Read inspiring pieces by our community as they reflect on the power and promise of legal empowerment as a tool to advance justice from the grassroots.
A Reflection on the Promise of Jailhouse Lawyering and the Power of Taking Accountability
by Darren W. Breeden, 05/17/2023
Like many jailhouse lawyers I began my relationship with the law out of necessity. Despite personal misgivings about the judicial system, I worked hard to understand and eventually came to appreciate the complexities of the law. The law changed not only my world view, but also my perspective on many issues of the day. The more I learned, the more obligated I felt to assist those who had been rejected and often left dejected by the judicial system. As you continue jailhouse lawyering on the inside, I will continue to fight for your legitimacy in the legal profession on the outside. Jailhouse lawyers truly have much to offer to communities inside and outside of prison walls.
Furthermore, I believe as jailhouse lawyers we have an additional burden to bear. We carry the burden of speaking truth to those we aid or come into acquaintance. The truth, as I see it, is wrapped in accountability. We must begin initiating conversations around accountability, and this doesn’t mean asking people to give up their diligent fight for freedom. Rather, coming to terms with the internal work that has to be done before returning to society. Facing the damage we may have caused to ourselves, children, spouses, family, victims, and community. It is the internal healing that has to happen, and if you cannot change for yourself find someone you can change for as long it comes with us taking accountability.
Early in my bid I was foolishly making excuses for my past and present behavior. In my mind everyone else wronged me–so why should I change? My naive mind couldn’t grasp the concept of accountability.
As fate would have it, I found myself in the Special Housing Unit. My wife always visited no matter where I was located. This day she visited me SHU, looked at me through a steel mesh gate attached to the visiting table, then said “you are not with your family, but we are still here for you. Now I am about to give birth to your son, and you cannot even call to make sure he and I made it through the delivery.” Her face was so painful, so filled with hurt, and all I could do was hold her hand until the guard told me to pull my hands back. She rightfully crushed my spirit with the truth. She was raising a daughter, involved with her step-daughter, and now having a son with someone who blamed the world for his situation. I lied to myself for so long that taking accountability was difficult in the beginning, but today I am a better man for it. My spirit is healed.
So when doing the work of jailhouse lawyering, be cognizant of our brothers and sisters' pain and try to let them know it's okay to accept accountability (excluding the actual innocent) not only for crimes but the pain we caused ourselves and others. We must return better than when we went in. People are fighting globally for their incarcerated brothers and sisters. The battle is extremely difficult, and we lose so much ground when the other side has a newspaper article to point to.
In my humble opinion taking accountability begins the healing process and if we can heal we can see a better future for ourselves, families, and communities. WE ARE BETTER THAN OUR WORST MOMENTS!
Presenting on Legal Empowerment at the Innocence Network Conference: Inspiration and Affirmation
by Michelle Dahl, 04/02/2023
Attending the national Innocence Network conference was a transformative experience. It was incredible to see such a huge group of formerly incarcerated individuals committed to creating momentum for change and supporting each other so fully. There was a consistent message of community support, courage to reach out and ask for help, the importance of leaning on each other, and caring for one’s mental health.
Going into the conference, I was a little unsure of how I felt about a strong focus on innocence work in the context of an abolition framework. Does anyone truly “deserve” the experience of incarceration less than another? The work is nonetheless incredibly important: it works within the system to get folks out when possible as others work to change the system more widely, and that is vital work in the meantime. It also helps raise the public profile of the issues of mass incarceration and the massive inequalities and injustices within the criminal legal system. Innocence cases capture the public imagination in a way that is hard to do, and while it may take work to get to an abolitionist approach from that mindset, it at least starts a conversation about the system.
The conference had over 1,000 attendees, with hundreds of exonerees and freed people in attendance. On Friday night, they introduced every single one of them with a photo, their name, and the number of years they were incarcerated, having each person stand up and be recognized by the entire group. That process of seeing and recognizing individuals and their humanity helped make the numbers of years in prison more concrete — the scale of life lost to incarceration became a living, breathing entity rather than an impersonal number. Most attendees were in prison around 20 years, with a few having spent over 50 years incarcerated. Every exoneree or freed person I met had a positive attitude of perseverance and passion for change, and not an ounce of hatred or resentment apparent. They were fueled to change the system and support others, not stuck in a revenge mindset. Their passion was inspiring.
