Prison Law Library | Jailhouse Lawyers

All Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities permits inmate access to law libraries. This page explains prison law libraries, inmate access to law libraries, and how jailhouse lawyers can help.

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Prison Law Library | Inmate Law Library

Federal Prison Law Libraries

The law library is typically located adjacent to, or inside, the Education Department. It 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.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons permits inmates access to law libraries, legal materials, and counsel to prepare and present legal documents. 28 C.F.R. §§ 543.10-.16 and Program Statement 1315.07, Legal Activities govern inmate legal activities.

Consistent with Bounds v. Smith (430 U.S. 817, 821 (1997)) and its progeny, each institution “must establish a main law library” that contains a long list of legal materials for use by federal inmates.

Please see our page on libraries in prison for more information about the leisure library.

TRULINCS Electronic Law Library Computers

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

Most federal prisons use the TRULINCS computer system to provide an electronic law library from which inmates can read and print documents. The law library is a LexisNexis system and generally includes the following items:

  • Federal Bureau of Prisons program statements in English and Spanish
  • United States Code, Titles 1 through 51 (annotated)
  • U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (current and previous editions dating back to 1994)
  • United States Constitution (annotated)
  • Federal Court Rules
  • U.S. Code Service Tables
  • District of Columbia Code and Rules
  • Code of Federal Regulations
  • United States Supreme Court Decisions (with annotated articles and tables)
  • Decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeals (including the Federal Reporter)
  • U.S. District Courts Decisions (including the Federal Supplement)
  • Decisions from the Military Courts
  • District of Columbia Decisions

The TRULINCS library also contains numerous commercially available legal reference texts, including:

  • Shepard’s Federal Citations
  • BNA Criminal Law Reporter
  • Federal Habeas Corpus Practice and Procedure
  • Constitutional Rights of Prisoners

The system updates every month to include the latest court decisions.

The inmate law library also provides the text of Federal Register materials and postal information and equipment, including mailing scales. Most law libraries include copy machines for inmate use. They must purchase copy cards from the prison commissary to make copies. These typically equate to $0.13 per copy.

Using the Electronic Law Library

The TRULINCS Electronic Prison Law Library is free for all federal prisoners. This includes those in the general population and special management/housing units. Prisoners can spend up to two hours at a time within the law library folio before logging off for 30 minutes. While searching and browsing is free, prisoners must pay for any pages they want to print at $0.15 per page.

Since all records are electronic, prisoners can easily search by keyword or key term. The inmate law library is open virtually any time the Education Department and regular leisure library are accessible to inmates.

The TRULINCS Electronic Law Library does not provide access to the internet or state case law. It only offers federal case law.

Prisoners can find other inmates’ cases on the computers if the case results in a published opinion by the judge. This requires the case to have been decided in a U.S. District Court, one of the Courts of Appeals, or the U.S. Supreme Court. It must also be important to warrant its publication if a district court case.

Inmate Copy Machines

Federal prisons also provide access to inmate-use copy machines. These are usually located in either the Education Department or the prison law library.

While costs and procedures can vary, inmates typically must purchase copy cards in the institutional commissary. Inmates use these copy cards to pay for copies. A typical copy card costs $6.50 and allows an inmate to make 50 copies, equating to $0.13 per copy.

Some institutions place copy credits on inmate commissary accounts. In these cases, inmates utilize their identification cards to use the credits.

Copy machine use is limited to copying legal papers at some institutions. At other federal prisons, inmates can copy virtually anything, as long as it is allowed for inmate retention by Bureau policy.

Prison staff members may make legal copies for indigent inmates. Unit Team members typically make such copies, not Education Department staff.

According to 28 C.F.R. § 543.11(g), prison staff must “duplicate legal documents if the inmate demonstrates that more than one copy must be submitted to [the] court,” and carbon paper does not suffice for duplication needs.

Inmates who are not indigent are generally must buy copy cards. Indigent inmates can usually request free copies of legal documents from unit staff. However, inmates are not entitled to free copies of court decisions and other materials.

Regardless of how inmates pay for copies, the existence of a copy machine – a basic staple in offices worldwide – is a considerable improvement for prison law libraries. Many state prisons have neither copiers nor inmate law library computers. In this regard, federal prisoners are fortunate.

Prison Electronic Typewriters

Many courts have ruled that there is no constitutional right to typewriters and word processors in prisons. However, 28 C.F.R. § 543.11(h) provides that unless it is “clearly impractical, the Warden shall allow an inmate preparing legal documents to use a typewriter or, if the inmate cannot type, to have another inmate type [their] documents.”

Generally, Federal Bureau of Prisons law libraries contain a few to several dozen electric typewriters for inmates. Typewriter ribbons are available in the prison commissary. Some facilities offer indigent inmates typing ribbons without charge. These typewriters tend to be the clear, plastic Swintec varieties that do not contain any memory.

While all inmates have equal access to these law library typewriters, there are some limitations. For example, some federal prisons strictly limit typing to legal work (instead of school work, personal letters, or non-legal manuscripts).

Typewriters are generally not available for checkout, and they are often bolted down to tables. As such, they are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Typewriters tend to be a point of contention amongst most federal inmates since they are often broken, with few fully operable typewriters available. Thus, conflicts tend to abound where they reside.

