Constitutional Rights of Prison Inmates - Access to Courts

15 Aug

Constitutional Rights of Prison Inmates - Access to Courts

By: CZ Knight-McManus

Copyright © 2019 Knight-McManus


            As our nation slides further into the bottomless abyss of deliberate “constitutional ignorance,” a common untruth far too many citizens embrace revolves upon the hub of prison inmates being stripped of all constitutional rights after their conviction. Nothing could be further from the truth; while some constitutional rights of prisoners are restricted, many remain intact, either in whole, or in part, including the 1st Amendment right to “redress” the government, via “access to courts” (U.S. Const. amend. 1st Amendment). This paper shall explore aspects of the “access to courts” within the penal environment, including the severe limitations the Prison Litigation Reform Act has had upon “access” over the past 22 years (Prison Litigation Reform Act, 2016).


Up until the mid-late 1960’s, courts generally held to the semi-formal “hands off doctrine” regarding prisons and the constitutional rights of prison inmates. This legal doctrine generally precluded the judiciary from determining what, if any, constitutional rights could be enforced by the courts pertaining to how prisons were operated, and the rights of inmates therein.

Two core concepts lurking within the dark recesses of the “hands off doctrine” were: #1, limiting the judiciaries role to freeing the wrongfully convicted, and, #2, refrain from usurping the role of prison officials, whose assumed “expertise” in running correctional institutions was generally accepted as absolute (Silverman, 2008, p. 330-32). The “hands off” approach went so far that it referred to prison inmates as being “slaves to the state” (Ruffin v. Commonwealth of Virginia). Slowly, the erosion of the “hands off doctrine” led to landmark prison litigation case law during the height of the Vietnam War, and the general social upheaval and judicial activism of the late 1960’s – late 1970’s (Green, 2009, p. 1159-1263), (Field, 2014, p. 627-86).

            On February 24, 1969 the United States Supreme Court (hereafter referred to SCOTUS) handed down a stunning decision in Johnson v. Avery (Johnson v. Avery, Feb. 24, 1969). The decision ruled that prison inmates must have full access to courts, while permitting “jailhouse lawyers” to aid other prisoners with legal matters; the word “full” is crucial. The ramifications flowing outward from Johnson were enormous in numerous applications, some of which must be discussed to appreciate the “bombshell” effect of this SCOTUS decision (Champagne & Haas, 1976, p. 276-306).

            Mr. William Joe Johnson was a Tennessee prison inmate in 1969 serving a life sentence; during the years of incarceration prior to filing his pro-se suit in 1966, Mr. Johnson was a frequent “guest” within the confines of punitive segregation for no other reason than helping fellow prisoners with their legal work (Hudson, 2017). The Tennessee DOC had a long-standing policy prohibiting inmates from aiding other inmates with legal work, which Mr. Johnson repeatedly ignored, resulting in punitive measures by the State of Tennessee against him in the form of being placed in segregation (Hudson, 2017). Despite the repeated penalties he suffered, Mr. Johnson pressed forward aiding others, as he realized the inability of many of his fellow prisoners possessed in understanding law, much less grasping the intricacies of litigation.

            A sad truth about prison life is found in the reality of close to 70% of all state prisoners having never completed high school, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice (inmate education, 2003). Juxtaposed with the lack of education, intelligence levels of prison inmates must be factored into the “access to courts” equation based upon Mr. Johnson’s realization

The average IQ of adult prisoner’s hovers around 85, being 1 standard deviation below the average population mean; the Texas DOC (TDCJ) tests for IQ during the diagnostic process and since 2002, TDCJ states that approximately 23% of their inmates have an IQ below 80, 69% are somewhere between 80-109, and 9.6% are over 110 (IQ of inmates, 2013). While there is no standard IQ level required for becoming proficient in navigating the murky waters of legal work, it goes without saying, as learned from personal experience as a TDCJ law library aide and “jail-house lawyer, the navigation generally demands an above average IQ and educational levels which impart the ability to understand the processes involved; this assessment lends additional weight to the motivating factors Mr. Johnson was striving for.

