Jailhouse Lawyers Who We Are, And Where We Come From. (By Melvin Perez). Overview Where We Come From. In February 1965 William Joe Johnson, who was serving a life sentence in the Tennessee State Penitentiary, was transferred to the maximum security building in the prison for violation of a prison regulation which provided: "No inmate will advise, assist or otherwise contract to aid another, either with or without a fee, to prepare Writs or other legal matters. It is not intended that an innocent man be punished. When a man believes he is unlawfully held or illegally convicted, he should prepare a brief or state his complaint in letter form and address it to his lawyer or a judge. A formal Writ is not necessary to receive a hearing. False charges or untrue complaints may be punished. Inmates are forbidden to set themselves up as practitioners for the purpose of promoting a business or writing writs." In July 1965, Johnson, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee a "motion for law books and a typewriter," in which he sought relief from his confinement in the maximum security building. The District Court treated this motion as a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and after a hearing, ordered him released from disciplinary confinement and restored to the status of an ordinary prisoner. The District Court held that the regulation was void because it in effect barred illiterate prisoners from access to federal habeas corpus and conflicted with 28 U.S.C.§2242, which read at the time. "Application for a writ of habeas corpus shall be in writing signed and verified by the person for whose relief it is intended or by someone acting in his behalf." By the time the District Court order was entered, Johnson had been transferred from the maximum security building, but he had been put in a disciplinary cell block in which he was entitled to fewer privileges than were given ordinary prisoners. Only when he promised to refrain from giving assistance to other inmates was he restored to regular prison conditions and privileges. At a second hearing, held in March 1966, the District Court explored these issues concerning the compliance of the prison officials with its initial order. After the hearing, it reaffirmed its earlier order. The State appealed. The court of appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed, concluding that the regulation did not unlawfully conflict with the federal right to habeas corpus. According to the Sixth Circuit, the interest of the State in preserving prison discipline and in limiting the practice of law to licensed attorneys justified whatever burden the regulation might place on access to federal habeas corpus. Then in 1968 Johnson petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the case by filing a petition for certiorari. On certiorari, the Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Fortas, held that state prison regulation barring inmates from assisting other prisoners in preparation of petitions for post conviction relief was invalid as in conflict with federal right to habeas corpus, despite State's claim that requirement was necessary to maintain prison discipline, where State did not provide available alternative to assistance provided by other inmates. ANALYSIS. In reversing the lower court's decision, the Supreme Court said that there can be no doubt that Tennessee could not constitutionally adopt and enforce a rule forbidding illiterate or poorly educated prisoners to file habeas corpus petitions. Here Tennessee has adopted a rule which, in the absence of any other source of assistance for such prisoners, effectively does just that, said the Court. The Court quoted the District Court's conclusion that "[f]or all practical purposes, if such prisoners cannot have the assistance of a 'jail-house lawyer,' their possibly valid constitutional claims will never be heard in any court." 252 F.Supp., at 784. It also said that jails and penitentiaries included among their inmates a high percentage of persons who are totally or functionally illiterate, whose educational attainments were slight, and whose intelligence was limited. And it appeared to be equally true of Tennessee's prison facilities. The Court concluded that unless and until the State provide some reasonable alternative to assist inmates in the preparation of petitions for post conviction relief, it may not validly enforce a regulation such as that here in issue, barring inmates from furnishing such assistance to other prisoners. CREATION OF JAILHOUSE LAWYERS. With this ruling, the highest Court in the Nation set the rule of law that established Jailhouse Lawyers. A case that would set the stage for decades to come and would define our place in history and as advocates for the rights' of prisoners. A status that would come with a high price to pay, as some corrections officials would not like the fact that prisoners could now legally challenge the policies set by the Dept. of Corrections and other prison administrators. And such challenges would be legal and free from reprisal. Also, any reprisal could also be challenged and would enjoy Constitutional protection by the principals set out in the US