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A shelf of law books
Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

Inside, every prisoner has had an encounter with someone who claims to have knowledge of the law. 

But who can you trust? 

For many people inside, it’s jailhouse lawyers. These are typically self-taught incarcerated people steeped in the law. They can help with various legal matters, including lawsuits and appeals. Many put in long hours of work to meet their own legal needs and represent themselves in court.

Here, I talk to Russell Harden, known inside as Yummie, a fellow jailhouse lawyer at North Branch Correctional Institution in Maryland. We discuss his influence, his perspective on representation, and how he has honed his skills. 

Some of the questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Hey, soldier. Tell the people reading this about your legal experience.

Yummie: I just put the work in. I studied criminal law day in and day out, 12 hours a day for seven to eight years straight. I knew that’s what it would take to have a chance at freedom.

The very first petition I filed won the guy a new trial. Just recently, work I did got someone’s sentence down to 30 years. He had life plus 20 years and was already 23 years in, so that pushed him out the door! I also found out that another guy I filed a petition for, who was transferred to another prison, is now down to 35 years. He started with life plus another 50 years. That’s what matters to me, X.

Q: That’s great! I’m a paralegal myself, specializing in civil law. I believe prisoners need individuals like yourself. You mentioned criminal law. Are you qualified to help other prisoners with their criminal cases?

Yummie: At this point I don’t have credentials of that caliber. But truthfully, I believe you just have to know what you are doing. Know the law! My track record speaks for itself.

Once I knew what I was doing, that gave me the confidence to file petitions in court for others. We are speaking about people whose lives are on the line. For some men, it is their only chance at freedom. You have to have confidence when that responsibility is on you.

Q: How does it feel knowing that the work that you put in liberated a person from bondage? 

Yummie: It feels great — especially because I know where I came from. During my trial, in 2009, I didn’t know anything about the law. I felt so defenseless. You always feel like your attorneys are not doing enough, because no one is going to fight for your life like you will. Being ignorant to the law, we don’t stand a chance. So for me to put the work in and now be able to help others is a great feeling. I’ve shocked myself, to be honest.

Q: I’d like you to share your perspective with the readers who might want to attack their own cases, but are reluctant for one of two reasons: either they have no confidence, or they are afraid to allow anybody to help them because they might be vulnerable to informants showing up on their case.

Yummie: For those who are in situations where the knowledge of law will make the difference between freedom and bondage, you must do what needs to be done. 

With regards to informants, [if it’s going to happen] the government is going to intentionally place an informant around you, and that will be planned out before you come in contact with them. We have no control over who we are housed with. The informant, or jailhouse snitch, is there for that purpose: to jump on people’s cases, whether we confess or not.

I’ve experienced it firsthand. Two informants jumped on my case, and I never said one word to them that actually pertained to my case. They brought one from Canada and placed him in my cell. [This kind of thing] mostly takes place in the federal system. 

Q: What is the biggest misconception that prisoners face when they are convicted, sentenced and pushed into the system? And how do we thwart the younger and less knowledgeable individuals from falling prey to this stigma?

Yummie: I would say it varies based on the individual and what type of sentence you’re serving, as well as what you are indulging in. Most of the younger guys that are ignorant have to want it for themselves. We can lead the way, but we can’t make them follow our lead. They have to want it! 

I always tell guys that if more of us worked on our cases and networked towards the ultimate goal of freedom, a lot more doors would open. Look at the Merle Unger case. His fight freed over 200 Maryland lifers who believed they would die in prison. If he hadn’t kept fighting, those doors wouldn’t have opened for those men. We have to want it ourselves, individually at first and then together. The louder the roar, the more we will be heard. 

Q: What are three pieces of legal knowledge you believe every prisoner should have?

Yummie: The number one is Brady v. [Maryland], a 1963 case … It deals with the government withholding favorable evidence from the defense. I’ve read hundreds of cases dealing with Brady and been stunned by the nature of the cases in which the government withheld evidence.

For number two, I would say all cases dealing with voir dire. This deals with the foundation of the jury trial. Courts and attorneys ask questions that are meant to ferret out any bias that a juror may have — the kinds of prejudices that could cause them to be partial in one way or another and not reach a verdict based solely on the evidence presented in the trial. I still think the courts should focus more on that subject.

Last but not least, number three is all cases in which jurors should not know that a defendant on trial has a previous conviction. This mostly applies to murder cases.

Let me explain. What the state calls “a disqualifying crime” prohibits a defendant from possessing a firearm. In cases where this phrase is invoked to refer to a past crime, the current jury now has reason to speculate about what the disqualifying crime is. 

This procedure is only for sentencing purposes. So if a defendant is convicted of the crime he is on trial for, the sentencing court can add a mandatory five years without parole for the previous conviction of a disqualifying crime. That’s on top of the sentence for the current crime. So, ultimately, what purpose does the jury knowing of the previous conviction serve? 

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.

Chris.X is a writer incarcerated in Maryland.