This Essay is a joint endeavor of two authors equal in dignity, aligned in purpose, and, at one point, radically separated in social position. We hope that it will accomplish many things: locate the work of jailhouse lawyers within abolitionist frameworks, enunciate the role of jailhouse lawyers as community paralegals, and advocate for recognition and valuation of jailhouse lawyers as key members of the American legal ecosystem. However, if all this Essay articulates is a well-communicated theory on the path from our currently deplorable system of incarceration towards justice, we fall short of our ultimate goal.
In Haiti, critical legal empowerment (CLE) offers a lens to reimagine the promise of the law in a system that has historically excluded the majority population from its protection. Beginning with the belief that tout moun se moun—all people are people—CLE requires the dismantling of doctrines and rules that create different categories of people and also demands that all-powerful actors be held accountable for rights violations under the law. In Haiti, this means that the Haitian state and, crucially, its international “partners” be made responsible to those who have been excluded not only from, but by, the law.
This Article traces the thread of legal oppression and resistance in Haiti, examining efforts by Haitian communities to make demands of the law and the legal system based on the insistence that all Haitians have equal rights, that tout moun se moun. These demands do not stop with equality, however. They also include affirmative claims of dignity and life-affirming autonomy from the state, spaces where subsistence farmers can protect unique Haitian lifeways. This insistence—on the protection of life, freedom from abuse, and extension of basic rights to subsistence—including land, food sovereignty, and clean water—is ongoing but also radically incomplete. Only once the law can encompass these rights as against powerful actors who deprive both individuals and collectives of their rights and dignity will the promise of the Haitian revolution finally be fulfilled.
As the world violently shifts and adjusts to peril, the legal profession has not been exempted from the challenge to transform itself. Within a legal empowerment practice, the question of relevance invites legal advocates and professionals to adapt and respond to the unmet legal needs arising from deepened states of inequality. This Article summarizes the experience and contributions of legal empowerment work in Puerto Rico during and after significant catastrophes. Analyzing how states of emergency and failed recovery processes affect the exercise of human dignity in Puerto Rico provides the legal profession perspective on the urgency to defend legal empowerment mainly when crises occur. Despite its importance during and after emergencies, access to justice is rarely considered an essential component of disaster preparedness or response. Unlike food, medicine, and debris removal, the capacity of individuals and communities to understand and traverse legal processes is not contemplated amidst the chaos. Survivors of emergencies who subsequently become victims of resulting economic fallout, law enforcement, and other social issues are left behind and fall through the abyss of underserved justice. A people-centered, legal empowerment approach to lawyering has proven valuable and feasible to address and respond to the acute disparities amplified during emergencies. It is also a call to a broadly defined justice community—the judiciary, agencies, lawyers, law students, and law schools—that is also at risk of peril if transformations fall short.