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How would you view an inmate who preferred reading legal books to socializing on the prison yard--one who spent their free time in the legal library or in their cell doing research? The Virginia Department of Corrections has sent a clear sign that they believe inmates reading a handbook on their Constitutional rights and legal remedies could pose a security risk to the institutions in which they are incarcerated.  

Recently, an inmate within the custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections ordered a copy of The Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook. While officials at Coffeewood Correctional Center approved the order, they changed their tune when the book arrived. The Handbook was sent to the Publication Review Committee who deemed the book a security risk. Now, the Department is facing legal action for depriving inmates of their due process rights and with one look through the book, you can immediately see why.

This isn't a book about how to revolt when mistreated or how to buck the system; The Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook is an instructional manual on how to legally handle mistreatment or potential Constitutional violations while within the custody of a penal institution. As fellow writer Colin Asher points out, there's no mention of violent or even unlawful remedies within the book--no instruction on bomb building or weapon making. Instead, it outlines the correct procedure for handling allegations of mistreatment, Supreme Court citations and bureaucratic form numbers included. 

If an inmate's basic rights have been violated in an American prison, there are certain avenues they can take to potentially remedy the situation. From institutional grievances to civil action, this line of reasonable remedies must remain open to incarcerated men and women in order to maintain order within the prison walls. If no reasonable route for recovery or relief is available, how do you think incarcerated individuals will react? Providing access to both institutional and legal remedies is crucial in maintaining the order of a correctional institution. 

Balancing the rights of inmates with the safety of an institution is something prison officials must do everyday. While the Supreme Court has ruled Constitutional rights aren't abandoned when you enter prison, officials can restrict some rights when there is a significant security interest served in the restriction itself. Demonstrating this security interest is something that Virginia is having difficulty with when it comes to the banning of the Handbook. Because the case is now headed to court, the Department is sending all questions to the Attorney General and the Attorney General is refusing to comment. 

The National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights are suing the Department to allow the book within the institutional walls. Both of these nonprofit organizations, who published the book, are dedicated to preserving civil rights of all people  and take a legitimate issue with the actions of the state of Virginia in this case. As their Handbook itself points out, an institution that restricts access to a publication of this sort must be able to demonstrate that the restriction passes a certain level of reasonableness, called the Turner Test. As of yet, however, the state has failed to say exactly why they banned the book and reading through the book, as I did, also fails to turn up any evidence that this dry, purely information publication poses any risk to the security or good order of the facility. On the contrary, the remedies recommended within the book are detrimental to maintaining the good order of any prison setting. 

Show the state of Virginia that inmates aren't the only ones upset with the banning of this volume. While the publishers have already filed suit, this situation should have never come this far to begin with. If they are allowed to keep this book out of correctional institutions, which will they try to ban next? Join us at in demanding prison and department officials change their position, allowing their inmates reasonable access to legal knowledge that could actually maintain order within their walls rather than disrupt it. 

Photo credit: limaoscarjuliet

Letter to
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, III.
Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Secy. Marla Graff Decker
Director, Virginia Department of Corrections Gene M. Johnson
and 1 other
Virginia Governor
I write this letter in regards to a book that was recently banned from inmate possession within the Virginia Department of Corrections. The Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook is an informational book dictating the proper procedures for prisoners to address mistreatment or Constitutional violations while in custody. The Publication Review Committee of your Department determined this publication to pose a security risk, though it hasn't been made clear exactly what that risk is.

A thorough reading of the book itself shows that it contains nothing more than the proper channels an inmate should follow--from institutional grievances to civil litigation. It actually encourages prisoners who feel their rights have been violated to follow only legal recourse and use the avenues that have been set up within the system itself. For that reason, this book seems to be an asset to prison order rather than a threat to it.

While inmates are placed within your custody as penalty for a crime, not all of their rights are removed upon incarceration. On the contrary, prisons can enact regulations and place restrictions on those rights as long as they can be demonstrated as serving a clear and reasonable penological interest. In this case there seems to be no reasonable security interest served by the banning of this book.

Rather than serving the interest of all of the people of Virginia, it seems the state would prefer to handle this in civil court, coming at a cost not only to the publishers of the book in question but more importantly at a cost to the taxpayers. Rather than drag this losing battle out any longer, I respectfully ask that the state reconsider its position on the Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook. Giving inmates reasonable access to legal remedies isn't only the right thing to do, it's necessary to maintain the order of your institutions.

Thank you for your immediate action on this issue,

Elizabeth Renter started this petition with a single signature, and now has 2,362 supporters. Start a petition today to change something you care about.