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Clay County Jail offers online legal research for inmates

By Erik Burgess / The Forum

MOORHEAD – Inmates at the Clay County Jail have access to a service not afforded to many prisoners across the state of Minnesota, a county official says.

When a computer was recently installed in the jail, inmates could go online to a legal database and conduct research.

Clay County is likely the only county in the state to offer such a service to its inmates, said Assistant Clay County Attorney Jenny Samarzja.

“I think we’re kind of leading the way here,” said Samarzja, also president of the Clay County Law Library’s Board of Trustees. “A lot of federal prisons have legal research rooms where inmates can go, but I don’t know of any Minnesota counties that do that.”

Funding for the terminal, which costs the county a little more than $700 a month, will come from law library fees that are assessed to defendants when they are convicted.

Samarzja said it has been a priority of the law library board for at least a year to figure out the best way to reinvest some of those dollars for the good of the inmates.

“We found it important to put that resource back in the hands of many people who had paid for it,” she said. “We were kind of always driven by that.”

The terminal is “essentially a rental” from Academy Computer Services, a company in Massachusetts that provides computer terminals for inmate use across the country, Samarzja said.

It costs the county $367 a month to rent the computer from Academy, which also provides a monitoring service to insure that inmates are not using the computer for reasons other than legal research.

There is another $350 monthly cost for access to the online legal database Thomson Reuters’ WestlawNext.

Samarzja said the terminal’s home screen should only contain an icon that connects the user to the law database. Inmates will not have free-range to instant message or use the Internet, she said, and staff will be able to see the computer screen from the jail’s control room.

She said no problems are expected with the terminal’s security or with inmates damaging the computer.

“The inmates, from the beginning, realize that this is something for them,” she said, “and why would they want to ruin something that is for them?”

The WestlawNext database is also available for free public use at the Clay County Law Library, 807 11th St. N., and at Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Livingston Lord Library on the second floor near the reference desk.

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