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PRISONERS' LEGAL ASSN. v. ROBERSON

May 26, 1993

PRISONERS' LEGAL ASSOCIATION, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JAMES L. ROBERSON, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: H. LEE SAROKIN

 Sarokin, District Judge

 Before the court is defendant's motion for summary judgment.

 Introduction

 What distinguishes our society from most others is the continued right of access to the judicial process afforded even to those who have been charged, tried and convicted of a crime. In order to make such access meaningful, prisoners need not only the physical tools to create and submit their complaints and petitions for relief, but frequently due to their own deficiencies in education or language skills, they also need the intellectual tools possessed by others.

 This right of access to the courts must be genuine, and prisoners must be free to exercise it without fear of retaliation for doing so. Because so many persons confined to our prisons are lacking in education, knowledge of the law, and language skills, other prisoners have undertaken the preparation of their fellow inmates' complaints, appeals and petitions -- the so-called "jail-house lawyers." So prevalent and necessary has this practice become that groups have been formed, such as the group to which the plaintiffs in this case belong, with the approval of prison authorities.

 These plaintiffs charge that they are the victims of harassment and retaliation because of their prison sanctioned efforts on behalf of other prisoners. If their allegations as to defendant's conduct are true, this conduct is to be condemned and enjoined. To seek to deny or discourage this assistance to inmates is no less a denial of their rights than to take from them the pen and paper necessary for the preparation of their petitions. For those who lack the knowledge, education or language skills to speak for themselves, their fellow inmates are often their only voice to our judicial system. This voice must not be stilled by interference, threats or retaliation.

 Background

 On October 10, 1991, the Prisoners' Legal Association (the "PLA") and seven inmates at East Jersey State Prison (the "prison"), *fn1" all staff members of the PLA, *fn2" filed a complaint against Officer James L. Roberson ("officer Roberson"), a senior corrections officer at the prison, alleging that the defendant harassed members of the PLA because of their positions as paralegals at the prison. On June 1, 1992, plaintiffs filed a supplemental complaint, alleging additional incidents of harassment by defendant against three members of the PLA. Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief and damages.

 According to the allegations of the complaint and supplemental complaint, Officer Roberson has harassed each of the plaintiffs in retaliation for their role in the filing of lawsuits against the defendant and other prison authorities. More specifically, plaintiffs allege that defendant has harassed them by verbally abusing them, *fn3" searching their legal materials, *fn4" and denying them meals. *fn5"

 Discussion

 Defendant moves for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(b), asserting first that the PLA lacks standing to bring this lawsuit and second that the undisputed facts in this case do not give rise to a claim under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Plaintiffs oppose defendant's motion, arguing that they have standing to sue and that they have alleged violations of rights secured by the United States Constitution. *fn6"

 This court can only grant summary judgment if there are no issues of material fact and if, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 91 L. Ed. 2d 265, 106 S. Ct. 2548 (1986); Wisniewski v. Johns-Manville Corp., 812 F.2d 81, 84 (3d Cir. 1987). To avoid summary judgment, the non-moving party must produce evidence "'such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for [him].'" Zilich v. ...


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