Justice Champions of Change:

The advocate fighting for legal empowerment in U.S. prisons


Jhody Polk has moved from being incarcerated for seven years in a United States prison to leading a movement to give incarcerated people better representation and treatment. In 2018 she launched the Legal Empowerment and Advocacy Hub (LEAH), the first participatory defense hub in the state of Florida. LEAH is also the home of the Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative which supports incarcerated law clerks and jailhouse lawyers — individuals on the inside who are working to provide better legal representation for themselves and their peers — LEAH also works with vulnerable, isolated, and incarcerated communities to educate them about the criminal justice system and human rights.

A Soros Justice Fellow and the Florida Ambassador of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Jhody spoke to the Task Force’s Alisa Jimenez about the scope and impact of her legal empowerment work.

Jhody Polk (Photo: Jhody Polk)

Alisa: First, could you tell me about the journey that took you into legal empowerment and advocacy work?

Jhody: It started in prison. While I was incarcerated in Florida, the librarian recommended that I train as a law clerk. So I went through my training, and the more I read the law and the more injustice I saw in prison — not just in criminal cases but also for those who were going through civil justice situations — the more I understood how the law could be used for good or for bad. I came to love the law. A lot of people would ask me how this was possible — the law is terrible, they’d say — but I realized even in prison that it wasn’t so much that the law is bad, but that it depended on who was interpreting and using and making the law. So it was while I was incarcerated that I realised I wanted to go to law school and I wanted to educate people as well become a lawmaker.

Alisa: And what did you do when you left prison?

Jhody: I came home and instantly became a mom and a wife. I enrolled in college for paralegal studies and found a job in hotels. About 3 years after my release I got involved first with the Second Chances Campaign in Florida, which worked to restore voting rights to people with convictions. I quit my job at the hotel and I started a temporary job on the campaign to restore voting rights. I joined the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, that same year in 2017 and I started a chapter of the National Council in Florida, which is now the Florida Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding hired me at the end of the campaign and I have been at RPCP ever since.

But although I was doing very useful work, I somehow felt it wasn’t enough. In 2017 a friend told me I should apply for a Soros fellowship, which I’d never heard of before. And that same night I had dinner with another friend and I was showing her my professional plan for my life. I had all this stuff like voting rights for incarcerated women and girls that I felt I was supposed to do, and at the bottom of that list it said empowering incarcerated law clerks. And my friend was like, that’s a Soros fellowship, and out of all the big ideas on the page I realized that this little thing at the bottom was what I really wanted to do. So I applied and in 2018 I was named a Soros Justice Fellow for the initiative to empower jailhouse lawyers in prisons throughout the United States.

Alisa: Why are jailhouse lawyers important?

Jhody: It’s an incarcerated person’s constitutional right to have access to the courts. So most prisons have a law library within the institution, and even if they don’t have a trained law clerk there they still have what we call jailhouse lawyers, individuals who assist and work with you on your case.

The first time I acquired the language to express what I felt about jailhouse lawyers was when I went to a legal empowerment training in Budapest in 2018 which was organized by Open Society Foundations and Namati [and] the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Legal empowerment is based on the idea that when people know the law, they can use the law and, ultimately, shape the law. When people become legally empowered, they can become leaders and they can be their own change makers, no matter where they are. They say those closest to the problem is the closest to the solutions. Jailhouse lawyers come into contact with the 2.2 plus million incarcerated [people] annually in the U.S.

I’d thought before that jailhouse lawyers needed and deserved to be trained as paralegals, but hearing about the African Prisons Project [discussed in an earlier Champions of Change article here], and finding out that in Africa incarcerated individuals are getting law degrees, I became even more convinced that we should be aiming for this in the United States too.

Alisa: One of the things we talk about in the Task Force on Justice’s report, Justice for All, is the concept of a justice journey. And one of the first steps in that justice journey is empowering people in communities to understand the law and to utilise the law, which is exactly what you’re doing. Could you tell me a little bit more about the work you do with these law clerks?

Jhody: The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative has three goals. The first is to ensure that the law clerk training is sufficient to meet the needs of the incarcerated population, as well as making paralegal training accessible and affordable for incarcerated individuals. The second is to deliver continuing education courses where law students and lawyers can partner with local prisons to offer courses in addition to the institution training for law clerks. The third is to create an advocacy network for formerly incarcerated jailhouse lawyers to receive support in obtaining legal education, employment or opportunities to use their skills in other ways when they return within their local communities.

Right now, we’re corresponding with over 250 jailhouse lawyers in 28 states in the U.S. We created a survey to find out what their needs are, what they are doing, and how we can support them. And we’re in conversation with institutions in four states around developing a community paralegals training course that will be piloted in those states with a goal being rolled out across the country.

We’re also creating legal empowerment hubs in states where we work with lawyers and law students to provide legal resources to those inside. When jailhouse lawyers write to us, a lot of the time they just need dictionaries and basic research materials which the institutions don’t provide. So we’ve been partnering up with different folks inside of the states to make sure that we can get the law clerks some of the basic necessities.

And from an advocacy point of view, we’re in the middle of a seven-state law school tour, where we talk to law school students and the legal community about what legal empowerment is and how can we expand access to justice and peace for vulnerable, isolated and incarcerated communities. We are strategically approaching penitentiary institutions themselves so that they understand we’re not coming in with some malicious intent to overthrow the prison system, but that it’s a person’s human right and their constitutional right to have information on how to protect themselves and how to use laws and policies. We’re hoping to partner with institutions to provide this service and train individuals inside the prison.

