Jailhouse Lawyers Are Often Punished With Solitary Confinement

Timothy Phillips was in the middle of working on multiple legal cases when jail staff called him away from his cell in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail. He returned several hours later to discover that all his papers were in disarray and that his room assignment was changed. While frustrating, this experience is something Phillips has come to expect in retaliation for the work he does as a “jailhouse lawyer,” a common term for incarcerated people who represent themselves and provide legal help to others.

Jailhouse lawyers, who are often self-taught spend a lot of time navigating a complicated and unfairly stacked legal environment in an effort to hold the state responsible for crimes against them and their peers. And in response to this work, Phillips and other jailhouse lawyers around the country routinely face retaliation and punishment — often in the form of transfers and solitary confinement.

Avon Twitty, an ex-jailhouse lawyer. allegedIn a federal lawsuit, Hamilton claimed that his transfer to the restricted Communications Management Unit at his federal prison was retaliatory for his legal work and his conversion. Derrick Hamilton spent 10 years in New York solitary confinement. “It was retaliation for litigating,” Hamilton told Law360His time spent in isolation. “They don’t like people that litigate against them.”

Due to a lack of outside legal representation, inmates often turn to jailhouse attorneys. The Supreme Court in 1940 established that prisoners have constitutional access to the courts. However, this access is limited in reality due to a lack in legal representation. More than 90% of plaintiffs in federal civil rights cases brought by incarcerated persons have no attorney. They are often left with no choice but to learn how to navigate the legal system, file their own briefs (often handwritten), or seek out jailhouse lawyers.

For jailhouse lawyers, however, this crucial work can be dangerous. They are often targeted by jail or prison staff who see litigation as a threat. Jailhouse lawyers could be sent to solitary confinement as a retaliation for their work. It is also used to effectively separate clients and legal documents. Prison staff use solitary and separation to prevent people from exercising their human rights while they are incarcerated.

Separation and “Investigation”

In Santa Rita Jail, Phillips says he is moved at least once a month — sometimes in routine prison operations, but often to prevent him from continuing cases with clients. “One of the biggest things they do is once they find out that I’m helping somebody, they’ll either try to move me or the other person,’ said Phillips. “Separation is probably the biggest tool that they use. They fabricate things to justify their reasons for separating you, but the real reason is because of the work.”

Phillips claimed that he was recently separated from his friend, and former cellmate, after staff realized they were working on the same legal issues. Phillips helps an autistic friend to communicate with his lawyer and to write grievances and internal complaints. These complaints are usually about insufficient disability accommodations in jail. When Phillips is moved, prison staff often confiscate his written notes about his friend’s concerns, under the justification that people are not supposed to have legal documents belonging to other incarcerated individuals.

If jailhouse lawyers are placed in solitary confinement, they lose their access to law libraries and the essential tools to file a case from within a cell. “Once you get past the grievance stages, lawsuits, more filing with the courts, it becomes costly — photocopies, stationery items,” explained Phillips. “There’s a lot involved with writing and typing. It’s difficult too, because a lot of guys that need help, they don’t have resources.”

This is how solitary can only add to an already unbalanced legal battle. In an article about the state of law library access in prisons, Florida jailhouse lawyer Thomas O’Bryant explained to Prison Legal News: “The prosecution has experts available to help prepare their cases, medical doctors, psychologists and biomedical engineers. The pro se litigant He is given a boilerplate and case law form. Good luck.”

It is very easy for prison and jail staff to seperate jailhouse lawyers from their clients or law libraries, and destroy their legal work. Housing shifts are a common practice in jails and prisons. Staff often have the ability to assign people to restrictive housing without much to no justification.

John Thompson, an ex-jailhouse lawyer in SCI Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, helped a client prove his innocence back 1998.

“​​I was helping a guy named Henry, he was involved in an alleged assault on another prisoner,” Thompson said. He claims that he proved the assault didn’t take place, as it wasn’t captured on camera. “That made them irate, and in order to get past it, they put me in the hole.” By locking Thompson in solitary, the prison removed his ability to act as a jailhouse lawyer. As Thompson put it, the prison was able “to keep me from being able to continue representing him, because you can’t represent somebody if you’re in the hole too.”

Santa Rita Jail spokesmen refuted claims jailhouse lawyers were subject to retaliation. When asked generally if people are ever transferred or disciplined in response to practicing law, he said, “We do not retaliate against inmates for any reason. If a ‘jail house lawyer’ is helping a fellow inmate that’s not something we would get involved in.”

