“We facilitate an inmates access to the courts,” said Jesse Wagner, Senior Litigation Coordinator at Southland Court Services. “We provide an alternative to attorney assistance to those who are most likely to be unable to afford counsel.” Following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Lewis v. Casey¹, which originated in Arizona, the State of Arizona implemented paralegal assistance to inmates as permissible and adequate, becoming the first to use paralegals and legal assistants for inmate assistance. The program has been in existence for nearly nine years, with plenty of success and no constitutional violations to date. We are the California Style of Arizona’s Paralegals for Prisoners.
Of course, non-attorney legal staff may only offer certain types of assistance; that is, they must not give legal advice to inmates or otherwise risk engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. As such, most paralegals who provide inmate assistance help with filling out forms and guiding inmates through the maze of legal research. “They provide active assistance in the initial hearing stage, making sure that complaints get to the proper court and that forms are properly filled out,” Wagner listed. “I make sure that inmates are familiar with the rules that apply to their situation and point them in the right direction at the library.” Much of the paralegals’ work deals with convictions or inmates’ accommodations and treatment in prison. Most inmates who use paralegals’ assistance are acting pro se and simply need to be shown the tools to represent themselves.
The Arizona program is unique and revolutionary, but the state isn’t the only one that’s caught on to using paralegals in inmate assistance programs. Following Arizona’s success, a few other states have followed, said Johnson, including New Mexico and North Carolina; and many other states are interested in similar measures. One thing is for sure: Non-attorney legal staff who assist inmates can be sure their work is valuable and needed by many who just can’t get help via other means.