The recent decision in Larocque v. Turco, in which the Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction ordering that inmates at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center be allowed access to their legal documents, as well as contact visits and phone calls with their attorneys, serves as an important reminder that prison inmates do not forfeit their fundamental constitutional right to counsel merely by virtue of being incarcerated.
The case arose out of a lockdown at the prison in the aftermath of an incident in which several inmates allegedly attacked and injured four correction officers. Criminal charges have since been filed against the inmates involved in the incident, but the impact of the lockdown – including the denial of inmates’ access to documents relating to their criminal cases and to their attorneys – reached all inmates in the facility.
“The right to assistance of counsel is a fundamental constitutional right,” the Court stated, guaranteed by both the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article XII of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. “In addition,” the Court ruled, “prisoners possess a constitutional right of access to the courts, which requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of legal papers by providing prisoners with . . . adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”
While the Court recognized that prison regulations may impinge on inmates’ constitutional rights when they are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests, such as maintaining institutional safety and order, it concluded that the blanket and prolonged restrictions on the right to counsel and access to the courts in this case, especially where the affected inmates had no involvement in the underlying incident, likely will not pass constitutional muster if the case proceeds to a full trial on the merits.
The Court’s ruling in Larocque is consistent with the BBA’s long held belief that our system of justice works best when all parties enjoy meaningful access to counsel, a principle that is particularly essential with regard to all criminal defendants and individuals incarcerated in our prison system. In concluding that a preliminary injunction in this case promotes the public interest, the court stated that it could “think of no greater public interest than the protection of individuals’ sacred constitutional rights.” Neither can we.