How to Legally Help Someone Who Is Incarcerated

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According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are over 2 million men and women currently incarcerated in local jails, state prisons and federal prisons. Knowing how to provide legal help for someone in prison can have a significant impact on that person's quality of life and even the outcome of a pending case. Follow these steps.

Find legal counsel. This is the most important thing you can do to help someone who in prison. Many states have lawyer referral services, and some attorneys may provide pro bono (free) services. You also can call your local county government center and ask for the telephone number of the legal aid society that serves your area.

Advise the prisoner on his or her rights. Prisoners should not discuss their cases with police officers, jail personnel or other inmates withou legal counsel present.

Encourage and document the prisoner's participation in academic courses or substance abuse treatment programs. Courts and review boards may consider this record during sentencing, an appeal or a parole application.

Be an advocate. If abuse or gross misconduct occurs at the correctional facility, document it carefully and lodge a formal written complaint to the highest authority in the chain of command, often the warden of the facility.

Contact the ACLU National Prison Project if your complaint to the warden is ignored (see Resources below). You also can write to your congressional representative.


  • All mail is read by prison staff and any communication that is considered improper can result in penalties to the inmate.
  • Depression is common when a person is incarcerated. Watch for signs, especially those that indicate a suicide risk.


  • You may feel angry about the actions that led to the incarceration, especially if it's a loved one. Consider joining a support group or reaching out to your spiritual community.