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South Dakota Swaps Lawyers for Tablets in Prisons

Sometime in the next few days, inmates in South Dakota prisons will start counting on tablet computers – not a state-funded, in-prison attorney or paralegal – to help them with their cases.

PIERRE, S.D. (CN) – Sometime in the next few days, inmates in South Dakota prisons will start counting on tablet computers – not a state-funded, in-prison attorney or paralegal – to help them with their cases.

The South Dakota Department of Corrections did not renew a contract for attorney Delmar “Sonny” Walter and his paralegals, who since the early 2000s have assisted the state’s prison population with research and filing of legal documents ranging from habeas petitions to child support documents.

Corrections secretary Denny Kaemingk told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader the move will save taxpayers money. But one prisoner’s rights attorney has concerns.

“What’s someone who can’t read or write or can’t do so fully effectively or without mental illness supposed to do with a tablet?” said David M. Shapiro, clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern University’s Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. “It’s a pennywise, pound-foolish approach.”

This past May, the state announced every one South Dakota’s approximately 3,000 inmates would receive a free tablet computer. This allows the inmates longer phone calls, subscriptions to online movies and music, and text messaging with loved ones. Inmates also now have access to law-references websites such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. It was a change supported by Walter, the on-site attorney, but he’s doubtful the technical upgrade is a substitute for legal insight from professionals.

“The things we did made the institution run smoother,” Walter said, noting his staff did everything to help inmates – most legal novices unfamiliar with complex documents – with everything from knowledgeably preparing appeals to making copies to helping inmates with medication requests.

“We helped the inmates get into court in a number of ways, and now they won’t have that stuff.”

In 1999, a state judge ruled the prisons must provide “legal assistance” for inmates. The program – which cost the state $276,000 in 2017 – has never been luxurious.

“In Springfield (the Mike Durfee State Prison) we were basically in a closet,” Walter said. “These inmates had maybe two to four hours a week. They often had to choose between a doctor’s appointment or researching their case.”

He received an email earlier this month, after a temporary extension of his contract with the Department of Corrections, to say the state would not be renewing his services.

“They basically gave us five business days,” Walter said. “I had to reach out to my paralegal and say, ‘Sorry, but we’re closing up shop.’”

He predicts the state will soon see another access lawsuit.

“A book isn’t going to make you a lawyer. These people need legal assistance.”

A representative from the state did not respond to a voicemail requesting an interview. Kaemingk told the Argus Leader the state would soon hire an assistant to help inmates fill out the many forms.

“Their access is important to us,” he said.

Kaemingk told the newspaper that South Dakota and Rhode Island were the only states in the nation to offer taxpayer-funded legal aid teams for inmates. A representative with the Rhode Island Department of Corrections confirmed that the state contracts with law students to visit and assist its inmate population.

In the past year, falling revenue has forced South Dakota to cut back on projects and revise spending goals. In part, providing inmates with tablets was an effort to lower re-offense rates and reduce taxpayers’ burden. Shapiro, the Northwestern law professor, argues this nickel-and-dime cost-cutting distracts from a bigger problem.

“At the end of the day, America has more people locked up than any other country on earth,” he said in a phone interview. “A reduction in incarceration would lead to genuine savings.”

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