Director of Corrections Gary DeLand is locked in a federal court battle with prisoners over the prison's reduced legal services - and DeLand appears to be losing.
U.S. Magistrate Ronald Boyce ruled Thursday that legal services currently available to inmates at the Utah State Prison do not give them the access to court, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. He ordered DeLand to expand legal help for prisoners immediately.DeLand slashed prison legal services last July, a few months after Legislative Auditor General Wayne Welsh recommended that the prison increase legal services to inmates. DeLand reduced the prison's annual allocation for legal aid from $98,000 to $60,000.
Attorney Brian Barnard accused DeLand of "thumbing his nose" at Welsh and filed a civil-rights suit on behalf of several inmates.
A spokesman for the prison denied the accusation, saying that the prison was not defying the legislative auditor general, but rather cutting back legal services to meet the constitutionally mandated minimum.
The way the court sees it, the prison got scissor-happy, slashing services to a level substantially below that guaranteed in the Constitution.
Under DeLand's July policy, prisoners can only get legal assistance for conviction appeals or lawsuits relating to the terms of their prison confinement.
The prison denied Wayne Carper help in preparing a civil-rights suit. It refused to help Donald R. Allen in a legal matter that resulted in the termination of his parental rights. It denied William Babbel aid in appealing his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court and refused to assist Andrew J. Conti in filing a worker's compensation claim.
So the men sued DeLand.
Boyce came down on the side of the prisoners, ruling that the Constitution guarantees prisoners court access in general civil matters, such as divorce and small claims, as well as criminal ones. He instructed DeLand to make those services available pending the outcome of the prisoners' lawsuit on the matter.
The U.S. Supreme Court had previously ordered U.S. prisons to provide either fully equipped law libraries to prisoners or assistance from attorneys. The Utah State Prison opted to provide attorney assistance and has a contract with the Salt Lake law firm of Freestone and Angerhofer for those services.
Boyce noted that under the new policy, prisoners can only get legal assistance when filing initial complaints. If the court agrees to consider an inmate's appeal or lawsuit, the inmate is on his own.
That policy, Boyce concluded, "does not meet the Utah State Prison's constitutional obligation."