The Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative (JLI) was founded by Jhody Polk, a formerly incarcerated jailhouse lawyer from Florida and 2018 Soros Justice fellow. The JLI invests in jailhouse lawyers - incarcerated justice advocates - as a core strategy in ending the cycle of incarceration and is housed at NYU School of Law's Bernstein Institute for Human Rights.
Who are Jailhouse Lawyers
Jailhouse lawyers are incarcerated individuals who generally have no formal legal training, but teach themselves the law to advocate for themselves and the rights of their peers. They conduct legal writing, research, and analysis on a host of legal issues from civil rights actions to habeas corpus petitions, administrative grievances, parole/probation, and family law matters, among others. Because of their justice work, these advocates are often retaliated against and silenced by the very institutions they attempt to hold to account. They continue to toil without recognition of their personal growth and rehabilitation, without their names being attached to the legal victories they fought for, and without connection to others doing the work or those standing in solidarity with them on the outside. We believe that breaking the cycle of incarceration requires building bridges between inside and out communities. Jailhouse lawyers are an essential part of reforming and abolishing the broken carceral system. We see jailhouse lawyers as incarcerated advocates who are THE bridge builders.
What do we do
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. The JLI works under the framework of legal empowerment—shifting power, knowledge, and resources to directly affected communities so they can activate systems, lead justice struggles, and become the authors of their own liberation.
The JLI advances three main goals:
- build and support a national network of current and former jailhouse lawyers;
- co-develop and teach legal education and empowerment trainings for incarcerated people;
- raise the visibility of jailhouse lawyers as essential members of the legal ecosystem.
From engaging in legal advocacy to shaping policy or building community within prisons — jailhouse lawyers are gaining the agency and skills to challenge their convictions, defend their parental rights, and demand improved conditions from within prison walls. For those returning home, the JLI equips individuals with the navigation skills necessary for mobility—securing employment, obtaining education, and bringing knowledge back to their community. JLI also supports jailhouse lawyers to become leaders in criminal legal reform, coordinating a national network of 500+ jailhouse lawyers who drive change from lived experience and expertise.
JLI Founder, Jhody Polk
Jhody Polk is the founder of the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative (JLI) and CEO of A Light In The Valley, LLC. She is the Pathways to Research and Advocacy Fellow at the Fortune Society and Center for Justice Innovation, and is the creator of the Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub (LEAH), an online space dedicated to people Knowing the Law. She is the recipient of the 2019 Peacebuilder of the Year Award, the 2020 Dr. Martin Luther King’s Jr. Legacy award and named a Soros Justice Fellow in 2018. She currently serves on the board of Namati.
Jhody is known for her work as a central Florida Organizer on Amendment 4, a campaign to restore voting rights to over 1.5 million Floridians with felony convictions. She is the formal Director of Community Justice at the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding and served as the Director of the Alachua County Reentry Coalition 2017-2020. Jhody is a rising Tarot Reader, Astrologer, and Energy Healer. She unapologetically lives for the liberation of Black People, Power, Peace , Human Rights, Participatory Action Research (PAR), Legal Empowerment, Community Peacebuilding and Justice For All.
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 Jhody Polk asking jailhouse lawyers to share their struggles and dreams for seeking justice from the inside out.