In the 1990's there was a SCOTUS case dealing specifically with the right of prisoners to have access to a law library.
In Lewis v. Casey, 516 U.S. 804, Respondents were 22 inmates of various prisons operated by Arizona Department of Corrections. In January 1990, they filed a class action "on behalf of all adult prisoners who are or will be incarcerated by the State of Arizona Department of Corrections," alleging that petitioners were "depriving [respondents] of their rights of access to the courts and counsel protected by the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments." Following a 3 month bench trial, the District Court ruled in favor of respondents, finding that "[p]risoners have a constitutional right of access to the courts that is adequate, effective and meaningful," 834 F. Supp. 1553, 1566 (Ariz. 1992), and that "[ADOC's] system fails to comply with constitutional standards," 834 F. Supp., at 1569. The court identified a variety of shortcomings of the ADOC system, in matters ranging from the training of library staff, to the updating of legal materials, to the availability of photocopying services. In addition to these general findings, the court found that two groups of inmates were particularly affected by the system's inadequacies: "[l]ockdown prisoners" (inmates segregated from the general prison population for disciplinary or security reasons), who "are routinely denied physical access to the law library" and "experience severe interference with their access to the courts;" and illiterate or non English speaking inmates, who do not receive adequate legal assistance."
SCOTUS, however, decided "that while prisoners have the right to pursue a legal claim, they don’t have an abstract, freestanding right to a law library."
Even after the ruling, "New York required its county jails to maintain a supply of legal reference materials, such as various chapters of New York State Consolidated Laws and case law digests."
But with the recent recession and budget cuts, "New York has decided that the law library is an unaffordable luxury. New York’s prison commission is proposing to relax the regulation and allow county-run prisons to shutter their libraries. The prisons would still be required to provide access to law materials — such as electronic or photocopying services — but they wouldn’t have to keep actual books on hand inside the facility." New York also wants to dispense with prison typewriters.
Although I take some issue with the decision in Lewis v. Casey, I can't find much wrong with New York's proposed regulation under the law. Because the prison will still be required to provide electronic access to materials, the prison is, in effect, bringing the county law libraries into the 21st Century. As long as the prisoners still have access to the laws governing their sentence in some format (and proper training to use the electronic databases), then the prisoners can still work on their cases. No harm, no foul.
It's not like an academic law library where many of the materials need to be saved for historical purposes. Also, the county prison law libraries are not required to collect monographs that are only available in print, so the prisoners are not losing out on resources that they would otherwise have access to.
WSJ -- New York Is Shelving Its Prison Law Libraries