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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

MDOC Librarian Cites "Custody and Security Concerns" to Deny Library Access

by Efren Paredes, Jr.

The afternoon of 5/15/18 I was conducting legal research in the law library at the Oaks Correctional Facility (ECF). A short time after my arrival Librarian Leah Berean called me to a law clerk desk as she stood behind it. When I approached the desk she proceeded to tell me she was denying the request for additional legal research time I submitted the previous day. She remarked in a rude and condescending manner, "You were already given an additional two-hour session each week. It's my discretion and you're not getting any more time!"

When I asked if she could provide her decision to me in writing so I could file a grievance in response to her denial she became irate and snarled, "No, you can write it down if you want to!" She then walked away from the desk and returned to her office, offering me no explanation for her decision. Approximately 25 minutes later Berean returned to the law clerk desk bringing along with her my request for additional time which now included a handwritten response she signed. Her response read in relevant part, "Due to custody and security concerns this is the only amount of additional time the library can give you."

OP ECF 05.03.115 "Use of Law Library by General Population Prisoners," authorizes librarians to grant additional time to prisoners to conduct legal research who are within 60 days of a verified court deadline. I provided a court order to the librarian verifying that I have a pending court hearing scheduled within that timeframe.

The policy also states, "The Department of Corrections recognizes the constitutional right to access to the courts. Therefore, the Oaks Correctional Facility shall not prohibit, restrict or deny prisoners in the general population access to the main law library wherein prisoners can use an Electronic Law Library (ELL) and other legal research documents for legal research purposes related to challenging a prisoner's conviction or conditions of confinement."

In my request for additional research time I stated that a great deal of my legal research involves reading dozens of peer-reviewed law journal articles regarding adolescent development, fMRI brain imaging studies, and other mitigating factors related to my upcoming resentencing hearing. There are hundreds of these articles I need to review in a short span of time which is an impossible undertaking given the time I am currently authorized to conduct legal research in the law library. I pointed out that I have paid to have several of the peer-reviewed journal articles photocopied so I can read them in my cell but cannot afford to have them all reproduced.

This was the reason I was requesting additional legal research time. Though I was authorized to receive two additional hours a week it will be insufficient to conduct all the necessary research before my next scheduled court hearing. The articles I need to research frequently exceed 30 pages in length (sometimes up to 70 pages) and I am often unable to read an entire article during a single two-hour law library session and take the necessary handwritten notes which itself is a time-consuming task. I even offered to provide her evidence of the many pages of notes I have already taken from the articles I read each week.

I am currently being limited to six hours of legal research per week to prepare for arguably the most important court hearing of my life. My request for additional legal research time was for two additional hours during regularly scheduled hours on the weekend which would not have prevented other prisoners from using any of the available computers. The law library has 15 computers available for prisoners to conduct legal research with which provide access to LexisNexis, a legal research portal. Less than a third of the computers are used at any given time when Level II prisoners are permitted to use them.

The notion that allowing a prisoner to use one of the idle computers for legal research triggers a "custody and security concern" is delusional and absurd. More than double the number of Level IV custody prisoners use the law library computers than the number of Level II lower custody prisoners for legal research each day during their scheduled time and it is not deemed a "custody and security concern" by custody staff or the Warden. Since Berean's reasoning for her denial is obviously false and baseless it begs the question: what was her true motive?

Later that day after speaking to Berean I showed two custody staff members her response to my request for additional legal research time. When I asked the staff members if they felt my request was a "custody and security concern" they shook their heads and laughed. One replied, "No. What does she know about custody and security, she just started working here. Plus, people hardly even use the law library and there are always computers open to use." The other responded, "She sounds ridiculous. When a prisoner is doing legal research and trying to go home at least he's doing something constructive and isn't on the yard bothering anyone or getting into trouble. You should write a grievance."

Berean's distorted reasoning for denying my request to be granted additional legal research time is arbitrary and a clear abuse of authority. It is divorced from reality, illogical, and provides a snapshot into what she thinks about prisoners using the law library to conduct legal research. It also demonstrates she may be ill-equipped with the temperament, social skills, or decision-making capacity to properly fulfill her job duties. Even other staff members agreed that her decision to deny me additional research time was irrational.

Her actions stain the image of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) and interfere with prisoners' rehabilitation. When MDOC staff members subvert policy and devalue prisoners' lives they send a chilling message that their future is devoid of meaning. There is little wonder why prisoners often return to society frustrated, demoralized, and battling anxiety having been forced to endure the exhausting experience of repeated instances of staff engaging in microaggressions and abusing their power.

Since his recent arrival at ECF Warden Lester Parish has laudably begun transforming the culture of the prison from its shameful past of mismanagement and hostility toward the prisoners in its care to a culture that promotes the MDOC's vision and values policy. Staff members like Berean threaten to destabilize this progress. Her actions are evidence of a belief that prisons should be monuments to punishment and exclusion which contravene the Warden's proactive efforts.

This episode is only one among the many examples of unfortunate challenges prisoners are forced to deal with as they navigate the minefield of staff abusing their power in prison daily life. Fabricating unreasonable excuses to obstruct a prisoner's access to the courts rises to the level of a civil rights violation. Sadly it is not the first time a prisoner has been compelled to challenge similar injustices in federal courts. There is a long history of prisoners litigating against MDOC staff members for their refusal to recognize fundamental constitutional rights.

In a civil suit recently filed by a prisoner challenging a violation of his constitutional rights by an MDOC employee a federal judge ruled that MDOC staff members are not impervious to civil litigation because they simply claim immunity. The court added that staff members are not able to enrobe themselves in an absolute shield against legal action brought against them for violating constitutionally protected conduct.

Unfortunately it is taxpayers who keep bearing the burden of paying the costs associated with litigation resulting from the obstinate behavior of prison staff members who are allowed to engage in unconstitutional behavior. The moment taxpayers refuse to continue paying for their misdeeds it will change their behavior. When state employees begin paying their own legal fees to defend themselves for offending protected constitutional rights they will become less impetuous to entertain their darker impulses. It is a prospect taxpayers should consider exploring.

(Efren Paredes, Jr. is a Michigan prisoner, social justice activist, and blogger who is a frequent guest on the "Elena Herrada Show" on Detroit Superstation AM 910. You can learn more about Efren at and