Life in the cage: Jailhouse lawyers
‘You got taken, my brotha. This mothafucka filed some bullshit. I can do a better job than he can.’
How to obtain legal counsel for a jar of coffee
By David Valdez
When my father and I entered the California prison system, I heard gossip from fellow convicts about a great attorney who fought for prisoners’ rights. He was a true renegade, a fighter. He offered free consultations. So I had my mom set up an appointment with him. After obtaining the transcripts from our trial and reviewing them, Attorney Richard Dangler came to visit me at Tehachapi Prison, a Level IV maximum security joint, in early 1996.
“Mr. Valdez, hello. I am Richard Dangler. I am here to help get you out of prison,” he said, shaking my hand with a firm grip.
He looked like a liberal activist from the ‘60s: white, early 50s, clean-shaven, wearing a Hawaiian dress shirt, khaki pants, smelling of Mennen aftershave. His voice was as smooth as a seasoned car salesman. His dark hair had white streaks in it, giving him an air of celebrity like George Clooney.
“So, Mr. Dangler,” I said, “after reading the trial transcripts, what can you do for us?”
“Well, it looks like a clear case of entrapment, a setup using a paid snitch. The FBI wanted you in prison for some reason. I have had much success filing writs for prisoners across the state. My reputation speaks for itself. I am the most inexpensive appeals attorney in the state. I don’t rely on government money to run my practice. For eleven-thousand dollars I’ll take both your dad’s and your case.”
I had already done some research. Most attorneys I contacted charged a minimum of $20,000 just to file one writ of habeas corpus in state court. After some thought, I took him up on the offer.
Two days later, my mother sent an $11,000 cashier’s check to Richard Dangler’s office in Sacramento. I felt confident in him. He had spent three hours on his visit with me, discussing legal strategies and issues he would file on appeal. He convinced me he had a full understanding of the case, and that he really believed in my innocence.
Pretty soon, though, I began to worry. Every time I called Dangler’s office collect, using the only fifteen-minute call I had per week, the receptionist would accept the call, but he was never there to talk to me personally. I wrote letters to him, and he never replied. One year after we retained him, I finally received in the mail a copy of the writ he filed in the Superior Court of Norwalk.
When I showed a fellow inmate named Richie, a jailhouse lawyer, he balked.
“You got taken, my brotha. This mothafucka filed some bullshit. I can do a better job than he can. You gots to see my writs. I show it to you. He arguing shit that is outdated, old case law. Looks like he gots a computer program and just fill in the blanks with your information.” He laughed as he continued to read each page.
Inmate Richie was an African American in his mid-40s. He wore long dreadlocks, probably a Rastafarian, a fixture in the law library. Many inmates highly recommended him because he was not afraid of filing grievances against prison staff. He had already received numerous disciplinary write-ups for abuse of the administrative appeals process.
“Huh, what do you mean, ‘outdated’?” I asked him.
“Look at page five, line twenty-five…this case ain’t good law anymore. You watch. Judge going to deny you, fo’ sho!”
Sure enough, just one week later, I received the one-page denial from the court. A rubber stamp imprinted “DENIED” upon the page with no explanation.
One year passed, and in 1998, Dangler mailed me a copy of the writ he filed in the California Court of Appeals. It was the same writ, except with a different cover page. I went to the jailhouse lawyer again to get his feedback.
“This mothafucka is crazy, a crook. What you say his name was? Dangler? I been hearing stories about him, taking peoples’ money and doing nothing. You gots to file a complaint against his mothafuckin’ ass with the State Bar. Homie, I gots the forms right here in my folder. I can do it for you, the whole complaint, for two jars of Folgers Coffee. You dig?” he said, smiling, his two front upper teeth missing.
I had no trust in this convict. After a cursory glance of the writs he showed me, I noticed that he couldn’t even spell. His sentence structure and legal arguments made no sense. I could picture law clerks and judges laughing at his writs, and all prisoner-filed writs.
I waited to see what would happen. The writ came back “DENIED,” no explanation. One year later, I received another copy; the writ was filed in the California Supreme Court. Months later, also denied, no explanation.
I started looking for another appellate lawyer to take our appeal to the federal courts.
Unfortunately, the retainer fees were the same—$20,000 or more. To preserve my rights, I had no choice but to retain Dangler again, this time for $13,500 for my father and me—a package deal. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorist Effective Death Penalty Act [AEDPA], shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. The act sought to limit the amount of appeals being filed by prisoners nationwide, making it mandatory that a prisoner shall file a habeas petition in federal court within one year of denial in the California Supreme Court.
I asked Dangler about the AEDPA deadline and he said he would file on time. He also assured me he would answer letters and phone calls this time around. He appeared to be drunk, but I didn’t say anything.
He lied. In mid-2000, Dangler filed our federal writs in the U.S. District Court. A year later, the judge ruled that Dangler filed our appeals 280 days past the one-year AEDPA deadline, denying us with prejudice. Dangler assured me by telephone that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals would offer us relief. He lied. Both the 9th Circuit Court and U.S. Supreme Court in late 2001 upheld the decision. We were procedurally barred forever from presenting our claims in federal court. A total of $24,500 from 1996 to 2001 went down the drain.
From 2000 to 2002, while I was housed at California Mens Colony in San Luis Obispo, I became a published writer. In July 2002, after several articles of mine were published in New Times about prison issues, I was awakened by prison guards at 6 a.m., strip-searched, handcuffed, and personally escorted across the prison yard in just boxers, directly to Receiving and Release Department, given an orange prison jumpsuit to wear, and transferred to CTF in Soledad in a van, by myself, with three armed guards.
Like an “enemy combatant,” I was given no reasons or paperwork for my transfer. Normally, prisoners are given advanced notice and are moved in a bus with other inmates along with their personal property. My personal property was sent to me by mail three weeks later.
After exhausting all administrative appeals, where CMC officials justified the transfer as “administrative,” I filed my very first writ in Monterey Superior Court. The judge agreed that the transfer appeared “retaliatory” in nature in response to the articles I had written, an exercise of my First Amendment rights.
I dropped the legal suit because I did not know the law. I did not have funds to hire a lawyer and I did not trust jailhouse lawyers. I was immediately assigned to a prison job, and no longer had access to the prison law library to study.
I felt powerless, having been shafted by the system, by private attorneys, by prison officials. I finally changed prison jobs and started going to the law library again everyday. I decided to fight back.
It was there that I met “Bandit,” a tall lanky 51-year-old white lifer from Alabama, who spoke with a Southern accent. Convicts respected him because he actually won cases. He rarely went to the prison yard; he was always in the law library. I sat next to him one day while he was typing a writ on a beat-up state-issued law library typewriter.
“Hey Bandit, I’d like to talk to you about my case.”
He stopped typing, unperturbed by my inquiry, and turned to me smiling, swirling a toothpick in his mouth, saying, “Sure, tell me about it.”
After a lengthy conversation, we agreed that for one jar of coffee he would read the entire trial transcripts and legal briefs and give me his opinion. One week later, we met up again at the law library.
“Dave, this attorney, Dangler, really screwed up your appeal. You have no way back into the federal court. However, I did find one legal loophole.”
Bandit explained the loophole—the judge’s denial during a Marsden Hearing of my request to hire new counsel—describing it as “an error of constitutional magnitude, enough to get you back into court.”
For $500, he added, “I can litigate you back into state court.”
Still feeling burned from the previous jailhouse lawyer I declined his offer, but asked him to teach me the law, paying him $20 a month for one year. I figured that it’s my life and I’d rather be responsible for my own fate, than to put it in the hands of another man. I met with him every afternoon in the law library, watched him closely to see how he won cases.
Access to most of California’s prison law libraries is limited because of severe overcrowding, holding a maximum of only 20 to 25 inmates at a time for an average prison population of 2,500 inmates. The library usually contains only two to five old worn-out typewriters, and is missing law books. Or the law books that are available are missing pages. Additionally, during prison lockdowns there is absolutely no law library access. Thus, legal research is done piecemeal, an hour or two a day. On top of this, state and federal courts are backlogged with cases, where 70 percent of their caseload consists of prisoner-filed writs of habeas corpus or prisoners’ lawsuits. The wheels of justice turn slowly. No wonder it can take up to 20 years for an innocent prisoner to be released, even when, by most accounts, they are clearly innocent.
