Georgia Law Libraries:

Shutdown by attrition

By Chris Schirato, Georgia Prisoner

Without an outcry or coverage by the media, a settlement agreement, which strictly governed the operations of Georgia's prison law libraries, was terminated last November by a United States District Judge, Southern District of Georgia, eviscerating any meaningful court access for Georgia inmates.

Attorneys for the State contended that inmates were being provided with constitutionally sound access to the courts by the Center for Prisoners' Legal Assistance Inc. (CPLA), a legal group contracted by the State, and that the State was therefore not required to provide law libraries for the inmates as well.

However, counsel for the inmates, Robert W. Cullen, who has represented the inmates from the onset of the class-action lawsuit, presented evidence and testimony that CPLA lawyers gave shoddy legal advice, declined to file meritorious post-conviction petitions, and placed inmates seeking assistance on long waiting lists. He argued that "CPLA is most aptly described as a ship without a rudder."

The Court indicated that counsel for the inmates were free to reopen the case, under Federal Rule of Procedure 60, should CPLA not improve their services markedly by the end of the first audit.

Just weeks after the Order, on December 1, 1998, the DOC faxed an internal memo to all facilities, praising the termination of the law library decree and saying that, "the dismissal of this case will result in several changes in the way we run our libraries over the next few months. The first change is that the Department of Corrections will begin saving money immediately by canceling the subscriptions of several sets of law books." Accordingly, all but a handful of volumes and/or subscriptions were cancelled.

At first glance it appeared that the inmates had won a partial victory. After all, the State announced that they had no plans to remove the law books already contained in the libraries within the next five years and a limited number of books would even be updated. The DOC's agenda, however, was not yet complete, and after the first audit was over, in March of 1999, the State began to dismantle law libraries at all their facilities.

By the end of April all that remained were reporters­­Southeastern, Federal, and Supreme Court­­and those volumes listed in the Order to be updated. What remained was a shell of a law library containing no Shepard's Digests or manuals, making it impracticable to do any legal research whatsoever. Furthermore, the Georgia DOC went so far as to remove all the directives (Standard Operating Procedures) relating to the rules and regulations governing the daily operations of the prisons. This was evidently an oversight in their zeal to gut the law libraries because the SOPs have since been replaced, as well as the Georgia and Federal Digests.

In the end, the system now in place probably comports with the United States Supreme Court's interpretation of inmate access to the courts. Moreover, the Court's approach seems to comport with the termination provisions of the PLRA. And while Georgia inmates may be faring better that those in other states which have closed the law libraries, their court access has been diminished nevertheless.

Until the United States Supreme Court holds the termination provisions of the PLRA to be unconstitutional, prisoners, whose law libraries are governed under consent decrees, would do well to lodge their complaints against bogus supplemental legal assistance programs. Hence, should the State attempt to supplant the law library with legal assistance programs, ammunition will be available to bring them under fire.