Tag Archive: Beth Schwartzapfel

What It Takes To Be a Jailhouse Lawyer


‘For $12 of Commissary, He Got 10 Years Off His Sentence.’


From The Marshall Project / By Beth Schwartzapfel

In 1980, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals vacated Jerry Hartfield’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial. But the trial never happened. Twenty-six years later, Hartfield crafted a handwritten petition arguing, essentially, he was serving time for a crime he was no longer convicted of. The person who helped him craft the petition? His cellmate, a jailhouse lawyer. It took almost ten years, but it worked: Hartfield’s new trial started this week.

“Jailhouse lawyer” is an informal term for a prisoner who helps other inmates with legal filings. And in most places, the help is just that: informal. Though the term is occasionally used synonymously with “hack” (“a lawyer who throws out any and all arguments, even blatantly wrong ones,” according to Urban Dictionary), jailhouse lawyers have been at the heart of several key legal victories: the right to an attorney, the right to be protected from abuse by other prisoners and by guards, and the right to free exercise of religion. In his book Jailhouse Lawyers, Mumia Abu-Jamal, perhaps America’s most well-known jailhouse lawyer, described the practice as “law written with stubs of pencils…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.” (more…)