Wallace v. Kern Historic Case

At a Glance

Case Description 

Wallace v. Kern is a class action lawsuit filed by CCR and the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of seven indigent inmates awaiting trial in the Brooklyn House of Detention. These men had filed a handwritten class action complaint and instituted a peaceful boycott of the Brooklyn Supreme Court to dramatize their grievances. Shortly thereafter, CCR lawyers became counsel in the suit which led to the development of the Brooklyn House of Detention Project, located at CCR. It challenged the unlawful pre-trial conditions under which the inmates were being held.

CCR had an interest in this case because of its work in trying to keep activists out of jail. The conditions of the inmates’ pre-trial confinement included excessive bail, lack of adequate counsel, denial of speedy trial rights, coercion in plea bargaining, and lack of due process and equal protection because of their economic status.

While many of the legal victories in the suit were later overturned at the appellate level, the issues received wide support from the public and Legal Aid Society attorneys, who represent most indigent defendants in the city. As a result, many of the challenges for which the inmates were fighting were implemented despite the appellate court’s unwillingness to provide relief.

One of the most important and unique aspects of the suit is that it allowed inmates to break down the traditional view of indigent prisoners as passive objects of institutional manipulation. Prisoners testified, helped with the preparation, conducted cross-examinations, participated in the strategy decisions, and, of course, conceived the original lawsuit.

The concept of the prisoner as responsible actor rather than passive victim has been extended in a spin-off project, a published legal manual for pre-trial detainees. Initiated by two former inmates of the Brooklyn House, the manual is designed to aid the detainee in learning how to assert his or her rights and includes chapters on arrest, arraignment, bail, plea bargaining, and many others.