Only a strong prison movement can win and enforce significant legal victories. But the prison movement can also use court action to help build its political strength. A well-publicized lawsuit can educate people outside about the conditions in prison. The struggle to enforce a court order can play an important part in political organizing inside and outside prison. Good court rulings backed up by a strong movement can convince prison staff to hold back, so that conditions inside are a little less brutal and prisoners have a little more freedom to read, write, and talk.
Still, the value of any lawsuit is limited. It may take several years from starting the suit to win a final decision that you can enforce. There may be complex trial procedures, appeals, and delays in complying with a court order. Prison officials may be allowed to follow only the technical words of a court decision, while continuing their illegal behavior another way. Judges may ignore law which obviously is in your favor, because they are afraid of appearing “soft on criminals” or because they think prisoners threaten their own position in society. Even the most liberal, well-meaning judges will only try to change the way prison officials exercise their power. No judge will seriously address the staff’s basic control over your life while in prison.
To make fundamental change in prison, you can’t rely on lawsuits alone. It is important to connect your suit to the larger struggle. Write press releases that explain your suit and what it shows about prison and about the reality of America. Send the releases to newspapers, radio and TV stations, and legislators. Keep in touch throughout the suit with outside groups that support prisoners’ struggles. Look at Appendix I for media and groups that may be able to help you. We have also provided some pointers on writing to these groups.
You may also want to discuss your suit with other prisoners and involve them in it even if they can’t participate officially. Remember that a lawsuit is most valuable as one weapon in the ongoing struggle to change prisons and the society which makes prisons the way they are.
Of course, all this is easy for us to say, because we are not inside. All too often jailhouse lawyers and activists face retaliation from guards due to their organizing and law suits. Chapter Three, Section G, Part 4 explains some legal options if you face retaliation. However, while the law may be able to stop abuse from happening in the future, and it can compensate you for your injuries, the law cannot guarantee that you will not be harmed. Only you know the risks that you are willing to take.
Finally, you should know that those of us who fight this struggle from the outside are filled with awe and respect at the courage of those of you who fight it, in so many different ways, on the inside.
“Jailhouse lawyers aren’t simply, or even mainly, jailhouse lawyers. They are sons, daughters, uncles, nieces, parents, sometimes teachers, grandparents, and occasionally writers. In short, they are part of a wider, broader, deeper social fabric.”
~ Mumia Abu-Jamal, award-winning journalist, author, and jailhouse lawyer, from his 2009 book “Jailhouse Lawyers.”