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Scales of justice with one side weighed down by a stack of books
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi. Source: Depositphotos

“I need help!”

These words were written on a letter I held in my hands two years ago. It came from a man in solitary confinement. He wrote that corrections officers found a Motorola phone in his cell. As a result, he was given six months in the box. More than just contraband, authorities believed the phone — with possible access to apps like Uber and Google Maps — was an escape tool. This made the consequences more severe, and included the possibility of a lengthened prison sentence.

Were he to lose the appeal, the man in solitary confinement would be subject to a new criminal case. 

In my capacity as a law library clerk in Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York, it was my job to help this man. I filled out the necessary paperwork to handle his case, and began my work. 

I reviewed redacted reports. I listened to the man’s disciplinary hearing on an MP3 player. I researched relevant case law on Westlaw, a legal research database, on a rudimentary computer. Then, using an obsolete typewriter (access to a printer was restricted), I drafted a two-page appeal, attacking what I considered to be the trumped-up charge against the man. 

In my research, I had learned that the phone was broken in pieces when it was discovered. I advanced the argument that it was inoperable, thus eliminating the “dangerous” element needed to sustain the excessive charge. I compared it to when a gun is found to be inoperable; it eliminates the “deadly” element necessary to deliver a felony charge.

Finding the law library

When I was 21, I was arrested and held without bail for four years in connection with a shooting in the Bronx. While on Rikers Island, facing a murder charge, I used the law library as a refuge from the daily grind of the housing unit, where one endlessly vies for phone time, extra chicken and TV control. 

After a two-week trial, I was found guilty and given 50 years to life. Losing the trial hurt, but the sentence hit differently. As I sat in the bullpen, I cried. “They want me to die in prison, I thought. But the panic of the moment thrust me into survival mode. And if I was going to survive, it was the law that would help me.

Following my trial, I was given a phone number for Derrick Hamilton, a man imprisoned for 20 years for a murder conviction that was eventually overturned. Derrick told me I needed to live in the law library. My freedom relied on knowing the law, he said. He drilled into me: “Learn procedures, procedures, procedures.” And I took this to heart. 

To get a job in the law library you must pass a law clerk test that’s offered once a year. Generally, you can only take the test after completing a 14-week legal research class taught by prisoners. 

In 2011, I was sent upstate to Five Points Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in central New York that opened in 2000. I spent every single day of the week in the law library.

Soon, I was hired as a law library clerk — without taking the test. They brought me on because I spoke OK Spanish and could talk to guys who did not understand English. Without any experience, I was assigned to the counter, which divides the library: Clients sit at tables on one side, while clerks sit at desks on the other. Filing cabinets and rows of books line the walls on the clerk’s side.

At the counter, I ran legal-triage services. You want a divorce? Here are the forms. Go see Mills, he’ll help you out. You want copies? They’re 10 cents apiece, and you need to fill out this disbursement form. 

I also helped them find reading material. The walls were filled with fat, numbered tomes that all looked the same, at least to the untrained eye. The latest law journal was a week old, while others only dealt with one topic. It took time to find my clients the books they needed, but the task honed my research skills. (Today, much of the library offerings have been digitized and are more readily accessible via computer.)

My first client

In between clients, I sat behind the library counter poring over case decisions. Some, like Jabbar Collins’ case, read like a great story — and offered glimpses of how I might pursue my own freedom.

In that case, Abraham Pollack, a rabbi and landlord, was killed in Brooklyn during a botched robbery. Collins, who was charged with Pollack’s murder and incarcerated for 15 years, fought for his freedom by filing numerous lawsuits and motions until he was eventually exonerated.

After a few months, I represented my first client. The man got in trouble for having unprescribed Neurontin pills, which guys sometimes pilfered from the medicine line and later resold. Neurontin, used to treat seizures and shingles, offers a woozy high. No clerk wanted to take the case since the man pleaded guilty. But when I listened to the hearing tape, I discovered that the hearing officer had paused it 30 seconds in. The rest of the tape was blank, meaning there was no evidence on the record. I pointed this out, and the case was dismissed. 

Although we clerks can’t charge for our services, that day I received a bowl of fried jack mackerel, a prison delicacy coated in crushed Doritos. The crisp fish, served with creamed corn and white rice, was delicious. I could have been dining at Copeland’s, an iconic soul food restaurant in Harlem that has since closed. 

Eventually, word spread and more people sought my assistance. Inside, winning a case is like passing the bar. It was official — I was a jailhouse lawyer. 

Staying focused on my case

We rarely use the term “jailhouse lawyer” inside even though the role was officially recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, after it voided a Tennessee state law that prohibited incarcerated people from legally assisting other people in prison. . Instead, we call each other litigators. 

In New York, the most accomplished litigator was a man named Jerome “Jerry the Jew” Rosenberg (a nickname given at the time, without much afterthought), who was sentenced to death in connection with the 1962 double homicide of two New York City police detectives. Nelson Rockefeller, the governor at the time, commuted his sentence, in part because Rosenberg found a loophole in a state law that granted him an exemption from capital punishment. Rosenberg, who was never admitted to the bar, later represented the leader of the Attica prison riots

Rosenberg died in prison after 46 years of incarceration. That fate and the memory of him has kept me focused on my case. 

Over the past 12 years, I have filed nine motions around access to evidence. Following Collins’ road map worked. 

Recently, I was bused to Green Haven Correctional Facility, where I was temporarily housed for a court proceeding. I convinced a judge to issue a subpoena, which revealed that a witness who testified against me had been secretly detained until he cooperated with authorities. This was denied at trial and in previous motions. The matter is now playing out in court.

‘We won!’

Walking laps in the yard at Green Haven, I heard someone scream through an open window: “Joey!”

It was the man with the Motorola phone. It had been about a year and a half since I last saw him. 

“We won!” he exclaimed. 

He told me authorities accepted my argument on his appeal, which meant he not only got out of solitary confinement but would no longer face an additional criminal charge, which had been his main concern.

I walked toward the man’s window and looked up. My former client left and reappeared. He then tossed me a warm honey bun out the window.

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.

Joseph Sanchez is a writer incarcerated in New York.