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The Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative

Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative Logo

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. Through this process, legal systems will be transformed into just systems which are responsive to the needs of communities. 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. We believe that jailhouse lawyers can be an early adopter of this legal empowerment methodology in the United States legal system. People in prison have a constitutional right to assist one another with their legal matters, even without a law degree. This creates space for jailhouse lawyers to work and be supported as community paralegals.

Nearly every person who goes to a jail or a prison comes into contact with a jailhouse lawyer. They 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, the JLI is able to reach a large portion of the incarcerated population.

JLI targets three primary areas with its work: building a national network of current and former jailhouse lawyers, co-developing training and curricula that focus on legal education and legal empowerment for currently incarcerated peoples, and supporting justice-impacted individuals to leverage their skills and expertise for opportunities in employment and education post-release.

The co-development of legal resources with jailhouse lawyers, law students and attorneys is a central aspect of our work. To achieve this, JLI organizes advisory panels of formerly incarcerated jailhouse lawyers to provide input and guidance for all curriculum development. Additionally, JLI has ongoing correspondence with hundreds of currently incarcerated jailhouse lawyers who review and provide feedback to shape new material. Through this process, JLI is developing state specific curriculum, such as our 12 week New York legal course, as well as national modules on topics like legal research and human rights advocacy which have cross-jurisdictional value.


The Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub

Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub Logo

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. Through this process, legal systems will be transformed into just systems which are responsive to the needs of communities. 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 Headshot

Jhody Polk

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 was hosted by the National Lawyers Guild. LEAH is the first Participatory Defense Hub in the state of Florida. Prior to her Soros Fellowship, 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 an aspiring lawyer and 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 in every part of their lives. 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 a 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.

Collaboration with NYU Law's EPIC Prison Reform and Education Project

Logo for NYU Law group EPIC

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 and jails.

EPIC's Prison Teaching project involves teaching people incarcerated in New York state prisons legal research and empowerment skills. The course is taught 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 legal knowledge, and bear witness to students’ lived reality of incarceration.  The project hopes to teach students in prison the necessary skills to sharpen their self-advocacy in the courtroom and beyond. It also strives to create community, and human connection, in the midst of carceral systems that are designed for isolation.

Collaboration with NYU’s Prison Education Program

JLI is working with the New York University Prison Education Program (NYU PEP) to offer a college course on critical legal studies to students at the Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York.

NYU PEP, founded in 2015, is a college-in-prison program that aims to expand access to higher education within communities impacted by the criminal justice system, to address inequities within our NYU community, and to model how a research university can advance solutions to real world problems. It offers A.A. Degree to people currently incarcerated and supports students’ continued education on campus post-release.

Collaboration with Zealous

JLI is working with Zealous to co-develop resources and trainings on storytelling and advocacy with formerly and currently incarcerated JLI members. Zealous is a national advocacy and education initiative working to topple the historic imbalance of power over criminal justice media and policy. They do this by supporting and training public defenders, advocates, and people with direct experience to harness the power of media, technology, storytelling and the arts. 

Collaboration with National Lawyers Guild

The National Lawyers Guild was the first home of JLI, and continues to be an important partner. Through NLG’s Guild Notes, JLI distributes short toolkits on legal skills to jailhouse lawyers across the country, as well as advertises JLI to NLG’s large membership. NLG is the nation’s oldest and largest progressive bar association and was the first one in the US to be racially integrated. Their mission is to use law for the people, uniting lawyers, law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers to function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights and the rights of ecosystems over property interests.

Within These Walls - Seeking Justice from the Inside Out 

a Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative Art Project

A poem by an incarcerated individual


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.