Jailhouse Lawyers: Frog Gravy 84

Posted: January 26, 2012 in criminal justice system, law, living in poverty, prison

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

KCIW PeWee Valley, 2008-2009

Do not be fooled by the term. ‘Jailhouse lawyers’ are sometimes, in fact, attorneys or paralegals. At the very least, jailhouse lawyers are knowledgeable about criminal law and criminal procedure. Jailhouse lawyers aid in civil matters as well, and they are invaluable assets in the inmate population. In prison, the jailhouse lawyers have probably received some formal training, and their client advocacy and work product often surpasses that of outside lawyers. I remember reading one remark out of the Court of Appeals, where an inmate was arguing incompetence, and the court pointed out that his pleading was more articulate than some of the things they see from real lawyers.

My first goal, on arrival at the prison, was to pursue legal training so that I could help fellow inmates in producing various legal pleadings. I viewed inmate legal assisting in prison as roughly akin to ‘ditch medicine’ from a legal perspective, in that I could envision no better place to get legal experience than in the trenches of prison. Unfortunately, the legal aid training program was eliminated shortly after my arrival.

People who cannot afford to retain counsel, and that is almost everybody, receive court-appointed counsel for the handling of their cases. The public defender lottery is hit and miss. Since public defenders handle many cases, and many egregious cases at that, they do tend to have the best experience. That they handle so many cases, however, can lead to ineffective assistance of counsel.

The right to counsel on appeal ends when the direct appeal has been decided. Then, to pursue the state habeas (in Kentucky this is called a RCr 11.42 Motion to set aside the conviction), which generally amounts to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim, is something that each inmate must do without counsel. Most inmates, many of whom cannot read or write, do not have the faintest idea how to do that. That is where the jailhouse lawyer comes in.

While the appeal is pending, the jailhouse lawyer may function in the capacity of a legal adviser.

Jailhouse lawyers at PeWee helped me file some open records requests. I wanted to know, for example, if the Commonwealth was hiding an exculpatory blood test. I was initially told that the lab in Kentucky sent my blood to a lab in Pennsylvania. This was the same thing as being told that the Commonwealth did hide an exculpatory blood test. Later, the lab frantically retracted the statement, and after that, my open records requests for bench notes, Fedex shipping requests, and for police procedure for handling evidence were summarily denied.

Still, I was grateful for the help and amazed, given the tiny law library that the legal aid department had to work with, at the quality of work that the inmates did do in prison. In the beginning, I mistook the jailhouse lawyers for prison staff. Inmate attorneys in prison maintained honor status and held coveted jobs, as well as the best of dormitory housing.

One inmate lawyer was shy and studious in a way that made me initially think she was condescending. After getting to know her better, I got the impression that she was chronically depressed, and sick with remorse for her crime. She was a teacher, who had taken a young student to Mexico, with plans to marry him. This did not sit well with the boy’s family and so, she received just two years more than I did: ten years. At some point, she appealed to the higher court for sentence leniency, but her appeal was denied. She is free today, after having served 85% of ten years.

The other inmate lawyer who was extremely well-written and articulate was serving time for murder and had been in prison for twelve years when I arrived. While I did not interact directly with her in the legal aid department, I admired her intellect and her strength. In my first job on landscape, she was my boss, and it was several weeks before I realized that she was an inmate. One day, she came before the parole board for parole. The board deferred her for twenty years. Her voiced concern on receipt of this devastating news was for her family.

I was so shocked at hearing of such a lengthy deferment that I asked my friend Christie (from McCracken) about it. Christie told me that here, in prison, I would likely see lengthy sentences, life sentences, and deferments that would amount to life sentences.

In the prison setting, jailhouse lawyers are the last bastion of hope for inmates who seek conviction reversal, and they are the go-to lay experts on ineffective assistance of counsel.

Given that in-house training programs are disappreaing due to lack of funding, where does this leave the indigent, the illiterate, and the mentally ill incarcerated?

The Supreme Court recognizes the importance of jailhouse lawyers:

The term can also refer to a prison inmate who is representing themselves in legal matters relating to their sentence. The important role that jailhouse lawyers play in the criminal justice system has been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has held that jailhouse lawyers must be permitted to assist illiterate inmates in filing petitions for postconviction relief unless the state provides some reasonable alternative.[1]


More on jailhouse lawyers here
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Columbia University Jailhouse Lawyers Manual.

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