Introduction: Jailhouse Lawyering

Jailhouse lawyering has a long and radical tradition in the American prison system, and for decades, it has been recognized and protected by the U.S. Supreme Court.  In Johnson v. Avery,[1] the Court struck down Tennessee’s restrictions on jailhouse lawyering because “it is fundamental that access of prisoners to the courts for the purpose of presenting their complaints may not be denied or obstructed.”[2]  Many incarcerated persons have only seen their constitutional rights realized through jailhouse lawyering.[3]

Yet, bar associations and the legal academy often—if not always—exclude jailhouse lawyers when discussing who is a lawyer and what it means to be one.  They are excluded because of their lack of formal education, but as Mumia Abu-Jamal describes, they do receive an education:

It is law learned in the bowels of the slave ship, in the hidden, dank dungeons of America—the Prisonhouse of Nations.

It is law learned in a stew of bitterness, under the constant threat of violence, in places where millions of people live, but millions of others wish to ignore or forget.[4]

Jailhouse lawyers have some of the most intimate and deepest understandings of the law.  They are both experts in their practice areas and informed by their lived experiences.  They practice with compassion and an urgency that most lawyers will not—and could not—ever understand.  As Abu-Jamal wrote, they have “a different perspective, written from the bottom.”[5]  It is past time that the legal field and its gatekeepers recognize current and former jailhouse lawyers for what they are: lawyers.

In this series, authors with experience as jailhouse lawyers and journalists behind bars write about the legal issues and systems affecting incarcerated persons today.  They share stories shaped by litigation and legal research.  They make arguments rooted in both their lived experiences and an extensive knowledge of the law.  Each of these authors—and countless others—is a testament to the power and tradition of jailhouse lawyering.  We are proud to feature their work here and look forward to the day when they are acknowledged and respected for their immeasurable contributions to the field.

[1] 383 U.S. 483 (1969).

[2] Id. at 485.

[3] See id. at 488 (noting that, without the assistance of jailhouse lawyers, "all except those who are able to help themselves . . . [are], in effect, denied access to the courts").

[4] Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA 31 (2009).

[5] Id.