- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. (AP) - Vermont prison inmates no longer can reach out to the state law library in Montpelier for help with legal research due to a budget cut, but they will still have other ways to prepare court petitions.

Inmates have received two letters in recent months saying the law library attached to the state Supreme Court no longer will be accessible to them.

A budget cut approved by lawmakers this year meant the layoff of state law librarian Paul Donovan, who had a reputation in Vermont and around the country as a go-to person for inmates with legal research questions.

A July 1 letter from Donovan explaining the change was posted on a wall outside a cell at the Southern State Correctional Facility during a legislative committee’s tour last week.

“The Department of Libraries will no longer accept letters from inmates with requests for information, photocopies or other services related to law, legal resources, court cases or Vermont statutes,” Donovan wrote.

“Please be advised that we will neither respond to, nor return letters from inmates requesting legal information from the Vermont State Library,” the letter said.

State Librarian Martha Reid followed up with a similar letter this month.

But Carol Callea, legal education director with the Corrections Department, said Vermont’s prisons meet the legal requirement that they provide legal research materials to inmates in the prisons. One tool at their disposal is the Westlaw online legal research service.

Inmates have a constitutional right to access to the courts and are provided materials they need to file claims that their convictions were improper or complaints about “conditions of confinement” like insufficient heat in cells, Callea said.

Donovan provided a broader range services, helping inmates who were doing everything from researching criminal cases to drafting wills, she added.

The library at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton is gearing up to provide some of the services that had been offered in Montpelier.

But Cynthia Lewis, director of the law school’s library, said the school is waiting for a state grant to come through to fund a half-time person to assist inmates with research.

The state Department of Libraries had to absorb a cut of about $470,000 - or 18 percent of its budget, Reid said.

“We had to lay off our law librarian, and that pretty much ended law library services at the state library,” Reid said.

She said lawmakers had approved a $67,000 grant to the private law school after the school agreed to try to fill the void.

Lewis said Donovan, who has since moved to a job in the workers’ compensation division at the Department of Labor, had been an extraordinary advocate for law library patrons, including inmates, and that his shoes would be very difficult to fill.

“Paul was about the most wonderful person you would ever want to know … It would take 10 of us down here to replace him,” she said.

Donovan said in an interview Monday that he would typically get between two and six inquiries a week from inmates, and that some would require extensive research.

He said he’s uncertain about the service they’ll receive in the future.

“The librarians down there (at the law school) are crackerjack,” he said. “But they’re totally overworked. They I’m sure don’t have the time I used to spend on it.”

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