The Yuma County Sheriff’s Office improved legal access for prisoners at the Yuma County Jail after ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Taylor Pendergrass raised concerns about the jail’s policy. A prisoner at the Yuma County Jail wrote the ACLU of Colorado alleging that jail staff denied him and other prisoners access to the law library to research civil cases because they were represented by criminal defense attorneys. The jail staff had told the prisoner that if an attorney represented him in any capacity, no legal access was required.
Mr. Pendergrass explains the issue: “The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly held that prisoners have a right of legal access not only to prepare their criminal defense, but also for habeas corpus petitions and for civil lawsuits challenging jail or prison conditions. Unfortunately, we often receive complaints from prisoners in Colorado county jails alleging that the jail has a policy of refusing prisoners any legal access if they are represented by a criminal defense attorney. This type of policy unconstitutionally restricts prisoners’ right to legal access, because a criminal defense attorney is only representing the prisoner in the criminal matter, and will not be able to help research, prepare or file any legal documents related to matters such as habeas petitions or civil suits about jail conditions.”
While the old policy was silent on the issue, the new Yuma County Jail policy clearly states to both prisoners and jail staff, “If an inmate is assigned Court Appointed Counsel, this attorney will not be able to represent an inmate in a civil case. If an inmate decides to act pro se in any criminal or civil case the inmate may request case law or other legal information pertinent to their case.” The new policy also removed a previous restriction that prevented prisoners in “disciplinary detention” from having any access to the law library. Mr. Pendergrass noted, “Many county jails in Colorado have a long way to go in ensuring that their policies provide for appropriate legal access for all prisoners, and when that access is provided through legal books or computers, ensuring that the legal material available to the prisoners is sufficient in scope and is kept current. The changes made by the Yuma County Jail are one step in the right direction.”
Taylor Pendergrass , ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney
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