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Behind Bars Paralegals Provide Valuable Legal Assistance to Inmates

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When it comes to representing and helping inmates, attorneys are not the only legal professionals involved. Several states have chosen to allow the involvement of non-attorney legal staff with prisoner representation and created paralegal-assistance programs to help inmates with certain legal concerns.
 
Behind Bars Paralegals Provide Valuable Legal Assistance to Inmates

We don't have law libraries anymore," said Daryl Johnson, Legal Access Monitor at the Arizona Department of Corrections. "Instead, we provide an alternative program like paralegal assistance." Following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Lewis v. Casey¹, which originated in Arizona, the state decided that paralegal assistance to inmates was permissible and adequate and became the first to use paralegals and legal assistants for inmate assistance. The program has been in existence for nearly nine years, with plenty of success and no constitutional violations to date.

Of course, non-attorney legal staff may only offer certain types of assistance; that is, they must not give legal advice to inmates or otherwise risk engaging in the unauthorized practice of law. As such, most paralegals who provide inmate assistance help with filling out forms and guiding inmates through the maze of legal research. "They provide active assistance in the initial hearing stage, making sure that complaints get to the proper court and that forms are properly filled out," Johnson listed. "I make sure that inmates are familiar with the rules that apply to their situation and point them in the right direction at the library," said Tabitha Sedillo, Contract Paralegal for the Arizona Department of Corrections. Much of the paralegals' work deals with convictions or inmates' accommodations and treatment in prison. Most inmates who use paralegals' assistance are acting pro se and simply need to be shown the tools to represent themselves. Sedillo—a five-year veteran of the Department, with previous experience in criminal law—explains that she handles mainly criminal matters. "You're dealing mostly with inmates that have been convicted of felonies," Sedillo detailed.

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