By Christopher Zoukis
The term “jailhouse lawyer” has been a polarizing one for many years. To some, these men and women are the saviors of those who lack funds or legal wherewithal to mount a collateral attack upon an unjust criminal conviction or sentence. They are considered the champions of those behind bars whose rights are being unfairly denied. They are a lifeline and a final ray of hope. As such, they are often viewed as friends by many an inmate, even the closest thing to family. But to others, they are the scourge of the legal system; scammers who wring out other prisoners’ families for funds, or accept stamps or other trade to file frivolous pleadings while robbing their “clients” blind. There is truth to both polar positions. But there need not be.
My cellmate — and oftentimes co-counsel — disagrees with the idea and term of “Jailhouse Lawyer.” To him it is a derogatory term, denoting something less than what he or I engage in. He feels as though we are, for all intents and purposes, equal to attorneys, or extraordinarily qualified and successful paralegals at the least. With this I agree, but I also realize that both of us have received our legal training by fire. We did not first learn about the legal profession while sitting in a comfortable lecture hall, but at the other end of a gavel. We added years of formal study via correspondence and trial. For this very reason, I welcome a similar title. It is a title that suggests a sense of belonging, grouping, and honor. In my mind, the Jailhouse Lawyer term of years past — a term derided even by Supreme Court justices as derogatory — is far in our rearview mirror. We are simply not what the term supposes. We are newer, more professional, better trained, and more successful. Thus, a new term is required. A term which denotes our true meaning and value.
The idea of a 2255 or a direct appeal comes to mind when one thinks of a Jailhouse Lawyer. While 2255s and 2241s and direct appeals are certainly a part of my regular work, they actually account for less than half of my practice. This week, for example, I’ve been working on administrative remedies for lack of meaningful dental care, transgender treatment, and correspondence rejection practices. I’ve put in some time on First Amendment complaints and a writ of certiorari. And, to top it off, I’ve also penned a letter to be sent to Senators Kaine and Warner. To me this doesn’t sound “jailhouse” at all. In fact, oftentimes I feel as though I should be wearing a suit and a tie, not convict green. I feel as though I should be dining at the Main Street Bar & Grill, not a chow hall in a medium-security federal prison.
Much of the time I, and those I work with, find ourselves bogged down in reams and reams of paperwork. We read the case law updates in LexisNexis. We read all of the legal publications (e.g., Prison Legal News, The Champion, National Lawyers Guild Review, BNA Criminal Law Reporter, and the various ABA journals which come in the day’s mail). And we immerse ourselves in all of it. In fact, several of the recently updated Criminal Law in a Nutshell series sit atop my bookshelf, along with several new legal texts from Prison Legal News. To add to this, we draft. We draft pleadings. We draft complaints. We draft administrative remedies and letters and responses. We litigate.
The civil litigation attorney knows repetition. He (or she) knows what it is like to spend days, weeks, months, and years fighting against the stack of motions and responses to the motions and the responses to the responses. This sounds oddly like my evening. This evening I worked on a response to an initial response. To be exact, this was FCI Petersburg’s response to a transgender inmate’s request for medical care. It was, in fact, the second response in a series of what looks to be four (then we go to court). But isn’t this what civil litigation attorneys do. The difference being that it might take a year before my clients (those I assist with pleadings) are ever allowed to see the light of a court review. Thank you, drafters of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, for the tangled up exhaustion requirement!
For these reasons, I propose the title of Jailhouse Litigator. But not only the title. I also propose the state of being. The days of old when anyone could hang out their hat and call themselves a “legal eagle” are over. The days of substandard work and shady pricing practices are in ill repute, even amongst those incarcerated in this nation’s jails and prisons. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard. There must be some sort of bar (as in standard of quality and experience) which must be attained before we consider ourselves anything more than a law library dweller. For this reason I stand and demand action and demand change. Nothing less will do.
As with free world attorneys, we too must further our legal education. We must strive not for the dollar, but for the success. We must seek truth and refuse to further dishonesty. We must stand true, tall, and proud as a united group of Jailhouse Litigators. A group willing to suffer the consequences of our passion, and willing to dedicate years of our lives to the pursuit of what is right and just. After all, we aren’t jailhouse lawyers, we are Jailhouse Litigators. And the litigation which tops our desks, packs our lockers, and weighs down our bags on the way to the prison law library is in our blood.
My name is Christopher Zoukis, and I am a Jailhouse Litigator. How might I be of service?