The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative (JLI) aims to re-conceptualize the role of jailhouse lawyers as agents of empowerment. JLI is a national project of the Legal Empowerment Advocacy Hub and is supported by the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights. JLI advocates for the legal empowerment of current and former jailhouse lawyers and law clerks - a process central to ending the cycle of incarceration and enabling communities to obtain freedom from the inside out.
Legal empowerment means that individuals and communities are able to know, use and shape the laws that affect their lives. One model of legal empowerment that has spread around the globe is that of community paralegals. Community paralegals are trained in basic laws and skills and partner with their fellow community members to solve legal problems together. At their best, community paralegals create a bridge between the law and real life. JLI views jailhouse lawyers and law clerks as community paralegals for incarcerated populations across the United States.
Nearly every person who goes to a jail or a prison comes into contact with a jailhouse lawyer or law clerk. Law clerks are some of the few people who have access to people who are in solitary confinement, on death row, or in the infirmary. By targeting jailhouse lawyers and law clerks, the JLI is able to reach a large portion of the incarcerated population.
JLI targets outcomes in both the carceral and postcarceral settings. We advocate for jailhouse lawyers to have access to everything they need to be effective advocates for themselves and other incarcerated people. This includes advocacy to ensure jailhouse lawyers have all the legal materials they need to adequately research legal questions as well as programs aimed at ensuring they have the knowledge and skills required to be an effective legal advocate for themselves and the people they are incarcerated with. We also seek to create opportunities for former jailhouse lawyers to become leaders in the fight against mass incarceration by using their skills upon release. This includes being able to leverage their skills for individual educational or employment opportunities, as well as bringing their knowledge of the law and justice system to their communities to help break the cycle of incarceration.
JLI pursues these outcomes through network building, research, curriculum development, and advocacy. LEAH is building a network of current and former jailhouse lawyers to share knowledge and build a movement. LEAH collects information directly from current and former jailhouse lawyers on their access to legal education, training, and resources, and what support they need to strengthen their work. JLI uses this information to develop training curricula for jailhouse lawyers and law clerks to improve their substantive legal knowledge as well as research, counselling, interviewing and conflict resolution skills. JLI also advocates for increased access to legal materials in jails and prisons as well as improved State-wide law clerk training programs.
Collaboration with NYU Law's EPIC Prison Reform and Education Project
JLI is working in partnership with NYU Law's EPIC's Prison Teaching Project, to strengthen the legal education curriculum offered to people incarcerated in New York state prisons.
EPIC's Prison Teaching project involves teaching people incarcerated in New York state prisons legal research skills. Each semester we conduct a seven-week course on site at prison classrooms and libraries. EPIC instruction largely mirrors what students learn in Lawyering, making it the perfect activity for a 1L. It gives students a chance to build human connection and learn from people in New York State prison who are deeply engaged in challenging the criminal legal system. Every member of EPIC is expected to co-teach a weekly lesson at a women's prison in the downstate area, or Rikers Island. EPIC participants teach in pairs, using a Legal Research and Empowerment curriculum developed by the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative.
EPIC’s Prison Teaching Project’s goal is to redistribute our legal knowledge, and bear witness to our students’ lived reality of incarceration. We hope to teach our students in prison the necessary skills to sharpen their self-advocacy in the courtroom and beyond. We also strive to create community, and human connection, in the midst of carceral systems that are designed for isolation.
The Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub
The Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub (LEAH) is dedicated to ensuring that communities both inside and outside of jails and prisons have access and opportunities to know, use, and shape the law. LEAH recognizes that too many families and individuals in the US live outside of the protection and knowledge of the law. LEAH believes that legal empowerment is a strategy to end mass incarceration in the US as well as shift power to ordinary people to improve the quality of their life and the quality of life for their community.
Jhody Polk is the Founder and lead organizer of LEAH. A formerly incarcerated law clerk, Jhody won the 2018 Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship where she launched LEAH out of the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Initiative which is hosted by the National Lawyers Guild. LEAH is the first Participatory Defense Hub in the state of Florida. Jhody Polk was the central Florida organizer on the campaign to restore voting rights to over 1.5 million Floridians with felony convictions in the state of Florida. She is the Community Justice coordinator at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding and an aspiring lawyer. She hopes to be admitted into the University of Florida Levin College of Law despite her former felony convictions. She looks forward to teaching law after law school and includes law students in all of her community justice work.
Jhody teaches legal empowerment at Project YouthBuild in Gainesville, Florida and is dedicated to supporting families and individuals to identify, address, and prevent injustice that they experience in every part of their lives and not just in the criminal justice system. It is her goal to expand Justice beyond the criminal system. In addition to legal empowerment, Jhody believes in and advocates for Restorative Justice, Social Emotional Learning, Trauma informed and responsive communities, and community empowerment. Jhody is the current director of the Alachua County Reentry Coalition and dedicated member of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, the League of Women Voters, NLG, Fight Toxic Prisons, and the FRRC.
Within These Walls - Seeking Justice from the Inside Out
a Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative Art Project
Within These Walls - Seeking Justice from the Inside Out is an art project that creates a platform for jailhouse lawyers to describe their lived experience in their own words. Featuring portions of letters from currently incarcerated jailhouse lawyers from across the United States, Within these Walls highlights different aspects of the legal empowerment cycle. Starting with challenges faced by individuals within the carceral system, moving on to the ways that individuals have been using knowledge to shape the system, and ending with examples of people achieving empowered outcomes.
The letters were shared in response to a call from the LEAH asking jailhouse lawyers to share their struggles and dreams for seeking justice from the inside out.