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University of Utah Study Shows Incarcerated People Face Barriers To Solving Legal, Civil Problems

A photo of the Utah State Prison location with mountains in the background.
Jon Reed
A new report looks at how challenging it is for incarcerated people to deal with legal issues that aren’t related to time in prison.

Sorting out parking tickets or going through a divorce can be difficult for anyone to navigate.

It’s even harder for people in prison, according to a new report from the Justice Lab at the University of Utah law school.

Kim Koeven, a co-author of the study, said one of the most common issues for people in the Utah State Prison is child custody disputes.

“If someone can't get custody of their children, and they're stuck in an abusive situation, coming out of incarceration that individual now has all of these things to deal with,” Koeven said.

They said it’s difficult for incarcerated people to resolve their legal issues because of a lack of resources.

For example, at the Draper prison, there’s no law library for people to get information and learn to advocate for themselves. The report shows that’s a common resource in state prisons.

The Utah Department of Corrections does provide contract attorneys to help incarcerated people deal with prison-related legal issues, but with the exception of a case worker, they’re mostly on their own for civil matters.

Koeven said that lack of resources can make it difficult for incarcerated people to rejoin society.

“When these issues go unsolved, they're just compounded to the point where by the time the person comes out, we're really just setting them up for the most difficult reentry because they have all these additional barriers,” they said.

Kaitlin Felsted, a spokesperson from the Utah Department of Corrections, said the department tries to meet the legal needs of people in its care. But she said other factors come into play at the prison.

“We always keep in mind that the safety of our staff, incarcerated individuals, and visitors is our highest priority,” Felsted said. “This need does, at times, interfere with incarcerated individuals' abilities to fully access legal sources.”

She said the department is considering providing prisoners with more access to electronic legal resources.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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