“The fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.” Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977). Yet, 48 years after Bounds v. Smith, inmates’ access to legal resources in many areas remains scarce. Persons accused and convicted of crimes are just as vulnerable and deserve equal attention as any other vulnerable group. Providing access to legal resources and the court system benefits the inmates individually and their families, communities, and the legal system as a whole.
Meaningful Access Requires More Than Providing Materials
When it was brought to Crowley Fleck’s attention in early 2020 that women at the women’s prison were concerned that they did not have access to legal resources, the firm’s pro bono team jumped at the opportunity to discuss the matter with the prison warden. It quickly became evident the issue was not that the prison did not provide the proper legal materials. The women did not know the materials existed, did not know how to access them, nor did they understand the general topics that the materials covered. It was clear that change was needed to ensure the women’s voices could be heard.
Education is essential to ensure meaningful access to the legal materials available and enhance people’s faith and independence in the legal system. Educating those directly inside the system is a proactive way to address the current concerns about the access to justice issues inmates face.
Integrating Education Is Necessary for Self-Advocacy
My coworker Morgan Dake and I created “Access to Justice—An Introduction to the Family Law Court Process.” The project goal seeks to teach women about varying topics of family law, including divorce, parenting plans, guardianships, and powers of attorney. Then we introduce them to the legal process of filling out self-help forms, filing documents with the court, and provide strategies on appropriately advocating for themselves in a hearing.
At our first presentation, stepping into a room of approximately 20 women, we had no idea what to expect. The individuals at the women’s prison were not only receptive but grateful. Their questions helped us strengthen our presentation by addressing topics and concerns that appear most prevalent. This year, we expanded to a county detention facility. We presented to both female and male inmates, but in much smaller groups. The size made for a more intimate experience. A common topic raised in discussion focused on the proper steps to reestablish a parental role in their children’s lives. These conversations demonstrated that just the act of providing education could create an opportunity for the inmates to feel confident and respected in the justice system as they become strong self-advocates. The information provided to the participants allows them to better their lives, not only for themselves but also for their families and communities.
Speaking Up Allows for Other Voices to Be Heard
As we continue to return to these facilities and educate, we hope our information will reach as many people as possible. The ability to advocate for oneself is an essential skill and a primary tenet in our justice system. I encourage those within the legal community to reach out to facilities in their area and consider offering a similar resource. Presentations of this type are beneficial in strengthening access to justice and providing people the opportunity to be strong advocates for themselves.
Everyone deserves a voice in the legal system. Simply providing materials without education on how to use those materials does not constitute access. When we, as lawyers, are presented with the opportunity to advocate for access to justice, we must ensure we do all that we can to allow those voices to be heard.