monitored and
recorded. I question the legality of such a procedure.
In a country that so values its Christian
ideals to the point of being
considered parochial in many ways by the rest of the world, one that
cares so much about issues such as abortion, and physician-assisted
suicide, there is clearly little concern about how society hastens the
death of those on death row. Are we not worth more than an animal or an
unborn child? Are we not human beings worthy of compassion, or do we
have no value at all?
Richard Rossi #50337
P.O. Box 8600
Florence, Arizona 85232
Arizona State Prison
Death Row July 1997]
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