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Does My Correctional Facility Need a Law Library?

April 11, 2024 (5 min read)
Focused view of a person holding a tablet, featuring the LexisNexis Inmate Law Library interface.

By Gerard J. Horgan, CJM, JD | Retired Superintendent Suffolk and Norfolk County, Massachusetts

The law regarding an offender’s access to the courts was made clear nearly 40 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case from North Carolina. In Bounds v. Smith 430 U.S. 817 (1977), the Supreme Court held that “the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities … to provide prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”

American Correctional Association Standards

The American Correctional Association standards reinforce this mandate. ACA standard 4-ALDF-6A-03 states that “Inmates have access to a law library if there is not adequate free legal assistance to assist them with criminal, civil, and administrative legal matters. Inmates have access to legal materials to facilitate the preparation of documents.”

State standards echo the ACA framework. In Massachusetts, for example, the legal service standard 103 CMR 478.10 states the “constitutional right of access to the courts requires that, when requested, inmates receive assistance in preparing and filing legal papers. This assistance may include access to law library facilities, instruction in the use of legal materials and reference assistance. Every offender shall have access to legal materials.

Federal and State Standards

As suggested by federal and state court rulings and national standards, legal materials should include at a minimum: state and federal constitutions, state statutes, state decisions, procedural rules and decisions and related commentaries, federal case law, court rules, practice treatises, citators, and legal periodicals. The Librarian shall ensure that the law collection is maintained and updated. Access to the legal material shall be scheduled and provided to all offenders within the institution. The law collection may be made available to inmates online.”

Court cases around the U.S. since the Bounds decision have further codified the requirements. In Johnson v. Moore, 948 F.2d 517 (9th Cir. 1991), the court ruled that there exists no rigid or static formula to assess whether offenders’ library resources meet constitutional requirements.

However, the correctional facility must provide offenders with “a reasonably adequate opportunity” to present their legal claims. A 10th circuit decision focused on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Petrick v. Maynard, 11 F.3d 991 (1993), justices cited “the Amendment guarantee of offenders having the right to ‘adequate, effective, and meaningful’ access to the courts.”

In Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996) offenders in Arizona filed a class action lawsuit in which they argued that officials at the Arizona Department of Corrections had failed to provide them with adequate legal research facilities. They claimed that this violated their rights to access to the courts, established by the Bounds ruling. The prisoners received an injunction from the trial court that required the ADOC to enact significant reforms in its law libraries and legal assistance programs.

The court ruled that the offenders needed to prove an actual injury. Deficiencies in a facility’s law library or legal assistance program are not enough because there is a not a stand-alone right to access to those facilities. Law libraries and legal services are a roadway to ensure that offenders have access to courts to work on their cases and to seek action for violations of their constitutional rights. As a result, offenders must prove that the shortcomings of these facilities hindered them from gaining access to the courts. For those who work in jails and prisons across the nation, compliance with this requirement can be dependent on operational issues and the layout of the facilities.

The footprint of some jails allows for a large law library. The South Bay House of Corrections in Boston where I was Superintendent had a large library with two certified librarians and over 20,000 volumes. It also had a designated area for legal research and a legal service team of attorneys and paralegals to ensure that the men and women incarcerated there had ready access to the court system.

Not every facility, however, has the space or resources to allow for these types of access and services. There is a ready solution for jails that don’t have the room for a library or the funding for full-time legal services staff.

The Norfolk County Correctional facility in Dedham, Massachusetts where I also served as Superintendent did not have full time legal assistance readily available for the offenders in our custody. To ensure that we enabled these men access to the courts, we utilized a part-time county attorney and LexisNexis Inmate Law Library Solutions.

LexisNexis Inmate Law Library Solutions

The materials from LexisNexis are constantly updated and there are detailed citation checks. Walking through the housing units in the facility, I would hear of many concerns from the offenders; legal access was not one of them.

Today, with many jails introducing tablets, there is an ability for access to the courts for the men and women in their housing units that complies with these court rulings. The use of LexisNexis content on tablets improves security through reduced movement through the facility and reduced concerns from offenders who are frustrated about the status of their current case or appeal. This results in less tension in the units and a safer environment for the staff and those in custody.

Learn more about LexisNexis Inmate Law Library solutions online here.  Request a no-obligation library analysis and cost comparison at

About Gerard Horgan

Gerard Horgan has over 30 years of experience in corrections and served as the Superintendent of Jail Operations/Special Sheriff at the Norfolk and Suffolk Sheriff’s Offices. In this role, he supervised all Uniformed, Programs, Medical, HR, Fiscal, Legal, Classification and other administrative staff. Horgan is also an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches courses in corrections and criminal justice