Prison Law Libraries, or Paralegal Prison Officers? Why Not Both: Using Ghana as a Model for U.S. Correctional Officer Education Reform

Prison Law Libraries, or Paralegal Prison Officers? Why Not Both: Using Ghana as a Model for U.S. Correctional Officer Education Reform

Jasmin Hernandez Du Bois

Despite holding less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States has nearly twenty-five percent of the world’s total prison population.[1] Using Ghana’s paralegal training program as a guidepost, this article seeks to encourage the United States to take a progressive approach to prison reform, including the implementation of specialized legal education for correctional officers in their respective facilities. Further, the inadequacy and sparsity of prison law libraries in the United States will be explored, lending a further assertion that action must be taken to enable prisoners to effectively navigate the criminal justice system.

Prisoners in the United States are often caught in a diabolical crosshair: though often uneducated or even illiterate, it’s imperative they both understand and navigate the complex American criminal justice system.[2] In 1977, after roughly thirty years of pro-prisoner Supreme Court holdings,[3] the United States Supreme Court in Bounds v. Smith held that states had an affirmative duty to provide law libraries to inmates.[4] The result was immediate: prisons across the United States began scrambling to assemble law libraries for inmates, as was now required by law.[5]

A series of legislation in the 1990’s began to erase the rights so afforded by Bounds.[6] The nail in the coffin for law library access came when Lewis v. Casey not only overturned Bounds, but held that the Constitution did not ensure “a freestanding right to a law library.”[7] While many prison law libraries held on to their collections, some prisons extinguished their law libraries completely.[8] The approaches varied; some prisons opted to sell their library collection on eBay, while others threw the books out to rot.[9] For prisoners who are of modest means, or even indigent, the Lewis decision is shattering: not only will these prisoners be expected to navigate the legal system independently, they must do so without any legal literature at their disposal. Unequivocally, they are doomed to fail.[10] Yet a middle ground for tackling this issue may be found through an initiative which launched in Ghana.

In February of 2019, the United Kingdom and Ghana joined forces to tackle the difficulty of educating prisoners on the criminal justice system.[11] Unlike the United States, in which prisoners are largely self-reliant, the British High Commission and the Ghana Prisons Service (GPS) sought to encourage education and access to justice through GPS officers through a paralegal training program.[12] The paralegal training program sought to “equip GPS personnel with relevant legal knowledge on local and international human rights laws; basic criminal law principles…[and] to enhance skills in taking instructions from prisoners” when they seek to file criminal appeals.[13] The training, which was done over four days, was administered to sixty GPS officers.[14] The officers were drawn from various stations across forty-three prisons in Ghana.[15] Though there has not been follow-up literature on the success of this programming, possibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic taking place a year later, the initiative provides a model and feasible approach to prison reform for the United States.

Despite holding less than five percent of the world’s population, the United States has nearly twenty-five of the world’s total prison population.[16] Given this startling statistic, as well as the legal struggles currently incarcerated prisoners face, the United States must take a progressive approach to prison reform by implementing basic legal education for correctional officers. To maximize efficiency and access to justice for the incarcerated, the United States should specialize legal education based on the facility in question. As an example, correctional officers in state prisons should be trained with a focus on state-law and appeal requirements, whereas federal prisons and deportation facilities should be trained on federal law, as well as international human rights law.


[1] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Does the United States really have 5 percent of the world’s population and one quarter of the world’s prisoners? Wash. Post (Apr. 30, 2015)

[2] E. Herrick, Prison Literacy Connection, 16 Corrections Compendium (Dec. 1991),is%20estimated%20at%2075%20percent (“according to the Correctional Education Association and other statistical data, the illiteracy (rate) for adult inmates is estimated at 75 percent”).

[3] Emily Shepard Smith, May it Please the Court: Law Students and Legal Research Instruction in Prison Law Libraries, 29 Leg. Ref. Serv. Q. at 278 (2010).

[4] Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977).

[5] Smith, supra note 3, at 281.

[6] See generally Prison Litigation Reform Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1997e (1996); Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110 Stat. 1214 (Apr. 24, 1996).

[7] Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996).

[8] Johnathan Abel, Ineffective Assistance of Library: The Failings and the Future of Prison Law Libraries, 101 Geo. L.J. 1171 (June 2013).

[9] Id.

[10] Abel, supra note 8.

[11] British High Commission Accra, UK organizes paralegal training for Ghana Prisons Service, Afr. Newsroom (Feb. 19, 2019)

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Ye Hee Lee, supra note 1.