A jailhouse lawyer is an inmate with some knowledge of the law who assists other inmates with legal matters. Technically, only lawyers are permitted to practice law, but some leeway is provided to jailhouse lawyers, for a number of reasons. The Columbia Law School publishes a guide for inmates helping inmates with legal matters and updates it regularly, and jailhouse lawyers have also been discussed at levels as high as the United States Supreme Court.
Some prison inmates are illiterate or have received a very poor education. This puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the law because they may not understand legal issues. They also cannot respond or prepare legal documents. A jailhouse lawyer can help such inmates secure their legal rights. Jailhouse lawyers assist with drafting documents, provide legal advice, and sometimes even file briefs on behalf of other inmates; jailhouse lawyers have succeeded in successfully arguing for the release of fellow inmates in some cases.
Prisoners often lack access to legal assistance. Although prisoners are supposed to be able to consult attorneys by law, many inmates cannot afford a lawyer. Legal programs that provide free legal aid are not able to help all inmates. The jailhouse lawyer provides a mechanism for ensuring that inmates get legal help. However, such inmates have also been criticized because there are concerns that they may not provide useful legal advice or prisons may rely on jailhouse lawyers rather than securing practicing lawyers for their inmates.
Some jailhouse lawyers are legal scholars. In addition to reading books in the prison law library, a jailhouse lawyer may correspond with other members of the legal community, read trade publications, and even complete distance law degrees. Although these inmates are not allowed to take the bar exam because they are in prison, they may be just as educated and qualified as fully practicing lawyers. These jailhouse lawyers can provide valuable legal services to their fellow inmates.
In addition to helping inmates with appeals, responses to legal filings, and other matters related to the reason they are in prison, a jailhouse lawyer can also assist with other matters. Inmates may file civil suits, including suits against the prison, and jailhouse lawyers can help the inmates with this process and familiarize them with their legal rights. They can also help with other civil matters related to life outside the prison, such as suits involving custody of children, divorces, and so forth.