Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Minnesota State Law Library Service to Prisoners Marks 30th Anniversary

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Law Library Service to Prisoners (LLSP), a collaborative program between the Minnesota State Law Library (MSLL) and the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC).  Operating without cost to the taxpayers of the State of Minnesota, LLSP provides law library service to DOC inmates incarcerated in Minnesota state facilities, as mandated by the United States Supreme Court in 1977.

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Law Library Service to Prisoners (LLSP), a collaborative program between the Minnesota State Law Library (MSLL) and the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) that provides law library service toinmates (not county inmates in jails or federal inmates in federal facilities) incarcerated in Minnesota state facilities. The services are delivered by three dedicated librarians and a part-time clerk who visit DOC facilities around the state on a regular basis.

Why Serve Prisoners? The Constitutional Right of Access

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed, in Bounds v. Smith, that states must protect the right of prisoners to access the courts by providing them with law libraries or alternative sources of legal knowledge.  The Court held that “the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.”1  Earlier, in Wolff v. McDonnell, the Court had reaffirmed that prison officials are required “to provide indigent inmates with access to a reasonably adequate law library for preparation of legal actions.”2  Justice Marshall, in Bounds, noted that the law libraries and prison legal-assistance programs were supported by correctional administrators and valued as contributing to rehabilitation.3

In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court gave further guidance on what constitutes “meaningful access” to the courts.  The Court held that Bounds “does not guarantee inmates the wherewithal to transform themselves into litigating engines capable of filing everything from shareholder derivative actions to slip-and-fall claims. The tools it requires to be provided are those that the inmates need in order to attack their sentences, directly or collaterally, and in order to challenge the conditions of their confinement.  Impairment of any other litigating capacity is simply one of the incidental (and perfectly constitutional) consequences of conviction and incarceration.”4  The LLSP program serves to provide this meaningful access and positive experience with the legal system.

History of the LLSP Program

The Minnesota State Law Library (MSLL) launched a pilot project in 1984 to provide DOC inmates with access to legal resources.  The project was developed through a collaborative inter-agency agreement between the DOC and the MSLL.  It was funded by the DOC and endorsed by the State Public Defender and the Law Library Committee of the Minnesota Supreme Court.5  The pilot program was favorably evaluated by the correctional staff and the library service to prisoners was considered a “high priority with [the DOC].”6

The Minnesota Supreme Court also agreed that the pilot was effective and supported the program being permanently established.7  A librarian, based at MSLL, established a regular schedule of visits to the adult correctional facilities to meet with individual inmates.  In August 1986, two full-time librarians were hired to split the circuit and handle the increasing number of requests.  In 1990, a half-time administrative assistant was hired.  Today, the LLSP staff includes two full-time librarians, one part-time librarian, and a part-time clerk.

LLSP began providing regular law library reference and research services to Minnesota’s DOC inmates in 1985, filling 2509 requests for 274 inmates in that first year.8  In 2014, LLSP provided more than 42,000 requested items to more than 2,600 inmates.9

The librarians currently visit eight primary adult Minnesota correctional facilities each month to meet with inmates.  LLSP also provides law library services to DOC staff and DOC inmates housed in other facilities, such as county jails, state hospitals, and prisons in other states.  Inmate requests are made through the mail or KITE (an internal DOC request form), by phone, or during the brief monthly (5-10 minutes) reference meeting with one of the LLSP librarians.

The inmates have onsite access to basic Minnesota legal resources, including Minnesota Statutes, Minnesota Administrative Rules, Court Rules and a few secondary sources.  They also have access to case law from Minnesota and the U.S. Supreme Court through Lexis CDs (with updates provided by the LLSP program).  A core collection at each prison was curated by the LLSP program and is reviewed annually.  Questions that cannot be answered onsite using this prison collection of core legal materials are researched at the MSLL.  By supplementing the small collection of legal materials available at each prison with the resources of the MSLL, LLSP eliminates the need for the DOC to maintain costly and extensive law libraries at each facility.

In addition to research related to their incarceration, many inmates deal with family law, probate, end of life matters, immigration, bankruptcy and other civil matters.  The Minnesota adult inmate population was 10,119 as of July 1, 2015.10  The vast majority–more than 9,500–are not serving life sentences and will be returning to society after their sentences end.  While incarcerated, the inmate may have to deal with issues that many of us do–aging parents, minor children, and other civil issues.  Court decisions often affect inmates and their families.  The LLSP program is the only agency that provides civil legal resources to all DOC inmates in Minnesota.  Helping inmates navigate these civil court issues while incarcerated allows the inmate to focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

The librarians assist the inmates by providing legal reference and resources to enhance their access to the courts.  The librarians provide photocopies of legal materials to inmates who are covered under the DOC inter-agency agreement.  Inmates are provided with a maximum of eight item requests bi-weekly (maximum of 80 pages). Inmates have no internet access, and must request even basic court form packets, case law and other legal research resources from the LLSP librarians.

LLSP librarians also produce useful resources for the inmates, such as the Reference Guide: Occupations Impacted by Felony Convictions.  They compile checklists to help inmates with legal issues, including How to Request Custody/Parenting Time Forms and Two Thirds Law, a handout concerning conditional release and inmate sentences.

Most of the prisoners served by the LLSP program appreciate the service and use the opportunity to manage their legal issues.  The librarians have seen inmates utilize the library services (both the prison library and the LLSP program) to learn to read, navigate legal issues for themselves and family, and gain useful skills.  The librarians currently working with LLSP have visited and served the inmates for more than 15 years, and have seen many inmates grow and change while serving their time.  One inmate, for example, became interested in legal research and decided to work on earning a paralegal certificate during his incarceration.  He credited the LLSP program for helping him graduate with a 97.5 percent grade average.

When you are serving prisoners, not everyone will be satisfied with following the rules.  Two of the LLSP librarians had to endure being sued by an inmate who was unhappy that he was not allowed to have access to certain materials while being disciplined and in segregation.  The United States District Court, District of Minnesota, held that the prisoner had not been deprived his constitutional rights when the librarians followed DOC policy regarding materials not allowed to an inmate in segregation.  The court, in dismissing the case, found that

“[T]he uncontested record demonstrates that the law librarians provide extraordinary service to the state prisoners, including Plaintiff.  Librarians are typically – and these Defendants are no exception – devoted to expanding, not diminishing, access to information for those they serve.  This Court knows how difficult it must be for the two librarian defendants here –one of whom works only part-time–to face the prospect of defending themselves in a court action for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages simply because they performed the important task of serving the prison population.  Legal doctrines like qualified immunity are designed to alleviate such risk.  Hopefully, this experience will not chill the obvious sense of dedication and professionalism these law librarians bring to the justice system.”11

The program expenses are funded by inmate canteen and phone services, and not paid for by Minnesota taxpayers.12  The LLSP staff believes that by continuing to educate inmates about legal resources and providing them access to legal information, they contribute to the rehabilitation of the inmates and help diminish the number of lawsuits filed by Minnesota prisoners.  One of the librarians estimates that 70 percent of the claims the inmates investigate are not pursued once they do some research and educate themselves.  The LLSP librarians, who have been working with the program for more than 15 years, believe that inmates’ court filings are better researched, written and formatted because of the resources provided by LLSP.

Debby Hackerson, J.D., M.L.I.S. is a public services librarian with the Minnesota State Law Library.



1 Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817, 828 (1977).

2 418 U.S. at 578-579.

3 Bounds, supra, at 829.  Citing Caradarelli & Finkelstein, Correctional Administrators Assess the Adequacy and Impact of Prison Legal Services Programs in the United States, 65 J. Crim. L. 91 (1974) where it was found that over 80% of the state corrections personnel “felt legal services provide a safety valve for inmate grievances, reduce inmate power structures and tensions from unresolved legal problems, and contribute to rehabilitation by providing a positive experience with the legal system.”

4 Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 355 (1996).

5 Beth Peterson, Law Library Service to Prisoners: Pilot Project Evaluation (1984) at 1.

6 Letter of December 18, 1984 from Howard J. Costello, MN DOC Deputy Commissioner Institutional Services to State Law Librarian Marvin Anderson.

7 Letter of 12/19/1984 from Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie E. Wahl to State Law Librarian Marvin Anderson.

8 Daniel Lunde, Library Service to Prisoners, 6:1 Loquitor (Winter 1990).

9 Daniel Lunde, Law Library Service to Prisoners Program 30th Anniversary Marked, Branching Out (Minnesota Judicial Branch Employee Newsletter) (Sept. 2015).

10 Minnesota Department of Corrections, Adult Inmate Profile as of 7/1/2015.

11 Wickner v. Thorson, 2010 WL 3385088 (D. Minn. 2010).

12 Minn. Stat. § 16A.72(7) provides that income from the inmates’ stores and vending machines (canteen) is to be deposited in the social welfare fund for the benefit of the inmates.

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