BEYOND BARS: This is Not Legal Advice, in Honor of René Magritte

By Eric Pepke
Petersburg, VA

I am not an attorney so this cannot be legal advice. I have just learned a few things in the federal penal system. Here are some.

1. Always appeal: I had a gut feeling I should appeal. I used a free jail phone call to leave a message on my attorney’s voicemail. This gave me ten extra months to prepare my §2255 and more grounds for it.

2. Petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court: Doing this gave me an extra month for my §2255 and some great legal practice.

3. Live in the law library: It was a chore at first, and reading law makes me take a lot of showers: it feels so filthy! But after time, I began to see things that give me a chance at justice. It is a great feeling, and we shall see if it works.

4. Go to the chapel: I am not very religious, but religious rights are protected in prison better than any. I also got free shower shoes, a soap dish, and some books there.

5. Always file grievances: I still find it pure annoyance, and most of the time it’s futile. But now I have about six lawsuits in progress, which I can do because I exhausted grievances. Other prisoners tell me with fear in their eyes that they’ll retaliate with “diesel therapy” but they haven’t, and if they do, more lawsuits for me!

6. Write everything down: I keep several journals and timelines, I copy everything by hand if I cannot afford copies, which is most of the time. It has saved me more than once.

7. Nobody responds to prisoners: I lost count after writing 250 addresses. I wrote scores of journalists, and none wrote back. At best, 5% of organizations wrote back, and those that did mostly were just frustrating. I find this more painful and discouraging than anything else. But the few who do write back are excellent, most notably Critical Resistance, Just Detention International, the Prison Activist Resource Center, the Prison Policy Initiative, the Cato Institute, and, of course, the National Lawyers Guild.

8. Accept free books-to-prisoners places: There are more than a dozen of these, and they’re all good. Free books are nice, but what is really great is the feeling that someone spent some thought on me. It makes me feel almost human.

9. File your §2255. Or §2254 or habeas corpus or coram nobis or whatever your collateral attack is. It’s collateral. Innocence or guilt doesn’t matter. What matters is whether they violated rights, and the answer is they always do.

10. But maybe you are innocent: When I came to prison, I thought I was guilty. I was completely wrong, but it took me time and work to realize it. They are so good at making prisoners feel guilty, and nearly all just give up and don’t even think of fighting.

They can’t keep up wholesale mass incarceration without complacence and acquiescence. Don’t help them. Know your rights and use them or they will go away.