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

The Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative (JLI), National Lawyers Guild-Prison Chapter (NLG-PC) submit a Report to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission

In February 2024, our Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative (JLI) collaborated with members of the National Lawyers Guild-Prison Chapter (NLG-PC) in Texas to co-submit a report to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission. The Commission performs reviews of state agencies to assist the Texas legislature in advance of its review of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) for the 2024-25 cycle. The report urges TDCJ to ensure humane prison conditions and reduce the Texas prison population through changes to the parole system. This joint NLG-PC/JLI submission represents an opportunity for directly impacted people, lawyers, and institutions to partner together to reimagine approaches to justice. Read the full report here.

Our Justice Power Team Presented at the 2024 Long Beach Justice Fund Coalition Retreat

A group of people standing outside, surrounded by plants, looking at each other and laughing. Everyone is wearing a coat

In February 2024, Bernstein Institute team members, Gabriela Piñeros Medina and Alejandra Torres, traveled to Los Angeles, California, at the invitation of a US Legal Empowerment partner organization, Órale, to share insights about Justice Power. Gabriela and Alejandra presented at the Long Beach Justice Fund 2024 Coalition Retreat and met with community partners. Read more here

We held the first ever U.S. Legal Empowerment Leadership Course!


A collective of 50 legal empowerment practitioners gathered in Santa Cruz county, California for the inaugural U.S. Legal Empowerment Leadership Course. Together we explored the role of legal empowerment in furthering community-centered justice through foundational learnings on methodologies, global learnings and case studies. Read more about our transformative time together.

We are deeply grateful to our co-organizers at Beyond Legal Aid, the Legal Empowerment Network, and the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative for making this Course possible. This is just the beginning of what is to come. In the coming year, we will host virtual gatherings with our growing community and support participants as they deepen their legal empowerment practice and advocacy. Stay tuned for more. 

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.

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

Sophia Opferman

Hear from Sophia Opferman, our Undergraduate Intern, as she reflects on Legal Interpretation and Effective Counsel

"For justice-impacted people – those who have come into contact with the American criminal legal system – and especially for those who have spent time in prison and or jail, the instability inherent to legal interpretation can have very negative implications on their experiences in court during incarceration and well beyond." Read more here.