General Legal

This page provides general information for prisoners seeking legal representation. For additional information and referrals on a variety of issues, see the FINDING ASSISTANCE section of this site.

Bar Referral Services
Three Strikes Legislation
Law Libraries and Photocopying

Bar Referral Services

The following bar referral services refer persons to attorneys who may be hired for representation. If a prisoner or the prisoner’s family can afford to hire an attorney, they should write, or have their family call, the following bar referral services, which may be able to refer them to an attorney for representation:

Boston Bar Association Referral Service
16 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108
(617) 742-0625

(Note: The BBA Referral Service also has a reduced fee panel, which refers eligible clients to attorneys for representation at a reduced fee level. Inquire about the reduced fee panel when a prisoner writes or has a family member call the BBA Referral Service.)

Massachusetts Bar Association Referral Service
20 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
(617) 654-0400 or (866) 627-7577

National Lawyers Guild
14 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108
(617) 227-7008

Please note that the above telephone numbers are automated numbers that cannot be accessed from inside the prison.

“Three Strikes” Legislation

For information about the “Three Strikes” law enacted in 2012, and the effects of the other provisions of the law on earned good time credits and mandatory minimum drug sentences, please click here to read the Three Strikes Protocol (PDF).

Law Libraries & Photocopying

The following information is for prisoners interested in understanding their rights to access law library and photocopying services.

I. Rights Pursuant to Federal and State Case Law

You have rights to legal services stemming from case law in both federal and state courts. The most important cases in this area are Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977) and Lewis v. Casev, 518 U.S. 343 (1995). The Supreme Court held that the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist prisoners 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. Thus, contrary to popular belief, prisoners do not have a right to access law libraries but rather, prisoners have only a right to access the courts. Many prisons have opted to provide prisoners with access to the courts by allowing them to use law libraries, although some prisons provide prisoners access to the courts by giving them the assistance of an attorney or paralegal.

If the institution in which you are currently housed has elected to provide you with access to the courts via law libraries, the law library must be adequate. The availability of the library resources as well as the actual materials themselves are considered in determining whether the library is adequate.

There are no set rules about how many hours must be allowed to prisoners wishing to use the law library. It is only certain that prisoners are not guaranteed unlimited access to law libraries; access may be limited by time, manner, and place restrictions. Lindquist v. Idaho State Bd. of Corr., 776 F.2d 851, 858 (9th Cir. 19851. When and for how long you have access to the law library may depend on several factors. Your current housing placement is one factor, with those in disciplinary segregation being afforded less time in the library. Those who are deemed to present special security risks to themselves, the prison, or other prisoners may also be given less time in the law library. The volume of litigation you currently have pending is another factor. Additionally, the courts have held that law library hours do not have to be scheduled around other prison programs. Thus, if other prison programs (jobs, etc.) are scheduled at the same time as law library hours, the courts have held that it is the individual prisoner’s choice whether to participate in these activities or to use the law library.

The following list of materials to be included in a prison law library has been accepted by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Cepulonis v. Fair, 563 F. Supp. 659, 660 (D. Mass. 1983), aff’d in relevant part by 732 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1984).

United States Code Annotated. (Constitution; Title 18; Title 28, sees. 2241-2255,
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure,
Federal Rules of Evidence,
Rules of Supreme Court; and Title 42, sees. 1981-1985)
United States Reports (Vol. 361 forward)
Federal Reporter (2d series) (Vol. 413 forward)
Federal Supplement (Vol. 302 forward)
Shepard’s United States Citations
Shepard’s Federal Citations
Local Rules of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts
Massachusetts General Laws Annotated (including Massachusetts Declaration of Rights)
Massachusetts Reports (including advance sheets), (1960 forward)
Massachusetts Appeals Court Reports (including advance sheets)
Massachusetts Digest Annotated
Shepard’s Massachusetts Citations
Massachusetts Practice Series, Vol. 30, Criminal Practice and Procedure
Massachusetts Rules of Court

Courts have also required that various important treatises, forms, dictionaries, and textbooks also be provided. This list is similar to lists approved by the American Correctional Association (ACA), the American Bar Association (ABA), and by the Supreme Court in the Bounds case. (Stone v. Boone, No. 73-1083-T (D. Mass. Oct. 1974) (Tauro, J.) is a consent decree listing specific books the law library at MCI – Cedar Junction must make available to prisoners.)

There is no set minimum amount of photocopying that must be provided to you by the prison for use in your legal matters. The main concern again is that you are afforded access to the courts. Therefore, the courts have not stated a specific number of photocopies that must be provided to you, but rather, you must be provided with enough photocopies so as to have access to the courts. Additionally, the Massachusetts courts require only that photocopies be provided for documents that are being used for criminal or civil litigation and that are being sent to a court or to a lawyer. Therefore, the courts have found that the DOC may refuse to copy documents being used, for example, in parole or grievance hearings.

The right of access to the courts extends only so far as providing the tools that prisoners need to attack their sentences and to challenge the conditions of their confinement. Impairment of any other litigating capacity is, what the courts have called, "simply one of the incidental consequences of conviction and incarceration." Thus, your right of access to the courts while you are in prison does not extend to such matters as, for example, divorce, child custody, etc.

