Jailhouse lawyer is a colloquial term in North American English to refer to an inmate in a jail or other prison who, though usually never having practiced law nor having any formal legal training, informally assists other inmates in legal matters relating to their sentence (e.g. appeal of their sentence, pardons, stays of execution, etc.) or to their conditions in prison. Sometimes, he or she also assists other inmates in civil matters of a legal nature.
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.
Many states in the U.S. have Jailhouse Lawyer Statutes, some of which exempt inmates acting as jailhouse lawyers from the licensing requirements imposed on other attorneys when they are helping indigent inmates with legal matters.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild wrote The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook in 2003 for inmates needing rudimentary information on jailhouse lawyering. Columbia Law School publishes The Jailhouse Lawyers Manual biannually, intended to help prisoners and jailhouse lawyers appeal their sentence, protest their conditions of imprisonment, etc. The eighth edition was published in the spring of 2009 and is freely downloadable.
Notable jailhouse lawyers
- Angola Three
- B. Kwaku Duren
- William Heirens
- Shon Hopwood
- Howard Marks
- Burt Pugach, as recounted in the 2007 film Crazy Love
- Jerry Rosenberg
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- CCR/NLG Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook with free download from CCR/NLG
- Jail House Lawyer
- Jailhouse Lawyers Manual, free download
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