“For Life”

A new ABC drama about an inmate wrongfully convicted on a drug charge and given a life sentence. While imprisoned, the inmate character, Aaron Wallace, secures a law degree, works both as a “jailhouse lawyer” and “inmate rep” for other inmates, and is determined to bring down the corrupt prosecutor who sent him to prison by working on behalf of other inmates also wrongfully convicted by this prosecutor.

The prison and courtroom scenes are rather sophomoric but the quality acting by all the characters involved in the show allow you to get past these minor details.

That Wallace has “anger issues” is an understatement. He roils in the stuff. Light a match around him and he would probably wake up St. Louis.

But “For Life” is both timely and needed.

Political corruption, misconduct, and cheating are woven into the nation’s prosecutorial system. There are scores of prosecutors who, despite having a strong case of guilt, will use perjured testimony, manufacture evidence, and conceal mitigating case to secure a conviction for a higher grade of offense. For example, prosecutors turning a non-death penalty case into a death penalty case because it enhances their “conviction resume.”

“For Life” serves an additional benefit besides exposing this kind of official wrongdoing.

The show speaks to the issue of  “jailhouse lawyering.”

The practice of “jailhouse law” received constitutional blessing from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968. Virtually every prison, even jails, now have “law libraries” staffed by inmates (often referred to as “ inmate counsel-substitutes”) who assist inmates with post-conviction pleadings, lawsuits against prison conditions, and before prison disciplinary proceedings.

Jailhouse lawyers keep the hope machine ginning in the prison community. They work long hours (often under official duress), constantly face official harassment or retaliation, and try to keep under control clients who have little experience or training in control.

I won the first “prisoner rights” lawsuit in Louisiana in 1971 and one of the first in the nation. That lawsuit opened the door to many “reforms” in the prison system and legitimized the practice of jailhouse lawyering in the state’s prison system.

But former Louisiana Corrections Secretary C. Paul Phelps once told me: “You’ve done more to change the prison system with the lawsuits you didn’t win than with those you did win. Good prison administrators pay attention to all inmate lawsuits – they often tell us what we are not doing right.”

That said, Aaron Wallace needs to get his anger issues under control, although there is not much chance he will do that in the coming episodes. He is a man on a mission. Having a mission and the determination to fulfill that mission has made many inmates achieve incredible accomplishments behind bars, not just for themselves but for others as well.

Give “For Life” a view. At least it will make you think about criminal justice. There are enough pro-prosecution/cops shows on T.V. to add another thousand people to the prison system each week. Give, and, yes, share of little equal opportunity with Aaron Wallace as he fights to change a corrupt criminal justice system—one that favors wealth, privilege, and social status over poverty, deprivation and social disenfranchisement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *