Human Rights Research, Advocacy, and Education

The Bernstein Institute for Human Rights is a center at NYU Law committed to challenging legal systems that exclude, marginalize, and oppress. We support and train community justice advocates, law students, and lawyers on legal empowerment methods as a way to actively challenge inequities here in the U.S. and around the world. We believe that the practice of law can and should be rooted in dignity and care. 

The work of the Institute is supported by Professor Margaret Satterthwaite ‘99 as Faculty Director and Sukti Dhital as Executive Director.

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Institute Updates

JLI Logo with flying bird

NYU Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights Awarded $811,000 Grant to Advance Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative

Major award by the Mellon Foundation will support the development of a first of its kind digital archive to illuminate the role hundreds of jailhouse lawyers play in advancing justice in and out of prison across the U.S.

New York, NY - February 15, 2023: Today, the Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative (JLI), a project of the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law, announced $811,000 in grant support for Flashlights, a first of its kind digital archive to grow recognition for the profound impact incarcerated advocates play in advancing justice for themselves and their peers inside and outside of prison. Flashlights is supported by a generous award from the Mellon Foundation’s newly announced Imagining Freedom Initiative.

This grant will support JLI to work in partnership with Zealous, an organization harnessing the power of storytelling for social justice, to create a digital archive of letters, poems, and artwork written and created by jailhouse lawyers. These artifacts showcase the extraordinary knowledge, humanity and resilience of these incarcerated advocates, while also illuminating the extreme violence they endure for engaging in legal work.

For millions of people in the US, the law is often out of reach, impenetrable, or a threat. This is especially true in prisons, where over 2 million people are ensnared in America’s mass incarceration system without meaningful access to legal support, resources, or community. As a result of this injustice, incarcerated individuals experience prolonged detention, a lack of awareness about their rights, and remain isolated from their peers, families, and outside organizations. Upon release, these inequities feed into cycles of incarceration, poverty, and economic immobility.

Jailhouse lawyers are incarcerated individuals who teach themselves the law to fight injustice and build community for themselves and their incarcerated peers from within and across prison walls. The JLI was founded by former jailhouse lawyer Jhody Polk who has built a national network of over 500 current and former incarcerated advocates in 48 states and Puerto Rico. Together this movement is working to ensure everyone in prison can understand, use, and shape the laws that impact their lives.

“From engaging in legal advocacy to shaping policy or building community within prisons—our members are gaining the agency and skills to challenge their convictions, defend their parental rights and other critical protections, and demand improved conditions from within prison walls. For those returning home from incarceration, the knowledge and agency fostered by JLI empowers our members to seek dignified employment, educational and social opportunities for themselves and their communities. We see this as a critical factor to breaking the cycle of mass incarceration and building safer, more just communities, inside and out of prison”, said Jhody Polk.

Core to the mission of the Bernstein Institute at NYU School of Law is to raise the visibility of jailhouse lawyers as essential members of the legal ecosystem, and detail the ways they fight for justice, despite extraordinary challenges and restrictions.

“For too long, the loudest voices against mass incarceration have come from outside prison walls. With the generous support of the Mellon Foundation, Flashlights calls on the public to shift their gaze and listen directly to those living through and fighting against injustice on the inside. Told through a powerful collection of letters, poems and art, this project will prompt a dialogue across distances, where we witness jailhouse lawyers sculpting community with each other, and sharing their struggles, demands, and vision for collective recovery with the outside world,” said Sukti Dhital, Executive Director of the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law.

The grant will also support the expansion of JLI’s national membership and provide resources to convene feminist circles in and out of prison to illuminate the experiences of women-identifying jailhouse lawyers.

APPLY: U.S. Legal Empowerment Leadership Course

US LELC Oct 22-27, Mount Madonna Center


This October, we are organizing the first ever US Legal Empowerment Leadership Course!

Building off learnings from a powerful global movement, we will bring together 45-50 community organizers, activists, lawyers, researchers, and students in the US to gain a foundational understanding of legal empowerment, learn and build community with one another, and explore actions relevant to our justice struggles.

Applications are NOW OPEN

Bernstein Institute's Faculty Director Meg Satterthwaite appointed UN Special Rapporteur

Meg Satterthwaite appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers

We are thrilled to share that the United Nations Human Rights Council named our Faculty Director, Meg Satterthwaite, as the new Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.

Special rapporteurs are independent human rights experts enlisted by the UN to provide reports and advice on specific areas of human rights. In particular, Meg will explore the role of community justice advocates in building healthy, durable and inclusive legal ecosystems and identify best practices to engage trained non-lawyer advocates across the globe. This is a pivotal moment for the legal empowerment and human rights community and we are eager to share ways to engage with the mandate in the months to come.

“A system that encourages legal empowerment—active engagement of those who have too often been excluded–is made stronger and more resilient to the ongoing threats of democratic backsliding and disaffection with the judicial system. To ensure equal justice for all, legal systems must be independent, transparent, and accessible to everyday people.”   

-Professor Meg Satterthwaite

Lab Stories: JLI

The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative (JLI), founded by former jailhouse lawyer Jhody Polk, invests in jailhouse lawyers as a core strategy in ending the cycle of incarceration. The JLI fuses legal education, movement building, participatory research, and advocacy to bring visibility to jailhouse lawyers and ensure they have the resources to know, use, and shape law.

Lab Stories: Barefoot Law

We are excited to share this video featuring one of our partners in the Lab - Tim Kakuru and Barefoot Law in Uganda. Barefoot Law transforms communities and helps build power among the most underserved people in Uganda by using legal empowerment as a tool to expand access to justice.

Community Resource Spotlight

workbook cover

This workbook we offer to you has been collectively constructed by everyone participating in the first cohort of the Lab. It is an invitation that both introduces a wide lens on participatory action research and legal empowerment but also invites deep, intimate personal reflection.

Student Spotlight

Maria Alejandra Torres

Hear from María Alejandra Torres García, our 2022 Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow, as she reflects on her work at the Global Justice Clinic.

"As a Fellow, I know that problem-solving requires a holistic, interdisciplinary, intersectional, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist framework." Read more here.