Family and community members were also in attendance and showing equal amounts of support. One group from Chicago had formed after their loved ones were incarcerated together. They found that a detective’s misconduct was linked to over 40 incarcerated people and used media, participatory defense, and other advocacy to secure exonerations for all their loved ones. Such stories of community resistance and resilience were common and helped reiterate the importance of legal empowerment as a model to combat mass incarceration and other oppressive systems.
Innocence organizations’ staff and even members of prosecutors’ offices in conviction integrity units also participated in the conference. It was amazing to see the very personal relationships they maintained with the exonerees and freed people they had worked with and get a glimpse of the commitment they bring to their work.
Jailhouse lawyers (JHLs) were not a huge part of the conversation, so I’m glad we were able to raise the topic in our presentation. Calvin Duncan spoke at the opening plenary and gave a shout-out to JHLs for their provision of hope in the bleakest of contexts. He also shared his story of getting cert for the Supreme Court to hear a case on his 23rd attempt; they ended up overturning the practice of non-unanimous juries. This was all work done on the inside as a JHL, and it had nothing to do with his personal case — he simply was committed to working on behalf of his peers with that much persistence. He also attended our presentation and contributed to the conversation there, emphasizing the need for JHL support and to recognize them as valuable assets in innocence work.
Our presentation itself was exciting to take part in. Attendees included innocence organization staff, students, exonerees, and family members of impacted individuals. Our presentation first overviewed the idea of legal empowerment and the work that the Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative does in that framework. We then facilitated an exercise in power mapping to help attendees think about who is involved in their work in a broader way, later discussing how jailhouse lawyers and other impacted people could be more fully centered in their work. Shabaka shared his story to help convey the importance of JHLs in innocence work and how centering the impacted individual and their preferred strategies — media engagement, advocacy, etc. — can better further the work. Lastly, we overviewed the Innocence Claims curriculum module as an example of legal empowerment, highlighting how the creation process itself embodied a legal empowerment approach and how it will serve as a tool to empower others on the inside to know, use, and shape the law themselves. We provided copies to several attendees who were eager to see it and use it in their work, and invited feedback. We had a couple dozen attendees who all seemed to engage fully. I wasn’t sure people would buy in to the interactive exercise we had planned, but every person seemed to take it seriously. It also was exciting to hear questions that indicated the presentation was being fully internalized and attendees were connecting it with their own work; some of the innocence staff said they wanted to include JHLs in their work more, but weren’t sure how to do so, and asked to use JLI to help facilitate that effort.
Being immersed in content from other workshops around innocence claims was not only educational, but also validating. Much of what was discussed was covered in the innocence module, from information about intake at innocence organizations to the availability of conviction integrity units to the scope of potential case deficiencies. It was affirming to see that our legal empowerment approach of starting with the knowledge of impacted individuals through our interviews helped uncover almost all of the scope of what should be included for the curriculum.
Attending the conference helped contextualize the importance of my clinic work in an extremely real and moving way and rounded out my time with JLI on a very hopeful and inspired note. I am very grateful I was able to attend and participate and help share the legal empowerment framework more widely.
Critical Legal Empowerment Symposium Student Reflections
In February 2022, the Bernstein Institute in collaboration with the NYU Law Review convened Critical Legal Empowerment: Strategies for Community Constructed Justice. Four student fellows were selected to collaborate in the design and implementation of the Symposium, joining a team of activists, lawyers, and community leaders that created an event that interrogated critical legal empowerment methods and explored what’s needed to create an American legal ecosystem that is truly just. Each fellow was paired with community justice advocates in a series of Community Action Workshops addressing criminal, civil, environmental and immigration injustices. Through research, facilitation, and documentation the fellows were key to the success of the Workshops. We are excited to publish the Symposium Reflections Series featuring pieces written by the fellows sharing the transformative space that was created in each workshop.
Legal Empowerment during COVID-19 – From Justice Power to #FreeThemAll
by Tyler Walton, 05/20/2020
COVID-19 has caused extreme suffering and disruption around the world, with marginalized communities bearing the brunt of the pandemic. In the United States, thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers are locked in crowded detention centers unable to physically distance or follow sanitation guidelines. As of May 12th, there have been 869 confirmed cases of COVID-19 for people who are in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention, and only 5% of those detained have been tested. The first death of an ICE detainee from COVID-19 was recorded on May 6. Beyond detention, many immigrants are essential workers without sufficient health and labor protections and are being excluded from federal COVID-19 relief packages – conditions which place their lives and the lives of their families at risk.
