Reflections of a Jailhouse Lawyer

January 4, 2013
San Quentin Inmates. Photo credit: Marin County.

San Quentin Inmates. Photo credit: Marin County

I cannot stop thinking about a man who recently asked for my help. He had been in prison for more than twenty-five years and had just been denied parole by the board, which meant he’d be there for at least seven more. He begged me to help him argue that he was no longer a danger to public safety. He told me that the board was relying on a rules violation he committed several years back to show he was still a danger to public safety. He dug into my heart with the words, “I didn’t do the murder.” I believe him. The look of desperation in his eyes said it all to me. He told me that his wife was giving up.

When an incarcerated man or woman believes there’s something wrong with how they’ve been treated by the Criminal Justice System (“CJS”) or Prison Industrial Complex (“PIC”), they go to the only place they understand the issue can be corrected, the courts.

The courts have ruled that prison officials cannot prevent prisoners from helping one another in the preparation of papers to be filed in court. (Outside of prison, it is illegal for someone to give legal advice without being a member of a state or federal bar.) My dealings with the law in prison include filing briefs in state and federal courts at all levels, alleging every type of claim imaginable, even though the only formal education I have in law comes from graduating as a certified paralegal/legal secretary from Century Schools, San Diego in 1991.

I’ve discovered that the judicial system is structurally deficient for the least of citizens who need the most help–the person who has been sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The U.S. criminal justice system has no qualm about circumventing truth as a collateral consequence of its structure. This disregard for truth coupled with mass incarceration has resulted in tens of thousands of uneducated laypersons trying to navigate a system tethered by a unfamiliar language and custom, even to the “so-called experts” who regularly practice in it. Their perplexity has bred an atmosphere of frustration by judges, who must filter through massive amounts of petitions, complaints, and writs to figure out what is the what. Deciphering fact from fiction has led officers of the court to devalue and misinterpret these uneducated peoples’ complaints. Intricate rules thwart prisoners’ ability to file habeas corpus petitions and complaints about improper or inhumane treatment.

It is incredibly sad to witness people who have a valid claim thrown out of court for some technical reason, like filing too late, or because they failed to properly “state their claim,” or they discovered a new claim after filing their original writ, and the court doesn’t want to consider a second one. These technicalities do not consider the fact that the person might be innocent or have been seriously injured by the prison industrial complex. I’ve encountered people under each of these circumstances. Is this the collateral damage built within the CJS that we’re willing to live with?  Enfranchised citizens must ultimately answer this question.

Of course there are convicts who I won’t assist for ethical reasons. What am I supposed to do when I read a complaint and on its face, it’s frivolous? People come to me by the dozens. Yet, on the other side of the coin are the people I believe are innocent.

I did not take that man’s case. Being a jailhouse lawyer demands a hundred percent commitment to a case. I could not do it because of how working in that painful arena tears me down emotionally. The toll of being rejected ninety-nine percent of the time regardless of truth, regardless of fairness, regardless of reality, slowed me from wanting to step into that quagmire of papers, courts, and legal reasoning.

And yet, now men are asking me to decipher the legal position of a new law that applies where, as an example, a prisoner with a rape or murder in his past has been incarcerated for a petty third strike under the old Three Strikes law. Under the new law, that person in prison cannot ask a judge to re-sentence him even though if someone on the streets commits a petty crime with a murder or rape in his past, he cannot be subjected to Three Strikes. The men are asking me to present an argument for due process/equal protection. I will argue that all petty third strike offenders should be treated the same under newly enacted law.

So I continue, once again tugging the long rope of the law, weary but hoping to bring justice to the under-classed and out-gunned prisoners who are entitled to it.

Juan Haines is an inmate at San Quentin State Prison. He is editor of the San Quentin News and a jailhouse attorney.