In the U.S., prisoners in jails and prisons have a constitutional right to access lawfully courts. The U.S. Supreme Court decision Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), affirmed that a law library within a jail or prison can uphold prisoners’ constitutional right of access to courts. The decision Lewis v. Casey, 516 U.S. 804 (1996), made clear that courts would not closely regulate prison law libraries. That line of cases has been associated with the waxing and waning fortunes of law libraries in prisons and jails. But equating prison libraries with law libraries is a mistake. Prison libraries connect prisoners to public information and public narratives in a publicly important way much broader than access to courts.
Prisoners continue to be members of the public that is punishing them under law. Meaningful membership of a public requires access to public information and public narratives, not just access to courts. Prison libraries that include more than law books support prisoners’ continued membership in the public even as they are being punished under law.