In order to establish a violation of your constitutional right of access to the courts, you must establish "actual injury." This means, basically, that you must demonstrate that your inability to make photocopies or the shortcomings in the library or legal assistance program hindered your efforts to pursue a legal claim. For example, you might show that your complaint was dismissed for failure to satisfy some technical requirement which, because of deficiencies in the prison’s legal assistance facilities, you could not have known. You might also show that you have suffered arguably actionable harm, but were so stymied by the inadequacies of the law library that you were unable even to file a complaint.

II. Rights Pursuant to Massachusetts Regulations

The following is 103 C.M.R. 478.11, entitled Legal Services. It states:

(1) General – 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. However, such assistance shall not include legal advice or direction of legal research on the part of library personnel.

(2) Law Collection – Each institution with an inmate population over two hundred (200) shall have a law collection. As suggested by federal and state court rulings and national standards, the law library 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, legal periodicals and digests.
(a) The law collection shall be maintained and updated by the institution librarian.

(b) Legal materials, with the exception of photocopies, shall not be circulated.

(3) Access – Library access shall be scheduled and coordinated by the librarian and shall be provided to all inmates within the institution. An inmate of any state correctional institution without an adequate law collection may request transportation to an institution with a law collection for the purpose of conducting legal research. This request shall be made in writing to the superintendent or his/her designee. The superintendent may provide access to legal assistance in lieu of law library service as he/she deems appropriate.

(4) Photocopies

(a) Photocopying services shall be for the purpose of duplicating original legal documents and for the purpose of increasing access to the legal collection. The superintendent shall designate the staff members responsible for photocopying legal documents and legal reference materials.

(b) All photocopy requests shall be complied with in reasonable amounts at no charge. In order to provide photocopying
services to all inmates, the superintendent may establish guidelines and limits, subject to the review of the Commissioner or his/her designee. The librarian shall make reasonable efforts to secure materials not in an institution’s collection but available through established inter-library loan procedures.

(5)  Supplies

(a) The institution shall make reasonable efforts to assist inmates in the preparation and processing of their legal documents. Items such as paper, pencils, and envelopes shall be provided to all inmates who request them and should be available free of charge. The superintendent may establish guidelines and limits for such services, subject to the approval of the reviewing authority.

(b) Records shall be kept of access, photocopy use and supplies dispersed, including to whom supplies were dispersed.

III. Remedies

If you believe that you are being denied access to the law library or to photocopies in violation of the Federal Constitution or 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (meaning that you can show "actual injury" as described above), you must follow the grievance procedure set out in the Regulations. Specifically, see your institution’s particular grievance policy and also 103 C.M.R. 491.

Keep in mind that the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (a) states that "No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions under section 1983 of this title, or any other Federal law, by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted." Therefore, you must exhaust all possible avenues of remedies within your institution and the Department of Correction before you will be allowed to file a lawsuit in a federal court. This is still true even if you are seeking only monetary damages and the prison grievance system is unable to award you monetary damages. Booth v. Churner, 121 S. Ct. 1819 (2001). If you do not exhaust all administrative remedies, any claim you file in a court will almost certainly be dismissed.

Problems have arisen where prisoners file a grievance and are ignored, or where prisoners file a grievance but never receive a decision. Some prison officials exploit this provision of the PLRA so as to keep prisoners out of court. However, it is still an open question in the First Circuit whether a prisoner can turn to the courts when he or she is being ignored by the grievance procedure. Other courts have held that "’available administrative remedies are exhausted when the time limits for the prison’s response set forth in the prison Grievance Procedure have expired." Underwood v. Wilson, 151 F.3d 292, 295 (5th Cir. 1998); see Powe v. Ennis, 177 F.3d 393, 394 (5th Cir. 1999); Jones v. Detella, 12 F. Supp. 2d 824, 826 (N.D. Ill. 1998). However, this particular issue has not been litigated in the First Circuit and the First Circuit is under no obligation to follow the Fifth Circuit and Illinois precedents. It is, therefore, unclear in this jurisdiction whether you must wait (perhaps indefinitely) for the prison system to respond to your complaint or whether you may file a court claim when the time for a response has elapsed.

If you believe that you are being denied access to the law library or to photocopies in violation of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (reprinted above in relevant part), your first recourse should be to the prison’s grievance procedure. However, regulations have "the force of law" and you may also bring a claim for declaratory relief pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws. Ann. ch. 231 A, §§ 1, 2 (West 2000). That law gives courts the power to make binding declarations of rights and duties and it is proper to use that law when the DOC violates its own regulations. See Henderson v. Commissioners of Barnstable County, 730 N.E.2d 362, 367 (Mass. App. Ct. 2000). Additionally, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to recover any monetary damages in an action for declaratory relief for violation of your rights to access the law library or to photocopies. See Martino v. Hogan, 643 N.E.2d 53, 60 (Mass. App. Ct. 1994).