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Amanda Ripley’s recent story on jailhouse lawyers (“Closing Arguments,” 8/20) provided an informed and sympathetic view of prisoner civil lawsuits. As an appellate attorney, I am engaged in similar litigation, challenging not conditions, but convictions, through collateral attacks and writs of habeas corpus.
In an earlier version of this letter, I wrote that frivolous prisoner lawsuits, such as those demanding more locker space, are easy to dispose of, while it is meritorious suits that take time. Actually, whether frivolous or meritorious, my experience is that habeas corpus petitions are ignored for long periods of time. The government then kicks out a boilerplate response, and the court denies habeas corpus without holding a hearing or giving any reasons for its decision.
The lack of law libraries and lawyers for prisoners, whether in civil or criminal cases, would matter only if the courts were actually willing to consider and grant relief. I’ve been in practice 10 years, I specialize in appeals, I have access to excellent law libraries, and I have extensive online legal resources, yet I get the same results as pro se prisoners submitting handwritten pleadings: My clients never get out.
Laurens Van der Post, the South African author, writes that under apartheid he witnessed many trials and noticed that the magistrates seemed to look past or through black defendants, without seeing their common humanity. I see the same process at work here. Once arrested, a person is merely a defendant, the accused. Once convicted, he is no longer even human, instead a concrete manifestation of evil. Seeing evil outside of us, incarnate in criminals, is much easier than realizing, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Of course no one can consciously acknowledge this dehumanization, and we cling to the forms, the theater of justice. The black robes, the flags, the judge sitting above everyone, the solemn invocations of law all give the appearance of justice. From the standpoint of society, funds expended on the courts are well-spent. We can have false confidence that due process is being given and simultaneously indulge in justified vengeance.