Additionally, non-indigent inmates must purchase their own print wheels, typewriter ribbons, correction tapes, and paper from the institution commissary. Total initial costs run around $25 to $30, due primarily to the $20 print wheel and $7 typewriter ribbon. Indigent inmates can receive these supplies for free by checking them out from the prison law library staff, who check their names against a list of indigent prisoners.

Prison Word Processors

In recent years, several Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities have offered the use of cordless word processors, including Alphasmart’s Neo, which can be connected to a central printer station.

These handheld word processors are checked out by inmates and used in the Education Department or inmate law library during normal operations. Inmates then bring the device back to a staff member to print off their typing, reviewing it to ensure that it is, in fact, legal material. This staff member then issues the printed pages to the respective inmates and clears the memory.

These word processors are available at no cost to inmates, except for paper expenses. Additionally, the units can be used anywhere. Likewise, the TRULINCS computer system has word processing capabilities available as a pilot program at several institutions.

These handheld word processors are popular with inmates, notwithstanding the limited text options. Additionally, they are less expensive than conventional typewriters. They also benefit from not requiring a dedicated workstation.

Jailhouse Lawyer

The United States Supreme Court has held that prison officials cannot actively interfere with inmates assisting others with preparing court documents. This is akin to a restriction on inmate access to law libraries.

As such, federal regulations expressly provide that, subject to some restrictions, “an 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.” However, “[b]ecause an inmate may not conduct a business, the assisting inmate may not receive compensation.”

Jailhouse Lawyers

There is an informal cadre of inmates within every federal prison who assist others with legal needs. Typically called “jailhouse lawyers,” these inmates take on cases for fellow inmates who are less experienced in legal matters.

While against the rules, most jailhouse lawyers perform this work for money. They are often compensated 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 are a far cry from what an attorney would charge.

While jailhouse lawyers play an essential 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 about past successes relevant to their current need and then speak to references. This is vital because jailhouse lawyers have considerable fluctuations in quality and expertise. The best rule of thumb is to seek out an incarcerated (and probably disbarred) attorney.

There is no substitution for a legal education earned in law school when it comes to legal proceedings. As such, the best jailhouse lawyers are actually attorneys. Their services significantly increase access to the courts. After all, the practice of law is more than merely having access to legal materials.

But note, while lawyers in correctional facilities are valuable, law school is only one place to learn the law. The federal prison system has numerous skilled jailhouse lawyers who have no formal legal education. Some of these inmate jailhouse lawyers have succeeded in securing other prisoners’ release.

Regulation of Jailhouse Lawyers

There are several rules applicable to inmates assisting others with legal documents.

Inmates confined in different institutions cannot assist each other in legal matters except when the wardens of the respective institutions grant written permission. Additionally, inmates must be legally related (e.g., family members, co-defendants, etc.).

Prisoners can only possess another inmate’s legal documents “while assisting the other inmate in the institution’s main law library” or in another location approved by the Warden. Assisting inmates may not remove other inmates’ legal materials from the law library. This extends to photocopies. However, an “assisting inmate is permitted to make handwritten notes and to remove those notes from the library … if the notes do not contain a case caption or document title or the name(s) of any inmate(s).”

While federal prison policy does not require the aided inmate to remain in the law library while providing assistance, the inmate receiving help must retrieve their legal materials from the library. In effect, jailhouse lawyers may not leave the prison law library with another inmate’s legal materials.

Policy dictates that inmates “with an imminent court deadline may request a brief absence from a scheduled program or work assignment” to provide or retrieve legal materials from an assisting inmate. This policy provision ensures that assisting inmates are not sanctioned for leaving the law library with other prisoners’ legal materials.

If inmates wish to file their own legal pleadings without the aid of an attorney or jailhouse lawyer, several books are of considerable assistance.

Inmates desiring to file federal lawsuits over prison conditions or abuses by prison staff should obtain a copy of The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook. Published by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the handbook is free to anyone.

In addition to teaching inmates how to protect their civil rights through lawsuits, the book includes general information about the American legal system.

Prisoners can obtain The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook from the Center for Constitutional Rights at the below address:

The Center for Constitutional Rights
666 Broadway, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10012

Below are other excellent legal resource guides for inmates from Prison Legal News. While far from legal thrillers, these books help prisoners litigate their cases. For example, inmates can use these books to challenge sentences when judges destroy evidence, combat jail crowding, and challenge other criminal justice harms.

The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel by Brandon Sample and Alissa Hull. This book assists inmates in filing habeas corpus petitions because of 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 by John Boston and Daniel E. Manville. This book assists with filing lawsuits concerning prison conditions. The book also provides a wealth of information concerning prisoners’ rights.

Protecting Your Health and Safety: A Litigation Guide for Inmates by Robert E. Toone and edited by Dan Manville. This book assists inmates in filing lawsuits concerning conditions of confinement, along with a brief exposition of the rights that prisoners retain.

Your Federal Prison Law Library Experts

If you or a loved one are facing federal prison time, it’s crucial to have proper support and guidance. The Zoukis Consulting Group has extensive experience in federal prison consulting and can help you through every step of the process.

We offer a one-hour initial consultation to answer your questions and review your case. We’ll work with you to determine if you qualify for early release and help you navigate the process.

Don’t go through this challenging time alone — contact the Zoukis Consulting Group today! We’re here to help you every step of the way.