NC prisoners might lose legal advocates

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 23, 2013 

— North Carolina has its share of prisoners who like to think of themselves as jailhouse lawyers, competent enough to argue their way out of prison.

But since the state Senate rolled out a spending plan that eliminates the $2.89 million contract with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, some worry that these inmates who fight their convictions pro se – Latin for representing themselves – might soon have little to no say in the courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that all prisoners must have access to the courts – and that right includes having access to people trained in the law or to legal reference materials that can help them build their cases.

The Senate budget, which was forwarded to the state House of Representatives on Thursday, would require the state Department of Public Safety to put computers with legal software in state prisons so inmates can do research themselves. But the plan did not specifically allocate money for accomplishing that.

Pamela Walker, a Department of Public Safety spokeswoman, said that none of the state’s 66 prisons had such terminals and that installing them by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, “would be a major challenge.”

Additionally, Walker said, the prison system would have to add correctional staff to supervise inmates outside their cell blocks. Furthermore, she said, correction officials would have to ensure that inmates had access to people trained in the law, whether they were paralegals, attorneys or others.

Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican from New Hanover County and co-chairman of the Justice and Public Safety Appropriations Committee, said earlier this week that he thought the computers and software could be installed within the department’s existing budget.

Responding to complaint

Goolsby, an attorney, said he heard an inmate complain about Prisoner Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm based in Raleigh with 19 attorneys, including the director, and 17 paralegals.

Goolsby said an inmate complained to him that the law firm had provided him with a dated and worn statute book to do research.

“I thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to give these guys what they need,’ ” Goolsby said. “And what they need are the most up-to-date records so they can do their own research and represent themselves pro se. That’s what this is about.”

Director defends firm

Mary Pollard, executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, said the firm opened almost 13,000 files from inmates requesting assistance last year. It was founded in 1978, a year after the landmark Supreme Court case.

Some of firm’s cases over the years have evolved into civil lawsuits, such as the one that resulted in the hiring of a private consulting firm that protected female inmates from retaliation after reporting sex abuse by corrections officers. North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services also helped file a federal lawsuit on behalf of eight inmates at Central Prison, who allege that correctional officers used “blind spots” out of view of security cameras to beat handcuffed and shackled inmates.

The law firm also represents inmates after they have exhausted all appeals. One such case was that of Shirley Lacy, a woman with an IQ score below 40 whose trial lawyer failed to point out her mental disabilities and history of abuse before a Martin County jury convicted her of first-degree murder.

The Lacy case

Prisoner Legal Services was successful at showing a fuller picture to a Martin County judge in 2011, some 13 years after Lacy was sentenced to life in prison without possibility for parole.

In February 2012, Judge Wayland Sermons Jr. vacated the conviction.

He said Lacy, whose testimony was inconsistent about how her boyfriend died and the part she played in his death, had been denied effective legal counsel at trial.

For years, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services has acted as a screening service for judges who see many legal claims filed by inmates who think they know the law.

Often their documents stand no chance. They either did not follow proper procedures to get their cases back into court or they present hollow legal arguments.

Firm blindsided

“We do deter frivolous claims,” Pollard said.

Pollard said she was surprised by the Senate’s budget plan. She said she had not been consulted about the possibility of elimination of the state funds, which make up 98 percent of the firm’s budget.

The governor’s proposed budget calls for an 8 percent cut in funding, amounting to about $231,200 a year, which would reflect declining prisoner populations.

But the state Senate plan, Pollard said, would be devastating.

“It would mean we close,” she said.

The Insider contributed to this report.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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