Middle-aged nurse Maxine Smith was the only jailhouse lawyer at Illinois’ Dwight women’s prison in the 70s. Jailhouse lawyers are incarcerated people who teach themselves the law to help themselves or their imprisoned neighbors.
And Smith was legendary.
“The predominant mood of a women’s prison was fear,” said Smith. She made it her mission to teach other incarcerated women their rights and instill in them the courage to advocate for themselves.
While working at the prison’s law library, she regularly won grievances and lawsuits, including the first class-action lawsuit against Dwight’s own authorities. And maybe that was their last straw.
In October 1976, Smith was sentenced to 40 days in solitary after guards found a camera in her cell.
But those 40 days spiraled into 22 months. Dwight kept offering her release if she’d give up the law library job, and she kept refusing. After all, if the system was really “just,” why punish people using the law as it’s supposedly intended?
Eventually, Smith got her job back, and then her freedom - plus a $100,000 settlement - for unlawful isolation. And her iconic time as a jailhouse lawyer reigns high in history.
“I couldn’t let myself regress or stagnate in [prison],” she vowed. “Because then they would have destroyed me and then they would have won. I’ll never permit that.”