            Factoring in the barrier(s) Mr. Johnson faced from the Tennessee DOC, while considering the variables associated with the inherent lack of education, and lower end intelligence levels found within prison inmate populations, we find the following situation, as stated by the Honorable U.S. District Court Judge William E. Miller during the initial 1966 Johnson district court ruling: “For all practical purposes, if such prisoners cannot have the assistance of ‘jail-house lawyers,’ their possibly valid constitutional claims will never be heard in court … without some assistance, their rights … becomes empty and meaningless” (Johnson v. Avery, Jan. 21, 1966). Upon examining the background to Johnson, any person of reasonable intelligence should be able to ascertain that prior to the 1969 SCOTUS decision, very little “access to courts” was available to prison inmates, let alone “full access.”

            Proceeding forward based upon the precedent Johnson established, it is not an infrequent event to find subsequent court decisions extend the precedent. This was the case when the SCOTUS expanded upon Johnson in 1971 with an extraordinary decision mandating prisons provide sufficient legal resources/material whereby convicts can conduct reasonable research, whereby “full access” to courts can be theoretically achieved (Younger v. Gilmore, Nov. 8, 1971). Taking the precedent even further, a 1977 SCOTUS decision raised the bar higher by mandating “adequate” prison law libraries, or adequate legal aid from trained professionals, thereby ensuring “full” 1st Amendment access to courts rights to prison inmates (Bounds v. Smith, Apr. 27, 1977), (Seiter, 2017, p. 425).

            Borne from the womb of Johnson and Younger, a group of Texas prison inmates, led by David Ruiz, filed a class action suit in 1972. If it were not for the above cited SCOTUS cases, Ruiz, and his co-litigants would not have had the means to study law, let alone the ability to gain full access to the courts to file their pro-se litigation, which became the longest running prisoner initiated litigation in U.S. history; after eight years of pre-trial maneuvering, the case finally went to trial in 1980, at which time, the Ruiz-class was appointed counsel to represent them (Ruiz v. Estelle, December 12, 1980). The reality of the Ruiz litigation being made possible from the previously cited case law, and the activist court of William Wayne Justice, who presided over the trial, is laid forth within the most exhaustive study of Ruiz, and all factors related, as read in a text by Steve Martin and Sheldon Olson (Martin & Ekland-Olson, 1987, p. 1-247).

            The reader must keep in mind the Ruiz class action suit was initially Pro-se, which alleged 8th Amendment constitutional violations of: overcrowding, inadequate security, inadequate medical care, severe and arbitrary disciplinary conditions, the use of “building tenders” (inmate guards), and unsafe work conditions (Ruiz). This student came to know two of the primary litigants who worked with Mr. Ruiz. Based upon personal insight, each of the Pro-se litigants possessed lofty IQ’s, enabling them to draft, and over time, initiate the historic Ruiz case; none of their work would have been possible without “full access” to the courts, being able to aid each other, and have reasonable law libraries.

            Since the barrier walls from the “hands off doctrine” were being ground into dust during the 1970’s, the emergence of “prisoner rights” began to initiate radical changes within not only the Texas prison system, but in prison systems in every corner of the United States. Yet, those remarkable success stories gave way to the forces at work who sought to turn back the hands of time, and castrate the “full access.” In so doing, the PLRA was hatched, whereupon it began to gradually erode the hard-fought progression.

            With the help of noted conservative Republicans, including Robert Dole and Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act in 1996 (Prison Litigation Reform Act, 2016). What are the negative effects of this constitutionally harmful legislation upon inmates and their “full access” to courts?

