Legal Resources

Access to courts shall not be obstructed by the California Department of Corrections. CDC staff shall use every available opportunity to assist members of the general public in preparing for the practices adopted under rules of the United States courts. Staff shall not in any way retaliate against or discipline any member of the public for initiating or maintaining procedures to address their grievances.

Preparing for Arrest

The language and mystique of the U.S. legal system can be intimidating, confusing, and overwhelming for people who have been arrested. Although this system creates the impression that individuals in jail are powerless and isolated, the authorities depend on prisoner consent to keep order and control. When prisoners stand together and withdraw their cooperation, they can use their collective power to win major victories over the legal system. This unity among prisoners is called jail solidarity, and it is the most direct way for prisoners to defend each other and fight for demands. The conscious withdrawal of cooperation by prisoners is called noncooperation, and it is the main tactic that gives bargaining power to jail solidarity. Noncooperation is like a strike or a boycott designed to paralyze the legal system with costly and time-consuming disruption. When combined with media publicity and outside support, jail solidarity is a very effective and empowering way to force concessions from the authorities. If you understand this potential power before an arrest, you will see choices at every step of the legal process, and you will have a strong defense against the courts, jails, and police.


You will be handcuffed, given a pat search, and taken to jail. In some areas district police stations will hold you temporarily before transferring you to a central jail for booking. After an arrest police will separate youth, adults, men, and women. A lawyer will be the only person who will be able to communicate between separated groups.

Your Choices: In a mass arrest you may decide to cooperate by walking or not to cooperate by going limp and refusing to walk. If you are isolated or if your group is small, your choices are limited since noncooperation will likely result in greater police violence.


You will be photographed, fingerprinted, and searched by the police. Your property and clothes may be taken, and you may be strip-searched. Police will ask for your name, address, date of birth, occupation, and social security number. After being processed you will either be held until arraignment, or you will be cited out. When you cite out, you sign a citation promising to return for arraignment. If you don't have ID or if you have outstanding warrants, such as unpaid parking tickets, you will be held until arraignment. If you cite out and miss your arraignment, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. Citing out reduces costs for the legal system by releasing inmates who are facing minor charges or who pose a small risk of flight due to housing, work, or other community ties.

Your Choices: You can choose not to cooperate by giving no information, giving limited information, or refusing to cite out. Refusing to cite out is important because the presence of physical bodies in jail is often the greatest leverage you have when making demands on the legal system. You may also choose to cooperate, cite out, and then build support for your case beyond the prison walls.


Within 48 - 72 hours after your arrest you should be brought before a judge who will officially charge you and ask for your plea. If you cannot afford a lawyer, a judge will appoint an attorney for your case. You may also choose to represent yourself. Your Choices:

  1. Plead guilty. Your are admitting guilt and forfeiting your right to a trial. You will be sentenced by a judge although you may have to return for sentencing at a later date.
  2. Plead no contest. You are not admitting guilt, but you will forfeit your right to a trail. The court will treat a no contest plea like a guilty plea and proceed with sentencing.
  3. Plead not guilty. You are challenging your charges and beginning the process for a trial.
  4. Enter a creative plea. A creative plea can be used to make a political statement (I plead for the end of ____), but a not guilty plea will likely be entered for you. Most judges will not acknowledge creative pleas and may issue additional charges.
  5. Stand mute. You may refuse cooperation with legal procedures to protest actions by the court or to challenge the legitimacy of the judge, the court, and other government institutions. In such cases a not guilty plea will usually be entered for a defendant, but physical abuse and additional jail time are very likely.

After you have plead not guilty, a judge will set a trial date and choose to:

  1. Release you on your own recognizance - OR - which is a promise to appear for trial.
  2. Set bail or bond which is money or a physical security given to the court before your release.
  3. Keep you in custody until your trial date.


If you plead not guilty, you must be tried and convicted by a judge or a jury before you can be sentenced. Your Choices:

  1. Make a plea bargain with the prosecuting attorney. You may plead guilty to a particular charge and avoid trial in exchange for a lighter sentence, reduced charges, or another compromise.
  2. Choose an individual or group trial. When a number of people have been charged with the same offense in similar circumstances, the cases may be tried collectively or separately. Individual trials are expensive and time consuming for defendants and the courts. Group trials proceed faster as one case with a verdict that will be applied to all defendants.
  3. Choose a court trial or a jury trial. A court trial is heard by a judge who will give a guilty or not guilty verdict. Court trials allow for individual circumstances to be heard with little time and expense. Jury trials are more costly and involved since a jury must be selected, listen to the case, and deliver a verdict.


