By Kelsey Givens
Newspapers get lots of letters.
Letters to the editor, letters pitching story ideas, letters asking for help, letters, letters and more letters every day.
Lately, the newspaper has been inundated with another type of letter — ones from prisoners.
It’s not unusual to hear from inmates every so often — they typically write about their cases, living conditions at the local jail, sometimes complaints about treatment and more.
One prisoner in Nye County in particular is using the power of the letter to tell a story not only of injustices he feels he is suffering at the hands of the system, but of the injustices he feels others he is serving as an inmate law clerk for are suffering as well.
Jesse Aaron Ross is incarcerated in the Nye County Detention Center awaiting trial. He has sent letter after long, many-paged letter to the Pahrump Valley Times over the last several months, trying to get his story out.
He has been incarcerated since October 2010 when he was arrested on charges of burglary, grand larceny, possession and transportation of stolen property and conspiracy to commit a crime for his alleged part in a theft ring broken up by the Nye County Sheriff’s Office.
Ross was also later charged with sexual assault, statutory sexual seduction, child abuse, open and gross lewdness, pandering and obscenity/sell/distribute to minors.
In the packets he sends, Ross has included copies of multiple lawsuits he has filed against the Nye County Sheriff’s Office and members of Nye County Health and Human Services for what he feels are violations of his civil rights. He also has included a copy of a “publication” he wrote explaining the importance of work inmate law clerks, like himself, provide in jail settings.
Ross’s story began when he believed he was being denied equal access to medical care by detention staff and HHS.
In his lawsuits, he writes he was told over and over again he was not eligible for the county’s Inmate Medical Indigent Program by HHS, and if he didn’t have insurance or money to pay out-of-pocket in a non-emergency situation, the sheriff’s office allegedly told him he could not see a doctor.
“After a review of all documentation concerning an application for the Prior Authorization request program, it has been determined that you DO NOT qualify for the following reasons: Denied: Have not received written verification from either a doctor or the NCSO stating that this request is an emergency. You are not eligible for county assistance toward these billings through the Nye County Inmate Medical Indigent Program,” Ross was informed by several letters addressed to him from HHS.
Ross received four letters telling him that same message over a period of eight months.
He claims he has been denied access to the optometrist, dentist, psychiatrist, and other ordered medical services based “soley sic on the fact that I have an inability to pay, which is in fact against NCSO Nye County Sheriff’s Office policy.”
The policy Ross is referring to is outlined in a form inmates sign at NCDC acknowledging they have been told how to access medical care while incarcerated.
At the top of the form it states an inmate “will not be denied medical, dental or psychiatric services for any reason including my the inmate’s inability to pay for those services.”
It also states, however, towards the bottom of the form that, “the medical treatment that I the inmate am requesting and about to receive is for a pre-existing condition. I understand and agree that I am responsible for payment for this treatment per NRS 211.140. I understand and agree that the Nye County Sheriff’s Office will not be billed for this service.”
Assistant Sheriff Rick Marshall said HHS, not the sheriff’s office, decides who is eligible financially for doctor visits while in jail.
“That is actually done through health and human services. Jesse Ross is not being denied medical care, and in fact I can not discuss it because it’s privileged communication, and because he’s filed lawsuits, but he’s not being denied medical care,” he said.
Marshall also explained that Ross’ grievances over the issue, as with all inmate grievances, are taken very seriously by the department, and sent to the proper level to be dealt with. If it comes down to a complaint that the inmate’s due process is being violated, the grievances are sent for further review to District Attorney Brian Kunzi.
Shirley Trummell, director of HHS, denied in an email, however, that her office makes any decisions on which inmates receive medical care.
“Inmates are under the custody and control of the sheriff. All decisions regarding medical needs are made through the sheriff,” she said.
Ross has filed at least four lawsuits for violations of his civil rights in the matter. He has even sent letters outlining the rights he feels are being violated to larger agencies like the ACLU and FBI for additional help.
