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Prisoner Letters to the Law Library of Congress

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This is a guest post by William Mahannah, an Assistant Reference Librarian in the Public Services Division.

The Law Library of Congress, holding the world’s largest legal collection, receives a large volume of inquiries from patrons throughout the world. One might be surprised to learn that a continuous volume of request letters come from prisoners confined throughout the United States in local, municipal, county, state and federal facilities.  Detainees in state psychiatric hospitals along with the individuals held by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) comprise another population seeking aid from the Law Library’s staff.

Prisoners communicate with the Law Library by mail. In order to process an annual tide of more than thirteen hundred prisoner letters, the Law Library of Congress has developed procedures for replying to the incarcerated.  We provide prisoners with information about law libraries which are willing for a nominal fee to assist prisoners who request photocopies of specified legal material.  A few law libraries provide limited research service to prisoners but such services are comparatively rare.

How do we find law libraries in a state willing to assist prisoners?  The answer is we consult a database created by the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), listing law libraries, state-by-state, who serve in-state prisoners.  Sometimes problems arise when a prisoner writes to the Law Library from a state having no law libraries willing to provide service to inmates in that state.  In this situation, the Law Library of Congress goes to the AALL website to locate a law library which serves out-of-state prisoners.  Few law libraries service prisoner requests coming from another state, but the law libraries who provide this extra service are appreciated by all concerned.

Many prisoner letters to the Law Library request copyright information.  These letters are referred to the Library’s Copyright Division for response.  Frequently, prisoner letters request non-legal information which is provided by forwarding these letters to other Library of Congress divisions who can provide an appropriate response.  Letters seeking patent and trademark guidance are answered by a letter that highlights the official mailing addresses for patent and trademark inquiries within the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a part of the United States Department of Commerce.

Drafting reply letters to prisoners is not a mechanical or robotic task.  Each prison or jail address is cross-checked before the Law Library replies.  Penal institutions have differing technical requirements governing mail to their inmates.  In order to observe these requirements we must check the website for each institution and follow their requirements.

We hope our work in this area helps to foster  inmate awareness of other law libraries who are committed to prisoner assistance.

Photograph by Andrew Weber

Comments (3)

  1. How much money, staffing hours, and resources are budgeted to drafting these reply letters? Would this be a good area to reduce staff and cut down on the amount of money that Congress appropriates to the Library each year?

  2. hi um are prisoners really allowed to send letters to library of congress am a student of Unn ie University of Nigeria

  3. All citizens of the United States should be afforded meaningful access to the judicial system. Law libraries must be especially vigilant in protecting this right to access for groups who, because of prejudice, societal indifference, or a lack of resources, have trouble gaining meaningful access to the literature they need to access the courts. I not only endorse the policy of providing significant responses to prisoner letters, but also commend the Law Library of Congress for providing every citizen with meaningful access.

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