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BY CHRISTIE THOMPSON for ThinkProgress
Former US Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. was reportedly punished with solitary confinement for giving legal advice to his fellow inmates, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. An anonymous source told the Sun-Times that Jackson spent four or five days in isolation over a month ago, when a guard “took exception” to Jackson advising other inmates on their rights in prison.
The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the case. Jackson’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Jackson, who represented Chicago’s South Side for nearly 17 years, is serving 2 ½ years for using roughly $750,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses ranging from jewelry and Blu-Ray players to Michael Jackson memorabilia. He has a law degree from the University of Illinois, but never took the bar exam.
Jackson would not be the first to face isolation for providing legal assistance to other inmates. “It’s not unusual for prisoners who annoy staff to end up in solitary confinement,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “And sometimes that includes prisoners who assert their legal rights or help other prisoners assert theirs.”
“These are prisoners who the [Prisons] Bureau wants to keep quiet.” Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross said prison policy “allows for inmates to assist one another with legal research and preparation of legal documents,” as long as the inmate is not being paid. All federal prisons are required to have a legal library on site.
But whether inmates have been punished for helping other inmates with litigation is difficult to prove, said Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-author of the Jailhouse Lawyers’ Handbook. “The prison is always going to have a legitimate explanation for why they did something,” she said.
Meeropol is the lead attorney suing the Bureau of Prisons for their use of “communications management units,” which they say were designed to “isolate certain prisoners from the rest of the BOP and the outside world.” Former plaintiff Avon Twitty, who was released from prison in 2011, says he was put in restrictive housing for filing two legal complaints regarding prison record keeping that may have lengthened the amount of time he spent behind bars.
The complaint says “Mr. Twitty believes that his designation to the CMU was based on discriminatory notions about Muslims, and made in retaliation for his filing grievances and a lawsuit.”
“The Bureau of Prisons uses restrictive units to limit the way these prisoners can advocate for themselves and others,” said Meeropol. “These are prisoners who the Bureau wants to keep quiet.”
A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) have been pushing for federal prisons to curb their use of isolation, which researchers say can cause mental trauma after even a few days. Over 12,000 federal inmates are being held in solitary confinement.
Jailhouse lawyers in state prisons have also been punished for working on cases. In New York, inmates must be approved by state prison officials before they can help with legal issues. The New York Civil Liberties Union identified at least 100 instances of inmates being sent to “the box” for “unauthorized legal assistance.” Inmates in Texas have reported being put in isolation for doing pro bono work.
While inmates have a constitutional right to access the courts, legal relief for many is beyond reach. Efforts to curb frivolous litigation have increased the obstacles for inmates alleging civil rights violations. Prisoners must go through a lengthy internal complaint system first, and can have their case thrown out by a judge without ever involving the defendant.
The increasingly complicated system makes those on the inside who understand the law even more important, Meeropol said. “Depriving an individual access to a jailhouse lawyer [can] really be depriving them their access to the court.”