And yet in the midst of this devastating human rights challenge, grassroots organizations continue to innovate and meet the needs of immigrant communities. Essential to this work is legal empowerment, a rights-based methodology that centers people in their own fight for justice and creates opportunities for people to know, use, and shape the laws that impact their lives.
Recently we launched Justice Power, a project that highlights legal empowerment strategies that immigrant rights organizations use to advance justice and build power. Since COVID-19, we’ve seen how these strategies stay steady amidst rising uncertainty and strife -- community-driven campaigns to #FreeThemAll, pro se tools and resources for the thousands of immigrants who navigate the system without a lawyer, and the use of technology to build flexible legal clinics and trainings to meet people where they are. It’s time for the broader legal community to learn from those working on the frontlines and create space for directly impacted people to lead.
We Need to #FreeThemAll
A coalition of organizations that work on criminal justice reform and immigrants’ rights have used the hashtag #FreeThemAll to demand the release of incarcerated people living in inhumane conditions in American detention centers. Justice Power organizations like New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC), Grassroots Leadership, Innovation Law Lab and Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) are leading the charge to release people from the deadly conditions of immigration detention through community-driven campaigns.
Immigrants and their communities have been decrying the use of detention as a way to deter migration for years, but the heightened stakes of the pandemic provide advocates with a new touch point in the collective social conscience. With increased media and policy attention on COVID-19, activists are using this platform to highlight the daily injustices that immigrants have faced for years – overcrowded facilities and poor access to health care – as grounds for release of all from detention. #FreeThemAll is a community-driven campaign that relies first on the moral premise that all immigrant detention is unjust – a proposition backed up by human rights law during the current crisis. Grassroots Leadership is using the pandemic to amplify its call for the release of those in detention at the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas. This effort is part of a longstanding campaign to permanently close the Hutto detention center. OCAD assisted one of its members, Francisco Silva to obtain his release from ICE detention due to the pandemic, and continues to call for the prosecutor to administratively close Francisco’s case. Innovation Law Lab organized with communities in El Paso to demand the release of detainees at the El Paso Service Processing Center after people started testing positive for COVID-19 on April 16th. These efforts by communities and organizations have led to the release of some immigrants, but there are so many more in detention. We must #FreeThemAll.
Tech Innovation to Bridge Physical Distance
New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) runs a weekly pro se legal clinic that supports immigrants as they fight for the right to stay in the United States. NSC refers to those seeking immigration services as “Friends,” not “clients.” Clinic brings hundreds of Friends and volunteers together to discuss cases and share resources and materials. With physical distancing, in-person clinic nights became impossible. Realizing that their Friends still needed support, NSC moved all of their pro se legal support to remote operations. NSC also quickly transitioned their weekly in-person Community Meetings to an online space to ensure that Friends still had ways to connect with each other and build Friend-to-Friend solidarity. Using technology as a way to bridge distance, NSC continues to provide Friends with the tools necessary to fight for their right to remain.
Before COVID-19, Organized Communities Against Deportation (OCAD) was running bi-monthly in-person Asambleas. Asambleas provide a space for those affected by deportation to discuss the injustices present in the immigration and criminal justice system and organize for change. Because the need for this work has not changed, OCAD shifted the Asambleas to a digital platform. This transition comes with a learning curve, but community engagement remains OCAD’s number one priority throughout this time.
Supporting Immigrants to Fight their Cases Pro Se
63 percent of immigrants facing removal proceedings are pro se; this statistic rises to 86 percent for detained immigrants. The reality in America is that most immigrants fight for their rights without access to legal counsel or support. What’s needed are resources and opportunities that help immigrants and their families to navigate the system and fight for their right to remain.
An example of this are legal toolkits developed by Innovation Law Lab, in partnership with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Freedom For Immigrants. These toolkits prepare pro se humanitarian parole requests in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and are for immigrants in detention as well as their friends and families on the outside. The toolkits describe in layman’s terms the arguments central to a parole request and offers examples of forms and letters that could be included in a pro se application for parole. Materials like this bring the law closer to people, and enable them to better know and use the law to protect their own rights and live with dignity.
Designing community-centered justice programs and resources that are accessible and legally sound is no easy task; Justice Power organizations should be commended for their resilience and innovation. It’s time for the legal community to reimagine its role and open up space for grassroots organizations and directly impacted individuals to lead their own calls for justice. The fight to save lives during COVID-19 and beyond requires nothing less.