Collect Call

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

The broad-shouldered man lays down a worn brown accordion folder labeled R. Ligons--legal and sits down. He is about to speak when a door slams shut about 20 feet away. The clang of metal on metal vibrates through the air, but Ron Ligons doesn't blink. Deafening background noise is just part of the ambiance in interview room No. 2 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, where Ligons is known as prisoner number 171203.

This spring Ligons also became known around the prison as the guy who sued the law, and won. Acting as his own attorney, Ligons won a claim against the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DoC) that netted him a $100 check--and, according to legal experts, could open the way for similar claims that may cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For now, the matter is headed for another day in court. The department is appealing the ruling of a Washington County Conciliation Court judge, says spokeswoman Shari Burt. She refuses to comment further on the pending litigation. But Ligons has plenty to say.

It all started more than six years ago, when he was convicted of second-degree murder for killing a longtime friend. Determined to fight the 40-year sentence--"I have always maintained my innocence in that case," he says solemnly--he sent out for two books from a mail-order catalog: The Prisoner's Self-Help Litigation Manual and Post-Conviction Remedies. Poring over the hefty volumes, he began a legal education that now allows him to rattle off case law from 50 states and explain the subtle distinctions between rulings from various federal courts. For years he has been visiting the prison library once or twice a week: "They have all the state cases on CD. I would sit there and pull up case after case after case until I found something that applied." Ligons also uses the Minnesota State Law Library, which sends a law librarian to Stillwater once a week.

After several years of studying opinions and arguments, searching out legal experts' talk-show appearances and following the O.J. Simpson trial from start to finish, Ligons had an epiphany. "I found out that the law is on my side," he says. "The problem is getting the courts to acknowledge their own laws. Law is fluid; politics play a part in it."

So does good legal counsel, he adds. "I had seen the kind of errors that lawyers make, so before I would head off in any direction, I would talk to a few lawyers and if their answers jibed, I would know which way held the best chance."

As Ligons's legal network expanded, he ran into difficulties with the prison phone system. The lines on which inmates make outgoing calls are monitored, but courts have found that eavesdropping on prisoners' conversations with attorneys violates the Sixth Amendment right to counsel without interference. According to Stillwater's policy on inmate use of phones, prisoners may talk to their attorneys on unmonitored lines, but only if they put their requests in writing: "In situations where phone contact is necessary, the inmate shall send a [memo] to his Case Manager 24 hours in advance of the requested call," the document states. "The request must include the name of the attorney, the phone number, and a specific explanation of why this communication cannot be handled through U.S. mail. Approvals are at the discretion of the inmate's Case Manager."

Those terms, Ligons suspected, weren't quite in step with the spirit of the law. Often, he says, his requests for attorney calls were denied, or answered with demands to "be more specific as to the extraordinary circumstance." But getting specific, he notes, would have required him to disclose sensitive legal information to someone who was not his attorney.

Then, one day last fall, Ligons discovered Minnesota State Statute 481.10: "At all times, reasonable telephone access to the attorney shall be provided to [an inmate] at no charge," the law reads. "Every officer or person who shall violate any provision of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and shall forfeit $100 to the person aggrieved."

This, Ligons knew, was pay dirt--or, as he prefers to put it, "I was pretty confident, because this was strict statutory liability. Wording such as 'shall be' doesn't leave any room for discretion."

After consulting with a few lawyers, he filed his case against Stillwater Warden David Crist in December 1998, acting as his own attorney, or pro se. When the ruling came down in May of this year, it was a bolt from the blue. "Prisoners just don't win pro se cases against the Department of Corrections," says William Mitchell College of Law professor C. Peter Erlinder, who got to know Ligons through the prison chaplain and now serves as a volunteer attorney on his case. "It's very difficult for inmates to explain a case in a way that judges will understand. And often, pro se litigation isn't taken very seriously."

Ligons heard the same from his fellow inmates. "The old-timers say, 'I haven't seen anybody win anything in ten years,'" he notes with some pride. Mary McComb, Stillwater's assistant to the warden, confirms that prison authorities often face Sixth Amendment challenges from jailhouse lawyers, and that the state has triumphed many times on that issue. But, she adds, the Ligons case may be different: "To my knowledge, the Minnesota statute is new ground."

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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