Prison Lawyers and Accessing the Legal System

For those not familiar with the concept, a prison lawyer is a prisoner who helps other prisoners with appeals and other legal matters, relying on self-taught skills. Why would prisoners need the assistance of a fellow prisoner instead of a fully qualified attorney with years of experience and valuable legal skills? Simple: They can’t afford that, no matter how much they might want to be able to. Legal services are expensive and lawyers bill by the hour.

As I’ve harped upon repeatedly here, in the criminal justice system, people must be provided with an attorney if they cannot afford one, but when it comes to civil law, people are on their own. Appeals are a civil matter; people are taking their cases to court to challenge methodology or some other aspect of the case with the goal of having it thrown out. Lawsuits against prisons for maintaining dangerous or unhealthy conditions, for abusing prisoners, for permitting prison rapes and other abuses to occur, these are also civil matters. Prisoners who want to file these kinds of suits do not have lawyers appointed for them.

Sometimes, human rights organisations, legal aid groups, and organisations like the American Civil Liberties Union will step in and offer assistance. This is especially common with notable cases that might set a precedent and high profile cases. These organisations don’t represent everyone in civil matters because they can’t. The sheer volume of prisoners who need access to the civil courts is too high for them to handle, even if they very much would like to do so. They pick and choose cases with the goal of having the most impact; if a single civil suit, for example, will result in a state-wide policy change, it’s worth it. If it will improve conditions for only one prisoner, it’s not, from the perspective of an organisation trying to do the most good for the most people.

Prisons maintain legal libraries with references prisoners can use to prepare cases. When it comes to complex cases where the prisoner is already at a disadvantage because of where the legal documents are being filed from, poring through the law library might not be enough. Enter the prison lawyer, the person who has filed similar legal papers, the person who is familiar with the appeals process, the person who is willing to help share knowledge, to copy documents for another prisoner to use, to try and benefit other people in the prison environment by sharing skillsets.

The legal community is not uniformly delighted with the existence of prison lawyers. People practicing law without a license or training are generally frowned upon in the outside world, and some authorities express unease about prison lawyers. They may advise their fellow prisoners poorly, could fail to fully understand a case, and may not be the most suitable advocates for their clients. They may also be the only available advocates. Recognising this, no less an authority than the Supreme Court has protected prison lawyers, arguing that they play an important role, especially in the case of illiterate inmates who cannot file their own legal paperwork and may not be able to afford a lawyer.

There’s even a guide for people offering lay legal services. Essentially, the prison lawyer enjoys a temporary suspension of the usual laws when it comes to who can practice law in the United States. This suspension is the result of necessity; without prison lawyers, many people would not have access to civil relief. In theory, people are supposed to be guaranteed civil relief, so this creates an intolerable legal conflict (setting aside the ethical issues). Allowing prison lawyers to assist inmates is one way of dealing with this problem, though perhaps not the best way; one might want to examine why so many prisoners need access to the civil courts and work on eliminating the need for civil cases by improving conditions for prisoners and protecting their civil rights more proactively.

The need for prison lawyers isn’t just about appeals. It’s also about the need to file suits to improve prison conditions and protect prisoner safety. The large numbers of civil suits illustrate the need to set and implement better policies for keeping prisons safe, affirming prisoner rights, and addressing common prisoner grievances before they escalate to court. People should not have to sue to be able to eat, to sleep on a bed, to be in an environment where they are less likely to experience rape and physical assault. Prisoners are not suing for luxuries or making unreasonable demands. They mostly just want what the rest of us want; a basic standard of living. A standard that the government is supposed to be providing, but must be prompted to give because of social attitudes about prisons and prisoners.

Some people think that prisoners shouldn’t be allowed to file any civil suits, that prisoner grievances are unreasonable and people in prison should just suffer there, ‘paying for their crimes.’ The indignities our government subjects prisoners to in our name are inhumane and brutal, but some people don’t seem to have a problem with this and in fact actively celebrate it. They think it’s a good thing. They think that conditions should be made even more unsafe, even more dangerous, to satisfy the lust for vengeance and punishment. As long as people like that keep running the government and the prison system, we will continue to need prison lawyers.