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 ability that inmates have to help other illiterate inmates file petition for post conviction relief was first recognized in Johnson v. Avery. This same case also determined that unless states provide reasonable alternative they must allow such action by 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 post-conviction 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.However, this is a service that can be taken away or restricted and states may lay down restrictions on jailhouse lawyers especially if they find that inmates are not only be abused by jailhouse lawyers but committing abuse themselves. Such restrictions that can be placed are limitations on the time and place which such business can be conducted but none of these restrictions can simply be placed without reason or simply arbitrarily. The most common reason that restrictions are often added is that prisoners often start to provide more formal legal advice. Unless you have taken a bar exam in the state you reside and passed said exam you are not allowed to provide legal counsel. They also found in Shaw v. Murphy that inmates do not hold a first amendment right to provide formal legal counsel to other inmates.
The Center for Constitutional Rights and National Lawyers Guild wrote The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook in 2003 for inmates needing rudimentary information on jailhouse lawyering. The Columbia Human Rights Law Review of Columbia Law School publishes A Jailhouse Lawyer's Manual ("the JLM"), intended to help prisoners and jailhouse lawyers appeal their sentence, protest their conditions of imprisonment, etc. The eighth edition was published in 2009. The ninth edition was published in 2011 and is freely downloadable. The tenth edition was published in 2014 and is the most up-to-date version.
Notable jailhouse lawyers
- Mumia Abu-Jamal
- B. Kwaku Duren
- William Heirens
- Shon Hopwood
- Brett Kimberlin
- Howard Marks
- Burt Pugach, as recounted in the 2007 film Crazy Love
- Jerry Rosenberg
- Arthur William Taylor
- Angola Three
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