Jailhouse lawyers

In June I toured the Wyoming Frontier Prison, which operated as the state penitentiary from 1901 to 1981. The tour guide mentioned that at one point, the prison housed the most complete law library in the state. I don’t know if this bit of trivia is accurate, but it does raise an interesting topic: jailhouse lawyers.

The problem is this: Inmates have only limited access to legal assistance. Yes, they’re entitled to an attorney for their case but not for all appeals and not for other legal cases such as habeas corpus and civil lawsuits. Of course, they probably don’t have money to hire counsel for those cases. And while they can represent themselves, a large proportion of inmates are functionally illiterate, poorly educated, or have limited English skills, so they can’t realistically research and write about their legal issues.

As a result, jailhouse lawyers exist. These are inmates who are willing to provide legal help to other inmates. Almost none of them have law degrees, so they are largely self-taught. The courts have held that unless prisons provide reasonable alternatives, they must allow assistance from jailhouse lawyers. Furthermore, the prisons must allow adequate law libraries.

I think jailhouse lawyers could make a wonderful addition to a book. Maybe your hardened con redeems himself by struggling against all odds to prove someone else’s innocence or to improve prison conditions. If you’re considering this plot idea, this handbook might help.