Case readers with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee are volunteers who assist incarcerated members of the Industrial Workers of the World with filing legal appeals and grievances against their prisons’ administrators. While case readers do not provide legal services per se, they do connect incarcerated people with information and resources by looking up relevant case law, formatting legal documents, and researching procedural requirements. Case readers may be outside supporters or incarcerated people themselves.
Incarcerated people receiving legal assistance from a lawyer may nevertheless benefit from case readers. When incarcerated people are having difficulties communicating with their lawyers, for example, case readers on the outside can follow up with attorneys to ensure that they remain accountable to their clients. Having a case reader advocating on the outside also helps keep both legal offices and prison administrators aware that incarcerated people have supportive communities, which can thereby ensure that they are not denied their rights or simply ignored. Case readers on the outside may also assist incarcerated people by hand-delivering mail and other documents, as well as covering legal fees, with IWOC providing reimbursement.
Maintaining lines of communication is a serious barrier for effective prison assistance, and the nature of IWOC’s work presents unique difficulties to organizing. Legal barriers can prevent IWOC stipends from reaching incarcerated case readers, and related correspondence is routinely subjected to search and censor. Incarcerated case readers may also face reprisal for their activities and be punished harshly.
Brianna Peril, a founding member of IWOC, notes that while incarcerated people working on appeals may not face retaliation for doing so, those who are filing cases against their prisons and administrators, or organizing to improve conditions, are often brutally suppressed. Incarcerated case readers therefore take on immense personal risk in providing assistance to fellow incarcerated people. Peril notes that, while incarcerated case readers know that their work with IWOC puts them at risk of retaliation, they nevertheless continue and persevere.
When asked why case readers may be preferable to traditional legal assistance, Peril answers, “Well, for one, it actually exists.” In other words: Because of the long odds involved with winning appellate cases and the little chance of any monetary reward involved with prison grievances, these cases typically do not attract the attention of financially motivated legal professionals. Traditional counsel is thus often cost prohibitive, and the otherwise free legal aid available to incarcerated people is spread quite thin. Add the additional difficulties of communicating with incarcerated clients, as compared to those still awaiting trial, and case readers can be an incarcerated person’s only hope.