For more than 20 years, Derrick Hamilton struggled to survive in prison, bouncing from one correctional facility to another and enduring lengthy stays in solitary confinement.
As a man who claimed innocence despite his conviction, Hamilton was also forced to navigate the complicated waters of the legal system, one tortuous appeal at a time. He resorted to the only person who could effectively and tirelessly champion his cause in the courts: himself.
“The law saved my life,” Hamilton explained in a profile piece in the New Yorker. “That was the one thing I could become fixated upon every day when I woke up and when I went to sleep.”
After earning his high-school equivalency diploma and taking a class on legal research during his time at the Elmira Correctional Facility, Hamilton began studying in the prison’s law library, eventually teaching himself enough criminal law to become “one of the most skilled jailhouse lawyers in the country.” When he wasn’t embedded in the details of his own case, however, Hamilton would also lend help to his fellow inmates, guiding them to passages in legal texts that were relevant to their own cases.
Hamilton was eventually paroled and his case has since been vacated and dismissed after the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) concluded that he was innocent of all charges. Today, he teaches Cardozo law students in the Perlmutter Freedom Clinic how to work to the highest standards in defending clients who have been wrongfully convicted or are seeking clemency for unfairly long prison sentences.