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The use of codes in legal citations

The law library is one place where some prisoners use resources for unintended purposes

It should come to no surprise to seasoned corrections veterans that some prisoners use subterfuge and camouflage in order gain comfort and power in a prison setting. Quite simply, that is one of our vocational realities.

The law library is one place where some prisoners use resources for unintended purposes. For example, a prisoner in a security threat group might solicit new members through correspondence hidden in the manufacturer’s pocket part of any law book. The book binding is a popular spot for holding small, but valuable contraband items like pills and tobacco.

On a more sophisticated level, there are codes and communication. This is potentially more serious than the straightforward print missive or isolated contraband. Many corrections professionals have discovered that some prisoners use the common law citations in order to pass information.

Using legal citations as code can be done for a variety of reasons.  Among them are:
• tracking for gambling “patrons”
• a list of “customers” who get a delivery of a product
• coercion
• an attendance sheet
• a hit list

Now, let us look at the basic legal citation.  What do you make of 198 Mich App 307? One does not have to possess a law degree to demystify what initially appears as jargon.

Most basic law citations consist of three elements. In order, they are:

1. the volume number
2. the volume name
3. the section or page number

What 198 Mich App 307 really means is volume number 198 from the series of books called Michigan Appeals starting at page 307. This example of a citation is a valid way to obtain information about a law case. However, this information can be used as it was not intended.  It can be a means of passing or requesting information.
There are two basic ways that law case citations can be used to communicate under the noses of staff. This is how works:

1. Numbers game
On the law library request slip or in correspondence, a prisoner can use the six digits (three on either side of the volume name) to identify or inquire about a certain prisoner. For example, the citation 999 Federal Reporter Third 999 (or in shorter form 999 F3d 999) when used as a code could simply mean that the prisoner wishes to read that case.  Sometimes, it could be used to deliver a message about the prisoner who has the identification number 999-999.

2. What's in a name?
I know of one librarian who was contacted by staff from a segregation unit.  Staff noticed that prisoners were writing to each other about cases with names added to the citation.  It is not unusual.  One might write 99 Federal Supplement 201, “People v. Snodgrass.” However, staff noticed that the citations “coincidentally” used the names of prisoners in that unit.  The librarian looked at a dozen or so of these citations and determined that they were not valid cases. 

Use of citations as codes may not be too common.  But, abuses happen. As always, operations must be balanced between safety and mandatory services. Of course, access to the courts should not be taken lightly.

Through the tens of thousands of law library request per year, it may seem difficult to locate such a code. However with assistance from a willing library staff, it is possible to determine if this is a bogus or bona fide citation. In the earlier example of 999 Federal Reporter Third page 999, any law librarian would tell you that as of this writing this is currently not valid. Quite simply, 999 Federal Reporter Third has not been yet printed. When in doubt, ask the librarian.

In the end, it is about perseverance, staff teamwork and communication. Perhaps a little bit of luck enters the equation. Of course, what is uncovered by scrutinizing the law library citations may or may not impact your institution's operations. However, as we all know, if we turn over enough stones, we may find the right clue. All of this points to the potential of a safer, more productive work environment.

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