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How an electronic law library saves money, improves inmate access to information

Implementing an electronic law library can contain research costs and reduce risks of inmate litigation, while keeping your facility in compliance with specific state mandates


Women inmates study on computers Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007 at the South Dakota women’s prison in Pierre, S.D.

AP Photo/Chet Brokaw

For years, electronic law libraries have been a part of operations in prisons and jails. This is not a new paradigm. Yet the notion of prisoners receiving information from computers drives some corrections professionals into fits of trepidation.

There is no need to nail the hands of time to 1993 for fear of breaches. Computerized law libraries are not a liability to facilities. In fact, there are many benefits for the facility that operates an electronic law library. Three of them are security enhancement, money savings and ease of access:

1. Security enhancements

Consider the most ubiquitous law book. It is any in the series of federal law reporters and it is a 1,600-page, four-pound volume. Because some jurisdictions allow prisoners to borrow five books two or three times a week, that makes for a lot of hard-to-monitor exchanges of goods and information between general population prisoners in the library and segregation prisoners.

Some offenders utilize books in ways not intended by the publisher. Rather than accessing legal cases, prisoners might use the books as missiles or other weapons. Books can be used to conceal and move contraband. Prisoners can stand on a stack of the books to intimidate and harass staff through posturing and exposing themselves. By placing many books in a pillow case, an offender can engage in body building and strength training.

These issues are mitigated or eliminated through the electronic law library. Information is on the screen, not in makeshift portable contraband vessels. For prisoners who do not attend the law library, copies of specific cases or statutes can be provided in paper form, rather than an entire volume. This eliminates the need for sending hard cover law library books to segregation.

2. Money savings

Correctional facility budgets are less strained through an electronic law library system because there is no longer an expensive book repair and replacement issue. Cases that are popularly purloined now are accessible in digital form.

Staff members in business offices, mailrooms, warehouses and libraries no longer have to process hundreds of mandated books each year. In addition, custody staff are freed from the labor-intensive search of the huge paper library collections.

Security enhancements save money. Diminished contraband in facilities lowers assaults and therefore lowers the costs associated with medical care.

3. Prisoner access

For many decades, access to the courts has been an important issue in corrections. With electronic law libraries, there is less concern about maintaining mandatory collections. That is because with a digital library, materials are always available for offenders. Quite simply, the books are never missing or mutilated. Also, materials are updated at an unbelievably rapid pace. In addition, prisoners simply can use help screens and available tutorials to access information in a more efficient manner.

The world runs on instant information and has been doing so for about a generation. Newer staff and offenders have never known a time without them. The filters on the machines are tried and true. There are so many examples of successes in so many jurisdictions. Corrections facilities that provide digital libraries enhance security, save money and provided better access to legal researchers.

Joe Bouchard worked in a maximum correctional facility for 25 years and is now retired. He continues to write and present on many corrections topics. He is the former editor of The Correctional Trainer. Bouchard has been an instructor of corrections and criminal justice since 1999. He currently teaches at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Bouchard also has online writing clips at He is also the author of three corrections books for LRP publications and 10 books for IACTP’s series of training exercises books. Order now.