Alisa: Can you tell me about how your work has changed people’s experience of incarceration?

Jhody: At LEAH we recognise that incarceration is a cycle, so we have adopted our own legal empowerment cycle. Incarceration doesn’t just start in the courtroom. People talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, but there it’s more of a community-to-prison pipeline. Incarceration is more than physically being put behind bars. People are incarcerated in their communities, they’re incarcerated in their jobs, relationships, in their minds and their bodies. And, ultimately, that’s what makes us vulnerable to physical incarceration.

So physical incarceration starts in the community, then it goes through the court, incarceration in an institution, probation, and then folks come back into the community. I wanted people to be able to see how the system works. It’s easy to fight the enemy when you can see it, but it’s hard when you can’t see it. Through participatory defence, working with individuals and their families from the moment of arrest, we’ve seen a huge impact first of all on families being empowered to recognise the false narratives and stereotypes that result in certain populations being more likely to be incarcerated. And secondly, we’ve been able to help families to be empowered to get the best outcome for their loved ones and to heal and be able to find support in one another, because it causes a huge impact when a person leaves a community and goes into the prison system. It doesn’t just affect them — it affects their children, their family and their neighbourhood.

And for accused individuals, unfortunately we do see people who don’t come home, who ultimately go to prison, but these individuals go to prison prepared. They understand what the time frames are for launching an appeal, for the post-conviction process and so on. When I was a law clerk people would show up to prison with ridiculous sentences and not even know how they got there. I love the fact that the folks we’re working with are going into prison prepared, that they are going into prison equipped to be able to engage their law clerk, but also that they show up with the paperwork and resources they need to be able to legitimately seek post-conviction release. We are also repurposing prisons by using it as a time to connect with people inside to work with them on leadership skills, social emotional learning, self-narrating, and self-authorship. We are inspiring citizenship on the inside so people return home with a reclaimed identity rooted in humanity.

L.E.A.H. participates in the Green Dot Fading Out Violence Expo 2019 (Photo: L.E.A.H.)

Alisa: Have there been any unexpected allies that you’ve made?

Jhody: Yes, the National Lawyers Guild were one of the only national organisations that really understood how important jailhouse lawyers were. So that was almost like a natural partnership, and they have been very supportive.

And there’s also Namati [and the Global Legal Empowerment Network that they convene]. I never thought that so much of my work would be supported and inspired by people from other countries. I think globally we see such an amazing display of what it looks like to really transfer power through the work of community paralegals. It is a godsend, I’m so proud to be a member and a contributor. All of us within that movement are working together towards worldwide justice and peace. The Bernstein Institute for Human Rights has also been phenomenal! I live in the South where it is still divided and territorial so when the Bernstein Institute came on as not just my [NY-based] partner…, they [work alongside] me in all the states we work in. They are dedicated to not only the work, but the people we serve.

Jhody Polk participating in the #SDGButterflyEffect campaign. (Photo: NYU CIC)

Alisa: How has this global connection impacted your work?

Jhody: First of all, I’ve been able to get access to information and resources that I would have never gotten in the U.S.. I was newly out of prison with a vision, and I understood that I wanted to do something great, but I didn’t know how to do that. And seeing examples from Sierra Leone and Liberia and India was really inspiring. I was able to see what it looks like when we utilise these practices. Take the example of the farmers’ march in the Philippines. It took them seven years, to organise and to get to the place where they were able to do the march. And then to see how ten years later those communities are flourishing, with the children of those farmers in places of power and leadership — it modelled to me that it wouldn’t be easy, but that it would be worth it.

Alisa: Coming back to the U.S. context, what do you think are the biggest shifts that are needed to catalyse these types of people-centred approaches that you pioneer with the LEAH programme?

Jhody: First of all, we have to heal. We have to be more understanding of the actual harm that we cause. And second, I feel like right now there’s so much talk around criminal justice, it’s almost like criminal justice is the new thing. And then there’s a lot of talk about immigration, and we just go from one hot topic to the next. It’s time for us to go to the roots, to recognize that criminal justice is this unhealthy devouring system that claims a lot of the lives of individuals. We’ve got to start doing some foundational work. We have to stop operating on the surface. We have to shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. And we really have to start recognising, measuring and identifying the pathways and the impact of oppression and structural violence. And it’s not just the historical context, but the ways that we’re doing things currently.

Alisa: What are you most proud of in your work?

Jhody: One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the work we do with law students. We have seen a lot of students come through LEAH and working with participatory defence and the jailhouse lawyers initiative, and they really get an opportunity to see the cycle of incarceration of civil and criminal injustice. And this empowers them not to just be great lawyers but to share and practice with community members in a way that provides experiences that otherwise they will never get.

And seeing our law clerks and our jailhouse lawyers, it amazes me how they are taking the information we are sending them and they’re not just using it but they’re teaching it and they’re developing it by creating legal empowerment hubs on the inside. They are influencing us on how we can create better legal empowerment programmes. And when they come out they are prepared, they’re ready to come home and use some of these strategies in their journey to reintegration after incarceration, because they now have a better understanding of how the law works, how the community works, and who in their community is willing to help them.

To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.