41 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 369 (2006)
The Power of the Pen: Jailhouse Lawyers, Literacy, and Civic Engagement

handle is hein.journals/hcrcl41 and id is 375 raw text is: The Power of the Pen:
Jailhouse Lawyers, Literacy, and
Civic Engagement
Jessica Feierman*
The history of federal law on jailhouse lawyers reveals a Supreme
Court grappling to define access to the courts in the context of a prisoner
population with limited literacy skills. Most prisoners are indigent and must
represent themselves pro se in both civil suits and habeas petitions.' As a
result, prisoners with low literacy levels often face significant practical
obstacles to court access. As Chris O'Bryant's article in this issue vividly
conveys,' these obstacles have been magnified in recent years by the An-
titerrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).3 Barriers to pris-
oner court access have simultaneously been severely restricted by the Prison
Litigation Reform Act (PLRA)4 and the Supreme Court's decision in
Lewis v. Casey.5
This problem is not unique to prisoners: in a variety of contexts, in-
dividuals seeking legal redress for civil claims face significant, and often
insurmountable, financial barriers to court access.6 When the potential liti-
gant has limited literacy skills, these barriers can be even more difficult to
* The author wishes to thank Mitu Gulati, David Vladeck, Justin Mixon, Steven
Feierman, Jennifer Mueller, Sarah Leavitt, Larry Caldwell, and members of the editorial
staff of the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review for their insightful comments
on earlier versions of this Essay and interesting conversations about jailhouse lawyering.
(1988); Lisa Bellamy, Playing for Time: The Need for Equitable Tolling of the Habeas
Corpus Statute of Limitations, 32 AM. J. CRIM. L. 1, 46 (2004); Julie B. Nobel, Note, En-
suring Meaningful Jailhouse Legal Assistance: The Need for a Jailhouse Lawyer-Inmate
Privilege, 18 CARDOZO L. REV. 1569, 1575-77 (1997).
2 Thomas C. O'Bryant, The Great Unobtainable Writ: Indigent Pro Se Litigation After
the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, 41 HARV. C.R.-C.L. L. REV.
299 (2006).
'Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-132, 110
Stat. 1214 (1996) (amending 28 U.S.C. §§ 2244, 2253-2255 (1994) and adding 28 U.S.C.
§§ 2261-2266 (2000)).
4 Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, Pub. L. No. 104-134, §§ 801-810, 110 Stat.
1321, 1321-77 (1996) (codified at I1 U.S.C. § 523; 18 U.S.C. §§ 3624, 3626; 28 U.S.C.
§§ 1346, 1915, 1915A; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1997-1997h (2000)).
5518 U.S. 343 (1996).
6 See, e.g., David C. Vladeck, In re Arons: The Plight of the Unrich  in Obtaining
Legal Services, in LEGAL ETHICS STORIES 255 (Deborah L. Rhode & David Luban eds.,
2006) (describing the challenges faced by parents in IDEA proceedings who cannot find
lawyers and in at least one state are forbidden from having non-lawyer advocates represent
them); see also Walters v. Nat'l Ass'n of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 305 (1985) (up-
holding $10 attorney-fee limits under the Veterans Act).

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