People who are incarcerated offer a unique perspective on the law. Having broken it, they now live in an environment pervaded by it. But only rarely, if ever, do scholars, lawyers, and policymakers hear directly from them about it.
This year, the Journal sponsored a Prison Law Writing Contest to recognize authentic and unheard voices on legal issues. We invited currently and recently imprisoned people to submit short essays in response to one of several questions. We offered a modest cash prize to the top three winners, with the hope of publishing a few essays if they made valuable contributions.
We received about 1,500 responses from people all across the United States--men and women, adults and juveniles, former petty offenders and current death-row inmates. Their work addressed a wide range of subjects, but some themes emerged. Prison is boring, but also dangerous and unpredictable. Prison is rich with regulation, governed by unique codes and procedures whose complexity and pervasiveness may enable official discretion as much as they constrain it. Prison is distant from the outside world, often hidden from the view of the courts and the public; it operates according to its own logic that may be difficult to understand. …