DAYTON, Ohio -- A company whose extensive database of laws and court cases is used mostly by legal offices, schools and libraries has attracted a new type of subscriber: prisons.
The service from LexisNexis enables prisons to provide required access to legal information while banishing law books, which are more expensive, quickly outdated and easily damaged, according to facilities that use the database.
LexisNexis, based in this southwest Ohio city, has installed computer kiosks resistant to damage in four prisons and jails in Hawaii and five in California. The kiosk consists of a touch-screen computer monitor covered in shatterproof glass inside a steel box bolted to a wall.
Prisons had to be assured that the kiosks, manufactured by Touch Sonic Technologies in Santa Rosa, Calif., would not pose a danger of broken glass that could be used a weapons, said Bill Carter, vice president and managing director of LexisNexis' western market center in Dallas.
"We've taken a crowbar to it. It doesn't shatter," Carter said.
The kiosks in Riverside County correctional facilities in California have worked out well and replaced law books, sheriff's Capt. Alan Flanary said.
"We don't have problems with inmates tearing pages out or defacing the books," he said. In addition, the time-consuming process of inserting printed updates into law books has been eliminated, he said.
Inmates navigate the database by touching different parts of the monitor screen, which includes a keypad. The Internet-based public records database provides access to more than 4.6 billion documents from more than 30,000 news, business and legal information sources.
Flanary said the inmates seem to like the kiosks better than the books because they simply can type in a topic and retrieve related legal information.
"You see this wall of books facing you and you don't know where to begin," he said.
The service for the five California correctional facilities costs $94,400 a year, which is less expensive than purchasing law books and other legal materials, Flanary said. Money inmates spend at prison commissaries is used to pay for the kiosks.
Touch Sonic approached LexisNexis about offering the service to inmates, and the companies began selling the idea to prisons. The first kiosk was installed at a prison in Hawaii in November. LexisNexis is negotiating with correction officials in five other states to install the kiosks.
"The prisoners who have tried the kiosk use it quite frequently, and most became experts in just a few minutes of use," said Harry Fuchigami, librarian at the Women's Community Correctional Center in Kailua. "I use the system myself because it's much easier to look up statutes using the touch screen than it is with our books."
In Ohio, inmates do legal research primarily through law books, said JoEllen Culp, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Prisoners have no access to the Internet or any electronic legal resources, but the state is considering purchasing legal information on compact discs, she said.
Charles Carbone, a lawyer with California Prison Focus, which advocates for prisoners' human rights, said the kiosks are a step in the right direction for ensuring access to quality legal materials. Since the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court has mandated that inmates have access to legal information.
"It would probably address one of the plaguing problems of prison law libraries - they are understaffed and undershelved," he said.
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