Staci Pratt, legal director for ACLU Nevada, said her agency in Las Vegas has received several large letters from Ross, but has not yet begun to evaluate them to see if there is a case there for them to help.
“When we’ve started seeing a lot of problems with a certain facility or issue we will reach out to the inmate who contacted us and try to substantiate if it’s credible. If we believe they are, then we take it to the board and get approval to litigate. But we’re not at that point. We honestly just received a number of letters from him and need to figure out what kinds of concerns he has,” she said.
Through his own experience in writing grievance after grievance about the health system in the county jail, Ross began to help other inmates to file paperwork in their situations, most notably an inmate named Mark Perkins.
Taking the position seriously, Ross put pen to paper once again, this time to write a “publication” titled, “Discourse of a Inmate Lawclerk.”
The handwritten work explains for readers what an inmate law clerk is, what they do and why their work is important in today’s legal system.
“A prisoner once wrote ‘you know that light at the end of the tunnel, someone turned it off!!’ That statement alone has inspired me to turn the light back on as a ILC for others,” he wrote.
As a law clerk, Ross said he does research using state and federal law reporters, Nevada Revised Statutes, legal encyclopedias, research manuals and both the federal and state constitutions.
He writes that it is also the job of an inmate law clerk to “assist other inmates in preparation of trial strategies, researching, writing and submitting motions to the courts.”
Pratt agreed to an extent that the work of inmate law clerks was helpful for inmates who have no other constant access to legal research and help, but added what could be better is to have private attorneys volunteering their time to help inmates with any work they’re trying to accomplish instead.
“The whole issue of jailhouse lawyers is a very interesting one. I certainly support the idea of people helping one another, but in the grand scheme of things it would be better if they had better access to trained legal help,” she said.
Ross goes on to write that it is the responsibility and ethical duty of the inmate law clerk not to flood the legal system with unnecessary motions. It seems, however, at least one judge feels that is exactly what Ross is doing.
In a complaint filed with the Commission on Judicial Discipline about Judge Robert Lane, Ross writes that “Recently Judge Robert W. Lane has banned any motions submitted that were not submitted by Attorneys’ sic . Judge Lane knows that several Attorneys … are ineffective and not only do they refuse to talk to their clients … But Judge Lane knows these Attorneys’ sic will not for whatever reasons file motions when they are requested by there sic client.”
He cites two specific cases he has helped with where the judge has issued written orders, stating to the defendants any further motions they file, that aren’t filed through their appointed attorneys, won’t be heard.
Ross defended himself in the complaint, writing, “Judge Lane stated that a ILC in Tonopah fancies himself a lawyer and has flooded his office with motions. This is not true. As a ILC I do complete motions on behalf of inmates because their attorneys refuse to. I would Never file or prepare frivolous, duplicative or unnecessary motions because I feel this a abuse of process.”
And it isn’t just the judge who feels many of Nye County’s inmates are sending, whether prepared by Ross or not, motions, filings and lawsuits on a never-ending basis to the Nye County Clerk’s office.
An employee in the clerk’s office said they spend a lot of time sorting through inmate mail, trying to figure out exactly what the inmates are asking them to do and where the mail needs to go.
And it doesn’t cost the defendants anything to do so, even if the clerk has to do something like make copies of a 700-page document to place in their file.
Despite what Ross has called discrimination, he continues to push on, filing motions, complaints and suits when he feels someone he has helped is being wronged.
Though some may see inmate law clerks like Ross as a nuisance, from his writings it is clear he believes he is doing the right thing by helping others as he awaits trial.
“Regardless of ones sic personal belief, or faith The United States of America is true to freedom, justice and truth, and blessed by God. The Inmate Law Clerk / Jailhouse Lawyer is a integral part of the legal process of this great nation and should be encouraged and recognized as such.
“Jesse A Ross
“J.A. Ross – ILC/JL”