Shon Hopwood was a freak of nature. How he was capable of such astounding success as a jailhouse lawyer is a mystery, but he was. And so to the clueless eye, this means jailhouse lawyers are saviors of the downtrodden prisoner. Yet again, the Marshall Project, the self-proclaimed savior of criminal law because no one else has ever bothered to write about it, dives into the cesspool.
In a post entitled, ‘For $12 of Commissary, He Got 10 Years Off His Sentence,’ itself a silly conflation of unrelated things typically used to create an impression designed to fool the unwary. Or, had the outcome been different, as it is in 99.9% of the cases, “for $12 of commissary, he got squat.”
The post has two thrusts, an homage to jailhouse lawyers and debunking their “myth.”
What Everyone Gets Wrong
“There’s this story about prisoners constantly using lawsuits to complain about frivolous things,” says Meeropol. The image of the prisoner with too much time on his hands, filing one lawsuit after another, gained currency in the 1990s, and remains potent today. “Rikers Island inmates cost city big $$ with ‘frivolous’ lawsuits,” blared the New York Post(citing anonymous sources) in 2013. A San Diego paper ran a similar story that same year.
It’s “debunked” because Shon Hopwood. Except one data point doesn’t make the million others false. But then, logic and numbers have never been the strong suit at the Marshall Project.
While reliance on the New York Post is a straw man in most efforts at thoughtfulness, every experienced criminal defense lawyer can offer stories of wild and weird motions, habeas petitions, writs of error coram nobis (used by no one in New York but jailhouse lawyers), so incomprehensible, baseless, frivolous and just outright false that they will make your head hurt. They certainly make my head hurt.
And oftentimes, when they raise issues relating to their defense at the trial level, criminal defense lawyers are constrained to spend significant time explaining things because the judge ordered them to do so and the defendants, upon the advice of their jailhouse lawyers, waived privilege.
Before someone wearing a tinfoil hat raises the point, this has nothing to do with defense lawyers taking issue with jailhouse lawyers depriving them of legal fees. The defendants who use them lack the wherewithal to pay for a lawyer, and turn to the jailhouse lawyers for the very reason that they have nowhere else to turn. And again, to the ignorant, this seems like a feature rather than a bug, as jailhouse lawyers offer legal help which inmates can’t get elsewhere.
So is this a bad thing?
Well, yeah. Not every time, and not in every instance, but in the vast majority of instances, it’s very dangerous. And unlike the view from 30,000 feet, I can tell you why.
Initially, it’s important to remember that most people in prison are, indeed, criminals. Many have managed to survive on their wits, their scams, their bullshit, lying without empathy. Many are poorly educated. Many are, well, not very bright. Some are dumb as dirt. Most are desperate for some relief from life in prison, and all have time on their hands.
The stupid and desperate are preyed upon by the scammers, who tell them glorious stories of how they’ve chopped 10 years off a sentence for $12 in commissary. Except they’re not Shon Hopwood. Jailhouse lawyering is a form of currency in prison, and perfecting a pitch designed to give the pigeon just enough hope while leaving open the possibility that it doesn’t always succeed is a great way to earn a supplemental living.
But the $12 in commissary is only one form of payment. There is the family outside paying another family outside the rent money, or the diaper money, for a cut and paste motion that has already failed a thousand times, and will no doubt fail another thousand times, at relief. But it succeeds spectacularly at sucking in the ignorant and desperate inmate, who is illiterate and thinks all those squiggly lines on paper with latin-y sounding words mean something.
Then there’s the breakdown of the inmate who learns that his child won’t eat tonight because he had baby mama hand over his last $20 bill to the jailhouse lawyer’s account in exchange for papers that were tossed immediately. If he appreciates the error of his judgment, his heart is broken by the suffering he causes his child. If not, he seethes at the injustice of the world, and still his kid goes hungry.
And then there’s the jailhouse lawyer’s supporting affidavit that includes some ridiculous and flagrant lie, that’s apparent to everyone but the inmate who signed it, whether because he couldn’t read what it said or he was guaranteed that it wins almost every time. What could possibly go wrong?
The annoyed judge or vindictive prosecutor decides they’ve had enough of this crap, and then a charge of perjury or obstruction of justice smacked the prisoner upside the head. Or maybe it’s a prison strike, and he gets a year in SHU to contemplate why lying is not appreciated.
I am both amazed and astounded when a Shon Hopwood comes along, and to add to the confusion, he’s not the only jailhouse lawyer who has helped inmates and had great success. But these are the outliers, by a million miles. Most have only one skill, the ability to scam other inmates, and no conscience about taking whatever they can no matter the harm caused.
So should the mother of a prisoner read this post at the Marshall Project, squander the last of the inmate’s savings on paying off a jailhouse lawyer who has nothing to offer but empty assurances, and leave a child without dinner, give Bill Keller a call. I’m sure he’ll buy the kid a meal with the millions raised to fund his vanity baby, the savior of criminal law.
H/T Radley Balko