The jailhouse lawyer, facing such obstacles, learns how to cut corners, to manipulate the system, to make it work.
“Dave, I’m going to teach you how to reduce your costs when litigating. You see this writ I finished typing? There are one thousand pages, including exhibits. The CDCR charges us ten cents a copy using the law library copier. That is one hundred dollars copying costs.”
“How do you get it done cheaper?”
“Hillbilly Bob sitting over there next to typewriter one, he is indigent, has no family that sends him money anymore. He has been down twenty-five years, only lives for his coffee and tobacco. I’ll give him a jar of coffee to make all these copies on his account.”
“You can do that? If he has no money, who pays for it?”
“The state pays for the copies. Inmates have a constitutional right to access to the courts. They can’t deny access to file writs or lawsuits to inmates who are poor.”
Hillbilly Bob, a mid-50s white convict, who looked like a homeless bum, took the stack of copies and gave it to the librarian. Within minutes, he brought back 1,000 copies of the originals. He was delighted to help. Anything for the “cause.”
The next day, Bandit showed me more game.
“I’ve got fifteen boxes of Swintec state typewriter ribbons in my legal folder. I need to take them back to the wing.”
“What do you use them for, do they even fit in your personal typewriter?”
“The state ribbon cartridge doesn’t fit. But I can take the ribbons out of the cartridge and rethread them through my own cartridge, only takes two minutes apiece. I’ve got a Brother typewriter; it’s about on its last leg from all the typing I do. I save a lot of money doing this.”
“Well, in the vendor catalog, it costs five dollars for a Brother ribbon. You get only twenty pages out of it. Takes about two months to arrive. I get the state ribbons from the education clerk, fifteen for a jar of coffee. About six dollars for all fifteen ribbons.”
“How do you plan to get them back to the cellblock? Your folder is bulging out, and Officer Jackson is working today. He searches everyone going into C-Wing.”
“I’ve been here twenty years. I know how to get around him. You’ll see. Walk with me.”
Bandit got permission from the librarian, Ms. Jones, an overweight mid-40s white woman, to use the institutional phone to call his counselor.
“Is the green frog in his garden?” he asked, pausing momentarily for an answer. “Alright, Bandit is headed eastbound at 2:45 p.m. Make sure the green frog is chasing flies.” He hung up the phone.
At about 2:40 p.m., we walked eastbound down a long corridor, about four football fields long, passing by Officer Jackson’s post. He was not there.
“Wow, where is Jackson?” I asked.
“Look over there…in the chapel.”
Jackson was searching inmates coming out of the chapel. The chapel clerk, inmate Rogers, closed the chapel early as a distraction. Jackson got on his walkie-talkie to other guards, saying, “Send the inmates at West Gate this way. Eastbound traffic is open.”
I began to see Bandit not as a hustling opportunistic convict, but as a human being. I too developed respect for his fighting spirit, his ability to overcome all obstacles, his honesty.
He had a caseload of more than 20 inmates’ legal cases. Like a real lawyer each inmate had a file, pages were paginated, everything was organized in a two-hole-punch folder. His specialty was challenging the Board of Prison Terms denials of parole to inmates who clearly deserved to be paroled.
I decided to ask him about his conviction one day.
“Bandit, what are you in for?”
“A robbery gone bad. Me and a crime partner, when we were 18 years old, robbed a grocery market. Being high on PCP, we shot the mother, father, and son—execution style—to leave no witnesses. It was a horrible crime, which I feel truly remorseful about. I accept full responsibility for my actions. I spent seven long years on death row at San Quentin. Then my sentence was commuted to seven years-to-life when the U.S. Supreme Court found the death penalty to be unconstitutional.”
“So, do you have any chances to get out someday?”
“A very good chance,” he said, smiling. “In 1979, the parole board gave me a parole date of June 1992, premised on the fact that if I stayed disciplinary free, I would get out in 1992. I lived up to my end of the deal. However, Gov. Pete Wilson and then Gov. Gray Davis refused to let me out due to their illegal ‘no parole’ policy. I’ve got a writ right now in court challenging their recision of my date, and if the court agrees my Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process were violated, I’ll be a free man this year.”
