Beyond Bars: Law as a Pathway to Character Development

By Jeremiah Phoenix

Dannemora, NY

As readers of this column know well, familiarity with law is a valuable and often necessary skill in prison. A talented prisoner litigant can effect significant positive change for himself or herself and their fellow brothers and sisters, and can protect themselves from repression and abuse in ways people without those skills simply can’t. These are undeniably great uses of law.

But learning law has an often-overlooked benefit: the learning process itself teaches how to make better decisions in life far beyond any case. Lawsuits for money and policy changes, challenges to convictions and sentences, all these are important applications of law. But becoming truly proficient in it, really understanding its principles and purposes, requires abandoning many self-destructive thinking patterns common to prisoners and replacing them with more adaptive and healthy ones. This rehabilitative aspect of prison legal education gets far less attention than it deserves.

For example, many prisoners have a deep-seated hatred and prejudice toward government in any form, because their only experiences with it have been bad. But many people in government, especially many judges, care deeply about human rights and law, and will rule against prison staff who violate them. That’s a powerful experience. It’s impossible to maintain the belief that government is universally bad after receiving real relief from a court. The positive experience with government of winning a lawsuit can have a life-changing impact.

The physiological handicap of learned helplessness also fades quickly in prisoners who learn, using law, that the world can be made better through hard work, dedication, and legitimate effort. Litigation requires great intellectual and emotional energy, and success lays a foundation of self-confidence in the future.

The practical knowledge of law—of understanding “the system”—of course makes life after release much easier. And many attorneys are open to working with former prisoners as paralegals and assistants. Being able to secure a good job around good people is a good way to keep on the pah of being a good person.

There’s also a deeper level to law. Reading cases can inspire self-reflection, contemplation, and reconsideration of long-held beliefs. The stories behind cases span the entire spectrum of human experience. Everything from the most despairing atrocities and tragedies to the most inspiring and moving triumphs and achievements makes an appearance. Human progress is written in the decisions of courts, in concrete, often poetic and eloquent, these-are-the-people-who-lived-it terms. Our highest ideals and aspirations, our most humble admissions of when we fell short, are written in those pages. It’s impossible to read law seriously and not gain an appreciation for how essential it is to ordered society, and for the varieties of human experience—and potential. This is the true meaning of respect for the law.

Even litigation procedures teach valuable skills. Anticipating defenses requires considering different points of view. Discovery requires searching for and evaluating evidence. Motion practice teaches that our arguments and opinions can be misunderstood , intelligently challenged, and even wrong.

Settlement negotiations teach compromise. The volume of paperwork forces organization. The long processes require patience.

Learning law obviously is not the only answer to rehabilitation and character development. But it’s a good one. As a prisoner litigant’s experience grows, the skills developed become ever more deeply ingrained, and inevitably spread into other areas of life. Studied seriously, law doesn’t just help us order our societies. It can help us order our own lives.