A Jailhouse lawyer refers to a prisoner that, though usually never having practiced law on the outside, through conditions of necessity, learns to advocates for themselves and assist other prisoners in legal matters relating to their sentence, to their conditions in prison, or to civil matters of a legal nature.
Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the most well known of jailhouse lawyers, as he wrote the book, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners V. The U.S.A.
In it, Mumia writes:
“Few people are better situated than jailhouse lawyers to observe the contradictions in society and, on occasion, to bring them forth into public view. For their services, for protecting the constitution from violation, their institutional reward is often a bitter consignment to the depths of the hole. The reason is actually quite simple: unlike other groups in prisons, jailhouse lawyers, in helping to free other prisoners or reduce their sentences, act to challenge how the joint is run. Jailhouse lawyers force prisons to change their formal rules and regulations, especially when they are illogical or downright silly, and for this administrators unleash their disciplinary arsenal with special vehemence”.
What are some specific issues our jailhouse lawyer members work on (as reflected through letters)?
Appealing convictions (habeas corpus)
Ineffective assistance of counsel
Getting vegetarian meals
Sexual/physical assault by guards or other prisoners
Bogus disciplinary charges
Inadequate dental care
Inadequate medical care
Access to law library and lacking materials
Excessive heat or cold
Degenerative physical problems
One common thread is the sense of self-worth and value they receive from helping others inside.