Prisoner Paralegals: Our Struggle to Find Justice

By Hunter Lee Weeks Sterling, CO

In prison, there are those of us who spend time, effort, and funds to acquire a formal education in law. Most of us have no education, while a few of us have Certificates of Paralegal Studies, and even fewer have degrees with legal emphasis. Our designated term of “Jailhouse Lawyers” is misleading, as none of us hold an attorney’s registration or are members of the bar. For most of us, the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is the only place that understands us, and allows us a membership to call our own. The NLG is home to those of us who have chosen, as I have, to make this field our life. I am a Jailhouse Lawyer. I have a Certificate of Paralegal Studies from Blackstone Career Institute, and I assist fellow prisoners in the pursuit of justice.

My primary focus is in civil, or “tort,” litigation, in the field of Prison Law. I do what most attorneys on the “streets” are not willing to do: give other prisoners their day in court. I prepare documents, research claims, and assist individuals in trying to find an attorney willing to represent them. I do this with minimal resources, funds, and access to a law library (which is usually only for two or three hours per week), and the books in my cell. When possible, I consult my Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, provided by the NLG, my Prisoner Self-Help Litigation Manual, and Paralegal Practice and Procedure. Sometimes, if someone in my living unit has the Colorado Revised Statute, I’ll borrow that as well. If all of this sounds difficult, I have news for you: It is, and it’s just the beginning.

Prison staff do not like prisoner paralegals—we cause them trouble, forcing them to follow the rules and holding them accountable. When a prisoner complains to a prisoner paralegal, we know the risks, as we are especially prone to retaliation. Usually we find ourselves the target of shake-downs, are illegality terminated from our job assignments, targeted for additional pat-downs, and “written up” for alleged disciplinary infractions. Wondrously, the burden of proof for the prison staff is ridiculously low—what is called a “preponderance of the evidence,” which staff interprets as, “If a staff member said it, it must be true.”

I believe it must be said that in prison, the only people that have the knowledge to assist everyone (including staff) are prisoner paralegals. While staff sees us as a threat to their “perfect world,” they miss the fact that often times we hold more influence over the population than any one of them. The reason for this is simple: we are not attached to any specific group, but every group requires our assistance. We are generally unbiased, unfettered by gang notions of “right and wrong,” and have technical and legal knowledge at our fingertips. We are also the only ones that have a working knowledge of administrative, internal regulations and how to enforce them.

My purpose in writing this article for Guild Notes: Beyond Bars is twofold: I want readers to understand the nature of jailhouse lawyers (i.e. prisoner paralegals), and clarify the restrictions and problems we face. And if even if just a fraction of readers are familiar with prison law and the prisoner paralegals that enforce them, maybe we can begin to address one of the preeminent problems in the U.S.: mass incarceration with no understandings of the internal workings of “the system.” ■

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