While other prisoners are lifting weights or playing basketball, Michael Ray is working 40 hours a week, his head buried in legal texts and journals. Over the years, the jailhouse lawyer has helped dozens of fellow inmates file appeals, sometimes with success.
But recently Ray secured an achievement rarely seen by even the most experienced of attorneys on the outside: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in one of his cases.
Legal experts estimate the high court accepts less than 1 percent of the thousands of cases it receives each year. The court's action was even more extraordinary in this instance, because the appeal was drawn up by a prisoner who earns 29 cents an hour and does not even have a college degree, much less a law school education.
"This is basically a once-in-a-lifetime for a good criminal defense attorney, so you can imagine I'm on cloud nine, with my background," the 42-year-old Ray said with a laugh during a recent phone interview from a federal prison in Estill, about 100 miles south of Columbia.
He will not argue the case himself when it comes up in March. Only those admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court can do that. He will not even be allowed out of prison to attend the hearing.
Ray has been behind bars for much of his adult life for various fraud schemes. A former paralegal on the outside, he is nearing the end of a six-year sentence handed down after he pleaded guilty to various offenses, including passing a bad check for about $285,000 as part of a real estate scheme in Myrtle Beach.
"I just have a real problem with financial institutions, and I'm a self-proclaimed addicted gambler," he said.
As a prison law clerk, Ray files petitions and draws up motions for inmates who ask for his help. He keeps current on legal issues by reading professional journals and has joined several legal associations, including the American Bar Association.
"They're probably not super proud to have me as a member, but I do pay my dues every year," said Ray, who is also trying to complete his undergraduate degree through a correspondence course.