            The PLRA creates barriers for prison inmates to exercise their right to “redress” which no other segment of the U.S. citizenry is burdened with (Boston & Manville, 2009, p. 542). The issue of navigating the murky waters becomes a prominent issue when a prisoner seeks to file a civil suit in federal court. The roadblocks created by the PLRA demand payment of a filing fee, whereas you and I, if we are unable to afford such a fee, can proceed free of charge via in forma pauperisinmates are required to “exhaust all administrative remedies (grievance procedures) before filing, yet those remedies are often “lost” by prison staff, thereby castrating the exhaustion mandate; the various federal circuits are in vast disagreement on how they define segments of the PLRA, thereby not permitting inmates to have a reasonable idea of how to proceed; the PLRA raises the bar of “stating a claim” to the level on par with that of a trained legal professional, wherein requiring inmates to possess law school comprehension of litigation tactics; the PLRA created a “3 strikes” provision where if a court deems the inmate to of filed 3 “frivolous” suits, said inmate will be barred from filing further suits, which no other segment of society is burdened with (Boston & Manville, 2009, p. 542 627). These roadblocks are but a sample of the “chilling effect” the PLRA has had, and continues to have upon eroding the “full access” to courts through intimidation, and shameful manipulation of the “exhaust administrative remedies” mandate by prison officials (Shapiro, 2016, p. 973-1028).


            While the remarkable progress made with inmate litigation 30-40 years ago created a flood of overdue, and sorely needed prison reform, today we have an entirely different matter. The constitutional right of “full access” to the courts by prison inmates is, in theory, still active, yet the reality borne from the insidious PLRA reveals an altogether different verisimilitude, as stated by Jessica Knowles in a recent Washington Law Review Journal. “The substantial hurdles included in the PLRA was intended to reduce frivolous lawsuits by prisoners but has instead, blocked many potentially valid constitutional claims from ever being decided on their merit(Knowles, 2015, p. 895-943). When one segment of our society finds itself burdened with “substantial hurdles” denying full access to the courts for redressing governmental wrongs, we must ask, which segment of society shall be the next to themselves in the crosshairs for erosion of their fundamental rights under the First Amendment? Will “they” be you?





Boston, J., & Manville, D. E. (2009). Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual (4th ed. ed.). New York, NY: Oceana Press.

Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977) Supreme Court Reporter 817 (Apr. 27, 1977).

Champagne, A., & Haas, K. C. (1976). The Impact of Johnson v. Avery on Prison Administration. Tennessee Law Review, 43(), 276-306.

Education and Correctional Populations. (2003). Retrieved from

Field, T. L. (2014, Spring 2014). Hyperactive Judges: An Empirical Study of Judge-Dependant Hyperactivity in Federal Courts. Vermont Law Review, 625(), 627-686.

Green, C. (2009). An Intellectual History of Judicial Activism. Emory Law Journal, 58(), 1159-1263.

Hudson, D. (2017). Remembering Johnson v. Avery; the Jailhouse Lawyer Case. Retrieved from

Intelligence and Crime. (2013). Retrieved from Criminal Justice Research: › Crime

Johnson v. Avery, 252 F.Supp 783 (M.D. Tenn. 1966) Federal Supplement Reporter 783 (Nashville, TN Jan. 21, 1966).

Johnson v. Avery, 393 U.S. 483 (1969) Supreme Court Reporter 483 (Feb. 24, 1969).

Knowles, J. (2015). The Shamefull Wall of Exclusion... Washington Law Review, 90(893), 895-943.

Martin, S. J., & Ekland-Olson, S. (1987). Texas Prisons: The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1st ed. ed.). Austin, TX: Texas Monthly Press.

Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. §1997e, United States Code (U.S. Government Publishing Office 2016).

Ruffin v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 62 Va.790, 796 (1871) Va. Reporter 790.

Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. Federal Supplement 1265 (Houston, Texas; Southern District, Federal Court December 12, 1980).

Seiter, R. P. (2017). Corrections: an introduction (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Shapiro, D. M. (2016). Lenient in Theory, Dumb in Fact: Prison, Speech and Scrutiny. George Washington Law Review, 84(972), 973-1028.

Silverman, I. J. (2008). Corrections: A Comprehensive Vies (2nd ed. ed.). St. Paul, MN: Wadsworth - Thomson Learning.

U.S. Const. amend. 1st Amendment.

Younger v. Gilmore, 404 U.S.15 (1971) Supreme Court Reporter 15 (Nov. 8, 1971).

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