I really wanted to believe Bandit. But I couldn’t see any hope for him. Guys with only one murder (or no murder like me), are still doing time, being denied parole, even after 30 years of hard time, when they are clearly suitable for parole. I felt he would never get out of prison. He was living on a pipe dream, like most lifers whose committed offense was cold and callous.
From 2002 to 2003, Bandit showed me more tricks to his trade.
“I have to get this state typewriter back to my cell. My personal typewriter finally burned out. Law library will be closed during the holidays for about two weeks so I need it really bad.”
“How will you get past Officer Jackson, you got another way to distract him?”
Bandit smiled, flicking around the toothpick in his mouth, using the institutional phone in the library. I listened with curiosity.
“This is Bandit. Is the green frog in his pond?” he asked, pressing for an answer. He hung up and called another number.
“All right, roto-rooter, Bandit here. Need to make a house call, regular spot at 2:40 p.m.,” he said, hanging up the phone.
As we exited the law library at 2:37 p.m., an inmate plumber pushing a plumbing cart met us and Bandit gave him the state typewriter, which he placed inside his cart. Together we walked eastbound toward C-wing, Officer Jackson in our sight. As we approached Jackson, the plumber, inmate Rubio, a 30-year-old Mexican national who spoke clear English, brought up a conversation about sports with him.
“Hey man, who do you think is going to the Super Bowl in two months?”
Officer Jackson responded, “Rubio, I’m putting a thousand bucks this year on the Saints. They better not let me down. Who you betting your canteen on?” he asked jokingly. Jackson was an African American officer in his early thirties who took his job too seriously, always searching inmates, writing up inmates for contraband. Many blacks disliked him because he was an out of control rogue officer. He could be friendly with you one minute and a conniving asshole the next.
As Rubio slid the cart into the wing, still speaking with Jackson, Bandit opened the cart door and grabbed the typewriter, taking it up to his cell. I went back to E-wing where my cell was located.
In 12 months Bandit taught me how to do legal research and type motions. He always joked with me, smiling, “You know, when I get out this year, you are going to have to take over my caseload.”
I always smiled with him to give him hope, as one would do with someone who is terminally ill. Hope is the only thing that keeps men in prison from hanging themselves.
When the holidays were over, I didn’t see Bandit at his usual table, where he litigated everyday. I asked the librarian what had happened to Bandit.
“Ms. Jones, did something happen to Bandit? He never misses a day of law library.”
“You didn’t hear the news?”
“No, what happened?”
“Bandit got out of prison last night. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered his immediate release.”
Thinking that he may have been transferred as a retaliatory action, as I was back in 2002, I asked, “Can you check the Daily Movement Sheet. Make sure that he didn’t just get transferred?”
“I already checked. I’ll show you.” She grabbed the DMS report, showing me the proof that Bandit was released.
A week later, the 9th Circuit Court opinion on Bandit’s case was published in the latest law books. The court explained how his rights were violated. All jailhouse lawyers were in shock; amazed he had accomplished what no one could have ever thought possible. Not surprisingly, there were no media reports on his release. No one wanted to be responsible for letting out a man convicted and sentenced to die for triple murder after serving 35 years. Fortunately in his case, the justices—who are appointed for life, not elected—applied the law without allowing politics to interfere with their ethical duty.
Today Bandit works for a law firm as a paralegal. He concentrates exclusively on prisoners’ rights cases. He is living a crime-free life, managed to marry a prison pen pal from Brazil. He charges about $10,000 to file a writ. People do pay; his services are in demand.
His release in 2003 gave prisoners statewide, including myself, hope that no matter what the obstacles, any lifer has the potential to get out of prison.
In 2006, in a United States Supreme Court case, U.S. versus Gonzales-Lopez, the court re-emphasized a defendant’s “right to counsel” of choice, stressing that such a denial of counsel is automatic grounds for reversal of conviction, with no test for prejudice.
Bandit may have been right: This could be my legal loophole out of here….
Editor’s Note: In 2003, Valdez filed a complaint with the State Bar against Attorney Richard Dangler. In December 2006, the State Bar awarded Valdez a full reimbursement of $24,350 for retainer fees lost. Dangler resigned with charges pending.
Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit www.adamcarolla.com. Tito can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here: