Law program puts students to work behind bars

Lynne Kozarek

Michelle Jacobson makes a habit of holding meetings in the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater visitation room. “I was a little nervous at first,” Jacobson said. “The system of gates that you have to go through is a little off-putting.”
Jacobson, a third-year student in the University Law School, took a course called The Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners Clinic. The course is sponsored by the University-supported Legal Assistance to Minnesota Prisoners Project. Through the project, law students take on the duties of representing inmates while working under the supervision of attorneys affiliated with the course.
The clinic serves the civil legal needs of inmates in such state correctional facilities as Stillwater and Lino Lakes. The program was established in 1972 and is a well-known resource at the prisons, but not at the University.
Project Director Jim Peterson said everyone is entitled to legal counsel. The project assures indigent inmates who have no other hopes of representation that they will receive assistance.
“The single largest type of cases we get are family law,” Peterson said, “divorces or visitation apart from divorce.”
The program is funded by the state as a division of the state public defender’s office and is a popular program at the Law School.
“This is often the students’ first exposure to the practice of law,” Peterson said, “it is very eye-opening to go in and meet with prisoners.”
“This was the most beneficial part of my law school education,” Jacobson said. “I had my first full trial and had witnesses and evidence to enter.”
The project is becoming a popular resource for inmates, and its reputation is mainly spread through the prison by word of mouth.
“Most of our clients don’t think very highly of the legal system,” Peterson said. “We want to help these people feel that they get a decent shake with the legal system.”
Peterson and Jacobson said the responses of clients and their families are almost always favorable.
“The prisoners are grateful,” Peterson said. “their initial reaction is ‘Why do I have to be represented by a law student?’ but they realize they are better represented by a student, (as well as) an attorney.”
Having an attorney supervise them in their cases helps the students immensely, Jacobson said.
“You can make mistakes,” Jacobson said, “but (with the supervising attorney) your mistakes don’t have to hurt the client.”