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.
JLI intends for this work to be accessible and this website provides resources to the public, including:
- information on and recordings of JLI programs
- a resource library with newsletters and modules
- a list of JLI collaborators
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. 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 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.
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.