As I was working on my collection of short stories, “One Day in the Life of a Jailhouse Lawyer,” I got a notification that James Patterson, along with Nancy Allen, had released a novel, The Jailhouse Lawyer. Patterson is a master storyteller, and has created a cottage industry of best sellers, on his own and collaborating with various authors, even former president Bill Clinton.
The title of the “new” Patterson novel, published in 2021, piqued by interest. Would the novel truly be about a jailhouse lawyer? I have met amazing jailhouse lawyers who could hold their own in any court against prosecutors with the vast resources of the State behind them. In fact, I know a jailhouse lawyer, now a practicing attorney, who scored high on the LSAT while he was still in prison. There are two other formerly incarcerated individuals I know who went on to law school, passed the Bar, and are practicing attorneys.
I have read almost everything by Patterson, and I believe that a good writer can write on almost any subject, despite the fact that when people take up pens to write, they are almost always instructed to, “write about what you know.” I wondered if Patterson was in a lane he should not have been.
Most of us have heard that saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover, which basically means, “Don’t judge a book by its title.” So, I kept an open mind, as any good juror or reviewer should, and suspended judgment until I finished The Jailhouse Lawyer.
The main character, Martha Foster, does not become a member of the jailhouse lawyer profession in any way resembling the typical path: arrested, tried, convicted and given a lengthy sentence, and later learning about all the legal niceties, including the U.S. Constitution, that was not followed in one’s case, and setting out on a quest for justice, studying the law like one’s life depended on it, and in many ways one’s life itself is at stake. Foster, like a good jailhouse lawyer, takes on a criminal legal system in Erva, Alabama, that’s corrupt to the core, and is similar to most court systems in the United States, where the main characters are zealous career prosecutors, indifferent if not incompetent defense counsel in cahoots with the prosecution and the court, and judges that fancy themselves “king makers” and boast about their conviction rate, a sure sign that justice is not being administered in that judge’s court.
Foster, not indifferent nor incompetent, becomes the public defender in Erva, Alabama, and she quickly realizes that if she does not get with Judge Pickens’ program, who says from the bench, “We have our own system in Douglas County,” then she’s going to have a hard time in Douglas County Court with Judge Pickens presiding. And you can bet, if a jailhouse lawyer is involved, then the system more than likely failed people at every stage of the process.
In law school, Foster earned the nickname, “Jailhouse Lawyer.” She “was arrested at a civil rights protest in Selma for getting mouthy with a cop, and was held overnight in the local jail.” No charges were filed against Foster, but she spent that night in jail listening to stories of injustice and dispensing legal advice.
Later in the story, because Foster does not get with the program of Judge Pickens, she is held in contempt of court and sent to the local lockup. There, the jailer, Jesse Robertson, as complicit as the court, raises his voice in the common area for all the incarcerated women to hear, as he introduces Foster, “You bunch of skanks got y’all a genuine jailhouse lawyer in here.” Of course, Foster helps a woman or two.
During her short stint in the county jail, Foster experiences the psychological and physical torment of incarceration, what criminologists euphemistically call “the pains of imprisonment,” which only strengthens her resolve not to get with the program of Judge Pickens, and to bring him down.
Far too many members of the Bar, prosecutors and defense counsel, simply get with the program, prosecutors seeking convictions at any costs, including knowingly using false testimony, over that sacrosanct role of seeking justice; and defense counsel are almost as overwhelmed by the criminal legal system as are the people charged with crimes; and judges, for the most part, turn a blind eye to injustice, or knowingly and willingly allow injustice to prevail in their court.
Foster, practically through a trial of ordeal, experiences firsthand what happens when injustice goes unchecked. She is better positioned than most jailhouse lawyers to do something about this corrupt court.
The jailhouse lawyers I know who became practicing attorneys can speak to the book’s ending: “Sometimes the best education a lawyer can have is a…stretch of hard time.” Now imagine a criminal legal system where prosecutors, defense counsel, and even judges are held accountable for not seeing evenhanded justice done. Now imagine them behind bars.