Photo by serezniy on Depositphotos

I am what they refer to as a jailhouse lawyer. Some refer to me as a legal beagle, some as a writ writer. 

I am a victim of the Three Strikes Law. I robbed a lady of her credit card with a toy gun, used the credit card at an ATM, and withdrew $300. I received two 30-years-to-life sentences for robbery and burglary. I definitely deserve time away from society, but I have to serve 60 years before even being considered for parole. I feel like a victim of my own stupidity, but also a victim of the state.

In the California court system, the convicted have the right to have the entire case reviewed by an appellate court. This is called a direct appeal. Any review after the direct appeal is called a collateral appeal, where you are not entitled to have a lawyer represent you.

Not having the financial resources to hire a lawyer for a collateral review, I started to work on my own case. I learned the law in the process. Today, I’m still working on my parole board appearance in 2028.

I discovered that I had a knack for comprehending the law despite its jargon and doublespeak. I started off by giving advice and resources to other prisoners, then eventually working on petitions for them. That took on a momentum of its own.

I am always astounded at how many prisoners took plea bargains that far exceeded what they would have gotten at trial if they were not ignorant of the law and were not emotionally coerced into taking such an agreement.

The evidence is mostly circumstantial, even for prisoners who have taken their cases to trial, were found guilty and sentenced to a draconian amount of time.

That’s why I help other prisoners with their legal woes. I attempt to educate them in the law so they can, at minimum, know the severity of what they are facing.

Most criminal convictions stand as a given, although there always exists the possibility of change for lesser time or outright reversal of a case. 

Still, it is hard to help others when, as you start to understand the law, you realize that the law isn’t practiced as it was written. 

I am intelligent and have a decent level of reading comprehension, and write just about as well as I comprehend — but at every turn, I face denials. It’s akin to the serenity prayer “Doing the same thing, the same way over and over again, and expecting different results.” It’s the definition of insanity.

This is simply due to the fact that the law isn’t fair, and once you are convicted, the state — especially California — will not let you go.

As you might imagine, I am not very popular with the administration, as I have also learned civil law and administrative law, and have filed prison grievances. I have been chairman on several Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) committees, which serve as a liaison between the inmate population and the administration, and worked for the betterment of the inmate population.

But my work has given me a certain status among prisoners. To be expected, there are charlatans who call themselves jailhouse lawyers, preying on prisoners’ desire for freedom and charging large sums for a bunch of fluff. 

I have earned a certain level of respect and a reputation for being fair, knowing what I’m doing, admitting when I don’t know something, and only asking for a reasonable amount of compensation — although charging money for advice is against the rules in California prisons. If one can’t afford my advice, I give it without charging. Most of all, I always tell prisoners when there is nothing I can do. 

I am not a seller of dreams. Some legal beagles justify being compensated for hopeless cases by saying that if they don’t take the compensation then someone else will. There is a saying that “without hope, there can be no life” — but even memes need at least a modicum of substance.

I help prisoners and, by doing so, I not only help myself, I serve as an example that despite every negative stereotype of prison, there are positive aspects too. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Artemus Blankenship

Artemus Blankenship is a contributing writer of African, French, Italian and Indian heritage. He is the youngest of three children and was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He has been incarcerated for more than four decades and is currently at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, and State Prison, Corcoran. He is a representative in the Inmate Advisory Council there.