Jailhouse lawyers

Empowering those inside to understand the system that took away their freedom

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

We talked with Jhody Polk last winter about legal empowerment as a pathway to freedom inside and after release.

Quick explainer: n every prison there is a jailhouse lawyer or a law clerk responsible for helping people inside access legal resources. After you are sentenced, there are still a load of legal processes you go through to appeal your conviction or when coming up for parole, BUT you are no longer afforded a public defender – you’re on your own.

When Jhody Polk began reaching out to law clerks inside prisons also known as jailhouse lawyers, she was shocked by the basic resources like dictionaries that they were missing and the basic questions they asked – they were supposed to be the experts. 

“When you think about it, these are law clerks and jailhouse lawyers, and the institutions are responsible for their training, and it is a part of their role to provide certain services to incarcerated individuals, and they were really just asking for knowledge: it was very shocking,” Polk said.  

"No one is educating the individuals on the inside of how these laws are changing"

These post conviction legal processes directly impact the length of time an individual is held in prison. After sentencing, a person’s clock starts counting down to file appeals, mitigation, and habeas corpus. If they do not file on their own for these legal processes, they miss their chance to reduce their sentence. 

The inadequate education and resources given to law clerks inside impacts individuals inside, and keeps more people incarcerated for longer. It also negatively impacts the way inmates and clerks are taken in court. 

“It creates this narrative inside of the court that jailhouse lawyers and law clerks and pro-se litigants are filing frivolous motions and so they don’t take our filings seriously,” Polk said. [cont. below]

Law clerks play a big role in not just helping people with procedure, but also helping people to interpret the law and understand it and act,” Polk said which becomes even more important considering the high illiteracy rates in prisons. 

Through her own journey of incarceration, Polk was able to find closure through learning the law. “I found peace when I was able to, through the law, realize that my eight year sentence in the Florida Department of Corrections was justified based off the crimes that I had committed. And I was guilty.” 

“It gave me this freedom and this peace to do my time in a way that allowed me to be Jhody and not be just a convict and to think about what rehabilitation was to me and what I needed in that,” she said. 

“Through legal identity I was able to see myself,” Polk said.

As a law clerk she also realized her clients were finding the same legal empowerment she had in the legal process. She would make the women she helped write their own legal paperwork even if she had to rewrite it. 

She was able to us her skills that she used for her own legal proceedings to help others understand their own. 

“And that was powerful because the same laws that they used to incarcerate those women were the same laws that we were using as jailhouse lawyers for their freedom.” 

“I approached legal empowerment as a way for women to heal,” Polk said. She hoped that the women continued to use the skills on the outside whether “they found themselves back in the criminal justice system or even the civil [court system] and social justice spaces.”

She thinks that legal empowerment can “interrupt’ the cycle of incarceration. 

“I think that jailhouse lawyers being able to effectively and confidently do legal empowerment in prison could change the lives of those two million people that we see in the criminal justice system,” Polk said. 

“Those jailhouse lawyers can change the culture and empower incarcerated people who then return back into our community legally empowered and prepared to resist. But also take ownership and partnership in community justice,” she said.

“Like that, that gives me freaking hope.” 

Polk has worked in Florida on Amendment 4 to restore felons’ voting rights, is a member of Namati, was a 2018 Soros Justice Fellow, and is the founder and director of the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub (LEAH) which holds her Jailhouse Lawyer’s Initiative. JLI is over a year old and in over 26 states. Read more about her legal empowerment work

We are dedicating this newsletter with love to the memory of Janet van der Laak. May we all be as strong, passionate and dedicated to taking care of the most vulnerable of our communities.

A little over a year ago, I met Janet van der Laak while reporting a story on removing police from 911-calls.

This month Janet died. I am lucky that she let me into her life and journey to care for her son. She left me with that story, but she also left me with the undying memory of her dedication to see every person struggling on the streets as a human worthy of love – the infinite love of a mother. She fought for her son in a system that told her and him he didn’t matter. She took up arms against the inevitable with faith and love and hope. She is the most honorable among us. Her life, her work and her love will never be forgotten. [P.S – Matt is doing well and in the care of his dad, Onne.]

Janet, Matt and Onne her husband.

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Founder of The Des and freelance criminal justice reporter based in Washington, D.C.