Erlinder says he intends to argue that statute 481.10 gives inmates using the telephone to contact their lawyers the same rights to confidentiality and availability as those prisoners who have arranged in-person consultations. In briefs filed with the court last month, Erlinder challenges Washington County District Court Judge Mary Carlson's January ruling, in which she determined that Ligons had been given reasonable phone access under the law and threw out the three-day access rule.
"The statute regarding inmates' rights to access to their attorneys has been on the books since the 1800s," declares Erlinder, who vows to appeal the case all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court if necessary. "It's changed over the years, but it has essentially stayed the same. It plainly violates an inmate's rights, to offer phones only in 'extraordinary circumstances.'"
In the end, though, the fate of Ligons's case will make little difference to inmates waiting for permission to call their attorneys. While Erlinder and the MCLU were filing their appeal, Department of Corrections officials were at the state capitol, lobbying for a new bill governing future prison phone access. They found a sympathetic ear in Republican Sen. Arlene Lesewski, a 64-year-old independent insurance agent from Marshall who was easily persuaded by the argument that state prison inmates are abusing their phone privileges. "When I read through the listing of the bills that we got, I thought, 'Gee, this is something that interests me.' So I called over to the DOC and asked to have someone come over and explain it to me in more detail," Lesewski recounts. "They said this new law puts a little bit of common sense into how [the prisoners] are allowed to use the phone."
Lesewski's bill, which goes into effect August 1, turns the DOC's position in the Ligons case into state law. The language regarding inmate phone access to attorneys remains vague, and the $100 penalty has been eliminated. Phone access will be provided "in accordance with policies adopted by the Institution that meet constitutional requirements." It remains unclear how those "constitutional requirements" will be interpreted.
Teresa Nelson, an MCLU attorney, is appalled by the DOC's political maneuvering and believes the legislation is nothing more than a strategy to circumvent the judicial system. "The new law specifically exempts the DOC from actions such as the one we're bringing against them now," Nelson declares. "I can't see any other reason why they would have gone to the Legislature like they did to try and change the statute."
Lesewski doesn't buy Nelson's righteous rage. "People who commit crimes against society should not have the exact same rights as regular society," she argues. "That's what prison is all about."
On the phone from Stillwater, Ligons deems the new law "a spineless compromise." He says the $100 penalty was the only incentive for prison officials to do the right thing. The only good to come out of the whole mess, he jokes, is that for now his requests to use the telephone are being rubber-stamped. "My case manager's office isn't really private. It's just got those cubicle dividers between people, so I sometimes get comments about what I say on the phone, like, 'Hey, you're not supposed to talk about that,'" he says. "But at least they get me a phone within three days now. Months used to go by, before I went to court."
Nelson says that privilege seems to be reserved for Ligons alone and probably has everything to do with his lawsuit. "We still get lots of letters saying, 'I was denied telephone access to my attorney,'" says the MCLU lawyer. "So I think they're applying this only to him. It's extremely difficult to talk to an inmate over there when I call."
For now, she and Erlinder are concentrating on Ligons's appeal. They have no plans to challenge the new law, though they believe it is unconstitutional. But that fight, Erlinder promises, will be waged on another day, in a higher court: "One of the hallmarks of repressive regimes in history is to lock people up and not let them talk to their lawyers. That's the one way to make sure that conditions in our prisons and the treatment of the people in there goes unwatched. No agency is really paying attention to what goes on inside those places."
Correction published 7/12/2000:
Owing to an editing error, this story incorrectly stated that Joseph Melton was stabbed in the chest. According to the autopsy report, Melton bled to death after being stabbed 19 times in the neck, back, arms, hand, and leg. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.