After a guilty plea, a no contest plea, or a guilty verdict, a judge will sentence you to jail time, fines, probation, and/or community service. Your Choices: You can accept or refuse fines, probation, and community service. If you refuse, you will have to do jail time. Some people may choose jail over other sentences because probation limits your future action and fines only reinforce the strength of the legal system. Other people may decide to avoid jail because they can be more effective organizing in the streets or because of financial pressure, family support, or other responsibilities.

Jail Solidarity

Jail solidarity is the unity of purpose among prisoners to exert collective strength, to defend each other, and to achieve a particular demand. Jail solidarity is the main way for prisoners to use group power and directly change conditions in the legal system. Solidarity demands could include equal and fair treatment for everyone in jail or in court, reduced charges, better prison conditions, access to medical care, communication with lawyers, or an end to abuses such as solitary confinement, strip searches, or physical violence. Demands for legal aid are important since lawyers will be the only way to communicate between men and women, youth and adults, or other separated groups. Demands for mass arraignments, trials, and sentencing are important since they ensure that previous demands for equal treatment are being met. If your previous demands have not been met, mass court appearances will allow you to communicate with co-defendants and respond quickly with the force of numbers.

Solidarity tactics are designed to clog up the legal system, using noncooperation to become a costly, time-consuming burden to the courts and jails. Specific tactics could include the refusal to give identifying information, to walk, to eat, to participate in jail routine, or to cite out. Other tactics could include singing or dancing in custody, pleading not guilty, demanding a jury trial, or not waiving your right to a speedy trial. During court proceedings you could refuse to enter a plea, accept a lawyer, stand in court, recognize the judge's authority, take the witness stand, or question witnesses. You could also make a speech to those people gathered in the court, sit on the floor, or try to leave unless forcibly restrained. Many judges, police, and guards will take solidarity tactics as a personal affront and penalties can be severe. You may face additional charges, longer jail time, solitary confinement, restricted privileges, physical violence, and psychological abuse. Jail solidarity is difficult to keep up under harassment, but it is a powerful and inspiring way for prisoners to win victories for themselves.

Be prepared for jail solidarity before getting arrested, anticipate responses from the legal system, and avoid changing plans under duress. Successful intimidation from guards will only encourage harsher treatment for other people using jail solidarity. Remember that guards will try to break prisoner unity by taking privileges from one group and giving them to another. Make certain that your demands for better treatment or better conditions do not come at the expense of others. When preparing for jail solidarity, be prepared to provide extra support for groups that the legal system tends to target. Such groups include repeat offenders, known organizers, queers, people with AIDS/HIV, people of color, youth, and undocumented immigrants.

Action Support

Before risking arrest designate at least one person who can provide action support. Action supporters are legal observers and outside contacts who help group members during an arrest and subsequent court proceedings. Support people should not be involved in any illegal activity during an action.

Before an action

  1. Get identifying information for each member of your group (name, address, date of birth, occupation, and social security number) so you can keep track of people after an arrest.
  2. Record special medical issues, legal needs, people to be notified, and tasks to be done (care for children, pets, or plants) for each group member risking arrest.
  3. Review plans for jail solidarity and levels of noncooperation for each group member.
  4. Find out where arrested group members will be taken and have a vehicle prepared to follow the arresting officers.
  5. Set up an email list and phone tree to be activated after an arrest. Be prepared to target the district attorney, the sheriff, the jail, district police stations, and elected political representatives.

During an arrest

  1. Maintain a reasonable distance from the arrest scene, tell the police that you do not want to interfere, and explain that you have a right to observe their actions. Avoid quick or sudden movements.
  2. Record the details of each arrest. Write down the names of each arrested person, the time, the date, the location, and the nature of arrest. Be prepared to document police misconduct with photography and/or video.
  3. Identify police involved in an arrest. Get their names, badge numbers, departments, patrol car numbers, and license plates. Have a presence at the police station where people have been detained to collect property, provide transportation, offer support, and monitor police misconduct.
  4. Get names and full contact information for all witnesses.
  5. Take charge of items left behind by an arrested team member. If the items are incriminating evidence, such as radios, climbing equipment, paint, or gloves, pick them up discreetly or return after the police have left.

From Arrest to Release

  1. Organize demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, email blasts, phone zaps, and solidarity events to raise support for defendants and to put pressure on the legal system.
  2. Publicize the case in the media to generate community support.
  3. Organize public support for all court appearances.
  4. Provide for the emotional and physical needs of defendants. Send letters and reading material, arrange jail visits, contribute money to their commissary funds, bring medicine to the jail, and follow up to see if medicine was administered.
  5. Coordinate communication between defendants especially around jail solidarity and legal issues.
  6. Have food ready for defendants at the time of their release.
  7. Arrange transportation home. Release times often occur late at night in locations far from public transit.
  8. Rotate responsibilities so that past supporters can participate in future actions.

Back to Top