The National Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative

L.E.A.H. Founder & President , Jhody Polk, alongside formerly incarcerated Florida Jailhouse Lawyer Richard Midkiff after presenting at F.S.U. Law.

The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative (JLI) is one of the most innovative and bold approaches to interrupting the cycle of incarceration. This initiative meets people within the criminal justice system and provide the skills, tools, and support to empower individuals to not only have access to the court, but an opportunity to learn, use, and impact laws and policies that they are subject to both inside and outside of incarceration. It’s time to reverse the pipeline from community to prison, by empowering those closest to the problem with the legal resources, knowledge, and support to affect change and seek justice both inside and outside of the department of corrections.

The goals of the Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative are:

  • Develop and facilitate law clerk training programs that are sufficient to provide the skills, leadership and tools that law clerks need to meet the legal needs of those incarcerated. 
  • Ensure that paralegal certification and degree programs are accessible and affordable for incarcerated communities.
  • Develop continuing education courses for law clerks.
  • Expand access to justice, courts, and adequate law libraries for incarcerated communities.
  • Develop an advocacy network for formerly incarcerated legal workers to have support and access to legal education and employment after their release.

In Bounds v. Smith, 430 U.S. 817 (1977), the Supreme Court held that “the fundamental constitutional right of access to the courts requires prison authorities to assist inmates in the preparation and filing of meaningful legal papers by providing prisoners with adequate law libraries or adequate assistance from persons trained in the law.” Majority of state and federal prison facilities meet the requirement by providing a law library with incarcerated law clerks trained by the department of corrections. These trainings can be inadequate resulting in Law Clerks learning to read, write, interpret, and prepare legal documents through self study, and trial and error. The law library is the one place on a prison compound that every man or woman will visit, law clerks also provide services to those in the infirmary, closed confinement, youthful offenders, and death row.

Law Clerks are unrecognized pillars within the department of corrections and have a greater opportunity of influencing the criminal justice system than any other legal worker, organizer, or advocate in the U.S. If proximity is key to solution based strategies, law clerks are in the best position to facilitate legal empowerment that could impact communities and people both inside and outside of the prison system. Law clerks pick up where private and public defense attorneys practice ends. They teach and facilitate law in the dark, seeking and pursuing justice for over 2 million Americans who will find themselves incarcerated in state and federal correctional facilities.

JLI is currently partnering with the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and PREP (Prison Reform and Education Program) at NYU to provide law clerk training to incarcerated men and women in NY. Learn more about our partnership.

JLI will be resuming the Law School Tour in 2022, hosting Legal Empowerment Symposiums that introduce students, lawyers, and law professors to Jailhouse Lawyers, Legal Empowerment, and opportunities to start legal empowerment projects in their surrounding prisons and detention centers. Become a member today to be informed of tour dates and make sure to check the LEAH calendar for a symposium near you. If you or your school are interested in partnering with JLI, hosting a symposium, or becoming a part of the advocacy network, contact us today!

Incarcerated Jailhouse Lawyers can become members by writing to:

The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative

ATTN: Bernstein Institute for Human Rights c/o Tyler Walton

139 MacDougal Street

New York, NY 10012