Supreme Court case Johnson v. Avery, 89 S.Ct. 747(1969 )Different prisoners become Jailhouse Lawyers for different reasons. These reasons might not all be the same. As for me, I became a Jailhouse because I did not like the injustice that the legal system did to me. Specifically, I was charged and convicted of an attempted robbery that I did not do. As a result, I received a 15 year sentence. I have never been to the place. Did not know the person that I was charged with attempting to rob, nor did I have anything to do with the robbery. Even so, several detectives ordered the alleged victim to say that I was the person that attempted the robbery. Even with an alibi witness that I was somewhere else, I was still found guilty. Sentenced to 15 years and sent to the Florida Dept. of Corrections ("FDOC"). FDOC gave me a Dept. of Corrections number, X11781, and I began to seek justice from that conviction. However, as I began to seek justice I saw many other prisoners who had similar cases. I also saw that some Jailhouse Lawyers only did criminal law, or civil. Not many took the time or interest to learn other areas of the law. Therefore, it was not common to ask a Jailhouse Lawyer about the grievance procedure and get an "I don't know" response. This made me want to be the one that knew the answer to that question. Meanwhile, I had sought assistance from a Jailhouse Lawyer in the robbery case. However, this Jailhouse Lawyer would have me looking for cases similar to my case. So I read, read and read. I did not understand anything I was reading. But with time I started understanding. When I was placed in confinement I would write the law library to read cases. I had a lot of time to read. It also gave me the opportunity to see how some correctional staff would write prisoners false disciplinary reports. Place them on strip status ( a practice involving the removal of all property, including clothing, bedding and writing materials until the prisoner earns it back), forced to sleep on a steel bunk at cold temperatures and applied chemical agents for no reason. This allowed me to see another form of injustice. And in the future, I would be the prisoner receiving that type of injustice for being a Jailhouse Lawyer myself. I continued to read and self-study. I tried to work in the law library and become a certified law clerk, but FDOC would not allow me to take the test because I would file too many grievances or help other people with grievances. Shortly after, I was placed in confinement on a false disciplinary report after I won a case. The State Attorney called the prison and wanted to know who had assisted the prisoner. I wrote grievances and my family called. I was let out. However, about two weeks later I was back in confinement in reprisal. This time I would spend 2 years and 46 in a cell, as a result of multiple reprisal disciplinary reports. This motivated me to become better in law. Now I had all this time to read and study. I had some money in my prisoner account that my family had sent. I used this money to start taking a paralegal/ legal assistance correspondence course. Within nine months, I was already a certified paralegal. When my mother and friend saw I was doing this, they started paying for my courses. I finished the first course. Started a second course, a third and continued to study. Jailhouse Lawyers assist other prisoners in legal matters, which might include criminal cases, lawsuits, family issues, administrative grievances and many other areas of law. Some states have a program that allows prisoners to become certified as law clerks or legal research aides. This allows prisoners to become Jailhouse Lawyers from the programs. Others learn from other prisoners or by reading and studying cases. Another small group of prisoners were judges, state attorneys, and even lawyers before coming to prison. However, most Jailhouse Lawyers are normal people who were incarcerated and had to learn law to fight their own case or help other prisoners fight their case because they did not have the money to pay for a lawyer. END NOTE. By being a Jailhouse Lawyer, I saw many types of abuse by the Criminal Justice System and the Florida Dept. of Corrections. This abuse is what motivated me to be a prisoners' rights advocate. Something that has allowed me to be transferred to over 20 institutions and spend a lot of time in administrative and disciplinary confinement as well as Close Management Units. On the other hand, I consider it an honor to be an advocate for justice. To seek redress for the Constitutional violation of my rights and the rights of other people. I also consider it an honor to be part of the people who advocate for prisoners' rights. We all play a part in the big picture of Constitutional Rights. Learn from history. Be part of the solution. Do your part and remember all the people that came before us that made it all possible for us to have Constitutional Rights. This is where Jailhouse Lawyers come from. What we do and who we are. We are normal people who were forced to learn law and the legal system to defend our rights and the rights of other people similarly situated.
Melvin Perez #x11781
Current Release date :10/21/2031