Collect Call

Minnesota could find itself writing checks to hundreds of prisoners--thanks to a jailhouse lawyer with an eye for detail

At the state's request, the case is now scheduled to be retried in Washington County District Court. But this time it's not just Ligons v. Minnesota: The Minnesota Civil Liberties Union has become involved, and its president, Jim Manahan, is serving as the attorney of record. A trial is scheduled for December 1.

Meanwhile, other inmates have been quick to follow in Ligons's footsteps. So far five prisoners have filed conciliation-court claims under the phone statute; Ligons says that two are from Stillwater and the remaining three from the nearby Oak Park Heights prison. A district court ruling in Ligons's favor, Erlinder estimates, could affect hundreds of prisoners past and present; the statute of limitations on the matter is two years.

The state, for its part, isn't relying only on the courts to sort out the matter: It also wants to rewrite the law itself. In August the attorney general's office sent a letter to the district court announcing that the Department of Corrections plans "to propose legislation regarding inmate telephone access to attorneys to the next session of the Minnesota Legislature." In legal memoranda, the DoC has argued that providing attorney calls on demand is "not feasible. Plaintiff's interpretation of the statute would require the addition of more unmonitored phones and additional staff to arrange the calls."

Ligons's attorneys, however, say it's not that hard. Some 60 county jails around the state, they note, use a phone system that allows lawyers' numbers to be programmed in and thus requires relatively little staff time. McComb, the assistant to the Stillwater warden, says such a system is "one of the options" for her facility. "It all depends on the outcome" of the lawsuit, she adds.

In the meantime, Ligons has his nose in his books and his eyes on CNN--though he'll switch to the Discovery Channel whenever there's a fishing show on. Ligons says talking and reading about fishing "kept me from reaching my wit's end" in prison; his other passion is machine drafting and design, which he studied in the early Eighties. He has spent some of his time inside designing what he says is a gizmo so revolutionary he can't reveal the details: "Let's just say it's fishing tackle."

With his time in the interview room almost up, Ligons opens the accordion folder and shovels in precious cargo--his legal work and a copy of the magazine Catfish In-Sider. In his mind, they belong together: "In order to fish," he says, "you need to be free."

As he rises to leave, the metal doors down the hall rumble open once more. Ligons points: "There's the warden. The guy in the dark suit." Folder tucked under his arm, Ligons heads toward the cell block, close on the heels of the defendant in Washington County District Court Case 82-C3-99-003077.

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