Nearly everyone who spoke with Solitary WatchReports from jailhouse lawyers about experiencing retaliatory transfers into solitary confinement to prison advocates. In particular, multiple correctional systems use the label “investigation” to justify placing people in solitary confinement, often for indefinite periods of time, and with little or no paperwork demonstrating evidence of an actual investigation. Robert Reed, formerly incarcerated in Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, recalled entire cell blocks being put on “investigation” due to any kind of incident, advocacy, or whim of a guard. Phillips at Santa Rita Jail stated that people could be put in isolation under investigation without further justification. “It could be anything,” Phillips says. “That is a generic answer for: we don’t have to give you a reason why [you’re in solitary]. The codeword is ‘investigation.’”

For filing grievances

Part of the job of a jailhouse attorney is to file grievances or internal complaints. However, this can lead to retaliation. “I’ve been put in [solitary confinement] one time in Santa Rita Jail because I filed grievances,” said Phillips. “When I inquired about it, the classification deputy specifically told me, ‘You were complaining too much.’”

Phillips continues to be a prolific writer and editor of grievances despite the risks. His expertise is highly sought after by Santa Rita. These grievances are only a first step: Before they can pursue any legal action over an abuse or prison issue, incarcerated people must first contend with the prison’s internal grievance system.

This flawed pathway is just one of many barriers that the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act has placed in place. People who were facing injustices while in prison were allowed to file a civil case with courts before this law. Because of the emergence of lawsuits in the 1970s, prison conditions improved significantly. Despite a 23 per cent increase in prison population, federal civil suits from prisoners fell 43 percent following the passage of PLRA. Human Rights Watch report. The PLRA is also available. reduced the rate of successa prison lawsuit, which can be a barrier to anyone who seeks to confront unlivable prison conditions.

The specific provision in the PLRA that forces Phillips to file endless grievances Before seeking legal action is called the “Exhaustion Requirement.” It essentially requires incarcerated people to “exhaust” all of a prison’s options for reform internally beforeGoing to court. However, prison officials are responsible for designing grievance systems. These systems are often not well monitored, unnecessarily complicated, and have cumbersome requirements. For example, in some states, lawsuits have been thrown outThe original grievances were filed with the wrong ink or after the incident, but they were not received by the deadline of two days. “The sky’s the limit for the procedural complexity or difficulty of the exhaustion regime,” Margo Shlanger, a law professor and expert on the PLRA, noted in an article in the Harvard Law Review.

Phillips tried to learn how to file grievances that might actually change policy in response to the exhaustion requirement. “I try to familiarize myself with their policies and their rules, and I cite those rules and policies in the grievances, close them in a little bit,” Phillips says.

Even the most well-written and heavily cited grievances are not always successful. “All they’re required to do is to reply to it,” he says. “They’re not required to resolve the grievance or compensate you in some kind of way, although they should. They try to protect each other, to cover for each other.”

Complex grievance requirements make it possible for jails and prisons to retaliate against jailhouse attorneys. The PLRA requires that incarcerated persons exhaust the grievance process prior to litigating. Yet Phillips was sent to solitary for “complaining too much” — in other words, for being exhausting.

Sending a Message

In a lawsuit filed this past November, jailhouse lawyer Mark Wilson alleges that he was sent to — and currently remains in — solitary confinement in Oregon State Correctional Institution in retaliation for litigating against the prison. The prison’s justification for his isolation was that Wilson was found with “contraband” in the form of a children’s toy telephone. Wilson worked as a legal clerk. The prison library coordinator placed the toy on Wilson’s desk as a joke. He was put in isolation for 120 days because of the joke. This punishment is reserved for violent assaults. In an interviewWith The Oregonian, Wilson expressed concern that “other legal assistants are afraid to do the kind of work I was doing now because they’re afraid they’ll face what happened to me.”

Phillips is haunted both by fear of retaliation, and the long-term adverse consequences of being in a jailhouse as a lawyer. Phillips’ chances of parole and release are slim due to his constant forced relocations, as well as his stints in solitary. “It doesn’t look good for us to be put in [solitary] like that,” he said. “You get reviewed every six months, and they look to see if anything has happened to you, and if it has, it hurts your chances of reentry, getting moved to a halfway house.”

Phillips continues to fight. Phillips is determined to continue his fight, despite the bureaucratic nightmare of being in jailhouse lawyers and the retaliation he has suffered for it. “Filing sends a message,” he says. “We’re not going to just sit. We’re going to go to your superiors.”