Keeping inmates up to date

Computerized law library gives prisoners access to legal help

Posted: Thursday, November 10, 2005

Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

  Prison meets the computer age: Lemon Creek Correctional Center Superintendent Scott Wellard shows off a computer terminal Wednesday at the prison's law library.

Two computer monitors encased in steel, each with its screen protected behind glass, take up less space than the books that used to line the walls of the law library at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

"We had every law book," Lemon Creek Superintendent Scott Wellard said in the room, not much bigger than a walk-in closet, next to the prison's gymnasium. Though the room is emptier now, he said it has more to offer.

The terminals hook up to legal research information from LexisNexis, a legal publishing company providing inmates with up-to-date access to state and federal laws and court decisions. The Alaska Department of Corrections set them up at Lemon Creek during the summer and has installed 58 systemwide to serve almost 4,000 inmates.

Sgt. Steve Eyler, whose responsibilities at Lemon Creek include supervision of the library, said the computers are easy to use and inmates can find what they seek more quickly. "The learning curve is very small."

The biggest advantage of the new system is security, Eyler said. Every book provides a place where somebody can hide something in the prison library.

"It took three days to shake down," Wellard said.

Tobacco always is in demand in Alaska's smoke-free prisons, he said. He has found it, as well as messages to other prisoners, hidden in books. Knife blades or razors also could be slipped into volumes, despite security cameras.

There are still some books in the library. An inmate can leaf through state statutes or a law dictionary. But Eyler called the computerized library "the latest and greatest thing."

Tim Lyden, standards supervisor for the Department of Corrections, said the LexisNexis database is automatically updated and includes a wide variety of analytical and resource materials.

The state houses about 3,100 prisoners in 12 state prisons. About 750 long-term Alaska inmates serving at the privately run Florence Correctional Center in Arizona also have LexisNexis access, Corrections spokesman Richard Schmitz said.

Wednesday morning Wellard said Lemon Creek housed 166 men and 21 women - from people just arrested and waiting to see a judge to a convicted murderer awaiting sentencing and a sentenced arsonist in maximum security.

Providing access to the law is a court-ordered responsibility of the department, according to Commissioner Marc Antrim.

Eyler said it is most commonly used by inmates appealing convictions.

A law library isn't just for the man defending himself, said Assistant Public Defender David Seid, whose office phone number is posted in the area where new inmates are booked.

"I'm all for inmates having as much legal access as they can get," he said. It isn't a matter of inmates getting things in prison that others don't, he said. "People in Juneau can go to the law library (at the Dimond Courthouse)."

"These new terminals featuring LexisNexis research provide inmates with a secure channel to up-to-date legal information needed to pursue their cases while cutting significant time and money out of the system," Antrim said.

Alaska is contracting the service for $55,000 a year, Schmitz said. Department estimates place savings at about $200,000 a year, considering staffing, security and book subscriptions.

Schmitz said it is the only Internet-based electronic prison law library in the country. The prison system's terminals can access only the server at the State Office Building in downtown Juneau, and that server can only access the LexisNexis database, preventing inmate access to e-mail or anything else on the Internet, he explained.

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