Right of Access to Courts. The Constitution guarantees prisoners the right of meaningful access to the courts. This right of access imposes an affirmative duty on prison officials to help inmates prepare and file legal papers, either by establishing an adequate law library or by providing adequate assistance from persons trained in the law. Prison officials are not required to provide both as long as access to either is “meaningful.” Courts will allow some restrictions on a prisoner's access to legal resources to accommodate legitimate administrative concerns that include (1) maintaining security and internal order; (2) preventing the introduction of contraband, particularly through mail or legal documents; and (3) observing budget constraints. In the absence of a legitimate administrative concern, however, a prisoner may not be hindered in seeking access to the judicial system. Prisoners must demonstrate actual injury resulting from a denial of access to the courts to support a claim alleging a constitutional violation.

Legislation limits the ability of prisoners to file lawsuits without paying filing fees, known as in forma pauperis. Prisoners may be responsible for paying partial fees, depending on their financial resources. Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996, a prisoner must exhaust all available administrative remedies before suing over prison conditions. Under the PLRA, prisoners who file three in forma pauperis complaints determined to be frivolous, malicious, or lacking a legal claim are barred from filing further suits in forma pauperis unless the prisoner is in “imminent danger of serious physical injury.”