In 1977, in a case arising out of North Carolina, the Supreme Court of the United States held that “the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities . . . to provid[e] prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.” Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828 (1977). After the Bounds decision the North Carolina Department of Correction initially met its obligation to provide legal assistance through law libraries. But inmate law libraries raise a number of problems: it is difficult and expensive to maintain an up-to-date collection; security concerns make it hard to give some inmates adequate time in the library; and not every inmate is literate or proficient in English. With these concerns in mind, DOC decided in 1989 to adopt the other approach the Court approved in Bounds—providing prisoners with “adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.” The department contracted with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS), a non-profit public service law firm in Raleigh, to serve inmates’ legal needs. NCPLS continues to serve that function, processing thousands of files annually.
Jail administrators sometimes ask me whether and to what extent Bounds applies to them. Do they, like prisons, need to provide inmates with access to legal materials or to persons trained in the law? The administrative regulations applicable to jails say that a jail’s operations manual must include a written policy addressing “access to legal assistance or legal materials,” but the rules don’t say anything about the substance of that policy. 10A NCAC 14J .0203. So what’s a jail administrator to do?
The Supreme Court has never affirmatively stated that its holding in Bounds applies to jails, but the Fourth Circuit has generally concluded that it does—at least in certain circumstances.
With respect to pretrial detainees (who account for the bulk of North Carolina’s jail population), the appellate court has said that any obligation to provide access to the courts for a criminal defendant, even if pro se, is satisfied by the state’s offer of assistance of counsel. United States v. Chatman, 584 F.2d 1358 (4th Cir. 1978).
As to sentenced inmates, the court has sent mixed signals. It held in one case that misdemeanants serving sentences of up to 12 months in local jails should not be left “wholly without [legal] resources,” but tempered that statement by saying it “should not be understood to say that every small jail must have a law library.” Williams v. Leeke, 584 F.2d 1336, 1340 (4th Cir. 1978). In a more recent case the court once again assumed that jails have some obligation to provide access to legal materials, but emphasized that a local facility “need not provide the same resources . . . as must a state facility, because the expectation is that its occupants will be confined there only briefly . . . .” Strickler v. Waters, 989 F.2d 1375, 1385–86 (4th Cir. 1993). In 1981 a federal district judge ruled that the Gaston County Jail (where, at that time, inmates served sentences of up to 180 days) violated inmates’ right of access to the courts when it provided no access to legal materials at all. Parnell v. Waldrep, 511 F. Supp. 764 (W.D.N.C. 1981).
At a minimum, it’s clear that jails have an obligation to provide legal materials or legal assistance to some sentenced inmates. In Part II of this post, I’ll get into the details of what legal materials a jail might choose to provide and the logistics of allowing inmates to access them.