The Jailhouse Lawyer Initiative (JLI) was founded by Jhody Polk, a formerly incarcerated jailhouse lawyer from Florida and 2018 Soros Justice fellow. The JLI invests in jailhouse lawyers – incarcerated justice advocates – as a core strategy in ending the cycle of incarceration and is housed at NYU School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights.
Who are Jailhouse Lawyers
Jailhouse lawyers are incarcerated individuals who generally have no formal legal training, but teach themselves the law to advocate for themselves and the rights of their peers. They conduct legal writing, research, and analysis on a host of legal issues from civil rights actions to habeas corpus petitions, administrative grievances, parole/probation, and family law matters, among others. Because of their justice work, these advocates are often retaliated against and silenced by the very institutions they attempt to hold to account. They continue to toil without recognition of their personal growth and rehabilitation, without their names being attached to the legal victories they fought for, and without connection to others doing the work or those standing in solidarity with them on the outside. We believe that breaking the cycle of incarceration requires building bridges between inside and out communities. Jailhouse lawyers are an essential part of reforming and abolishing the broken carceral system. We see jailhouse lawyers as incarcerated advocates who are THE bridge builders.
What do we do
The JLI fuses legal education, movement building, participatory research, and advocacy to bring visibility to jailhouse lawyers and ensure they have the resources to know, use, and shape law. The JLI works under the framework of legal empowerment—shifting power, knowledge, and resources to directly affected communities so they can activate systems, lead justice struggles, and become the authors of their own liberation.
The JLI advances three main goals:
- build and