Jailhouse lawyers

By: Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal has been unjustly incarcerated on death row in Pennsylvania for more than 25 years. A detailed report by Amnesty International demonstrates that Abu-Jamal was the victim of a heinously racist trial and calls for a retrial. The following questions were mailed to Mumia Abu-Jamal at SCI-Greene Prison in Waynesburg, Pa., about his new book, Jailhouse Lawyers. The questions were sent by his editor at City Lights Books, Greg Ruggiero. Reprinted here is an excerpt from this interview.

Can you please describe what Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA is about? What is it trying to communicate?

The book Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA is about the shadow-world of jailhouse lawyers, and their battles in the courts and in their cells, to gain a thin foothold in the struggle for human decency, for the fulfillment of the constitution, and for service.

I say "shadow-world" because much isn't known about what happens in U.S. prisons, even among those who are extraordinarily well informed.

I say that because one such person, Selma James, raised her eyebrow in a silent question when I mentioned the term "jailhouse lawyer" during a conversation. When she asked me about it, I was surprised, but then it dawned on me, how could she know? How could she know when nobody hipped her to it?

So I patiently explained it to her, and the more we spoke the more impassioned she became. "This is fascinating, Mumia; you must write about this," she declared. I told her I would think about it. The rest is history.

The contributors and subjects are mostly forgotten men and women, who have spent lifetimes in joints across the country. Yet they've not forgotten how to fight. They've not forgotten how to resist. They've not forgotten how to help others, often the most helpless around them. And they've not forgotten how to win.

This is their story, told usually by them in their own voices. Jailhouse Lawyers shows us graphically how every day men and women, in some of the worst conditions imaginable, can find a way to learn, to grow, to become and to affect someone's plight, by simply reading, thinking and writing.

Some of these people have, quite literally, saved people's lives by their work. Others have changed the rules of the game. Many of them have still managed to make significant contributions to the lives of those around them, and the law as well. The old reporter in me tells me that's a helluva story.

There is, of course, another angle to Jailhouse Lawyers. This book shows you that, if you really want to know what the law is about, don't read law books--go to a prison.

Most Americans get their views from TV shows, ones which are so stereotypical as to be ridiculous. Indeed, most of these shows show the courtroom as a site of levity and jokes. Nothing could be further from the truth. For some people, this will prove a revelation.

Can you describe something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

The content for Jailhouse Lawyers comes from countless letters, surveys, and the reading and studying of hundreds of cases. Some of it comes from the hoary halls of memory (many drawn from over a decade in Huntingdon Prison in central Pennsylvania).

Groups of jailhouse lawyers were surveyed on their thoughts, their hopes, their victories and their shortcomings. Many answered unflinchingly, with self-effacing grace and searing honesty.

Some bitterly hated the term "jailhouse lawyer," seeing it as a slur, a curse, or a representation of "barely literate idiots." Others took a more sanguine view, accepting it as a term of derision, but seeking to transform it by that acceptance, and by reflecting a tradition of study, good work and service to their fellows.

It went through frequent rewrites, again because some terms and references were, quite frankly, unknown to the non-prison reader. Because we couldn't order nylon ribbons for several years (and the film ribbons were so expensive), early drafts were as gray as a London dawn. So much so, that it was difficult to be retyped and copied.

But the generous work of jailhouse lawyers from across the country, their stories, their triumphs as well as their failures, kept the work on an even keel, making it ready for the launching it has seen recently.

For, ultimately, this is their story, one which the USA (which I call the Prisonhouse of Nations) has made virtually inevitable by the enormous swell of prisoners in the country--more than any other in the world.

What are your hopes for Jailhouse Lawyers? What will you deem to be a success?

I would hope that Jailhouse Lawyers takes flight from the nest like an eagle, and soars to the sun.

Politically, I hope that it gives insight to activists and those who are not yet activists, into the nature of U.S. prisons and lockups, and gives insight into how some have found ways to continue the struggle for civil rights, for constitutional rights and against the forces of repression.

Success may be measured by creating awareness about the existence of the book, and then discussion. If it causes people to truly examine the nature of the prison-industrial complex, and the way those within American prisons are dwelling, then that would be success enough.

Happiness would result if Jailhouse Lawyers enters popular consciousness and discussion. If that happens, Greg, then it would have been fully worth every day, every house spent in its preparation.

Lastly, I'm a deep believer in organizing. What if college students got their credit by working on some of these suits (by Xeroxing, for example)? Or by giving coverage in their college newspaper, or a Web site? That means minds have been broadened and expanded, and enriched by learning about a world that most Americans haven't the faintest idea exists. That would be a success indeed.

The last section of the book touches on the importance of resistance generated by social movements. Can you elaborate?

Let me give it to you this way: several years ago, I read a book by Frances Fox Piven and the late Richard Cloward entitled The New Class War: Reagan's Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences.

They brilliantly recounted economic, social, labor history, and made some important observations about the role of social movements. They clearly illustrated how social movements, and public protests had long-lasting impact on society, to the greater social good. They argue, "....[T]he movements changed reality; they transformed the state" (118).

They also observed, erroneously, in my view, "The twentieth-century developments were made possible by profound and lasting changes in the American political economy, and that is why we are persuaded that the current mobilization against the welfare state will fail" (43-44).

Now, as regards the Reagan administration, they were clearly correct, but what they could not foresee is that the neoliberalism (which folks overseas use when they are describing neoconservativism) of the Clinton period, when such programs were destroyed for base political reasons.

That said, the Piven-Cloward observation is sound: "movements change reality..." They "transform the state."

Here's another perspective. Several days ago, a letter writer told me of his visit to max prisons in Germany. He was shocked by their openness. Guys out of cells, walking around, kicking it.

But what really threw him was when the guards and prisoners learned that U.S. prisoners couldn't vote. They were amazed! "If people in prison can't vote, how can you call your country a democracy?" one wondered. Others wondered--"aren't prisoners still citizens?"

Social movements open up the eyes of the people and present them with new ways of looking at the world, and hopefully moving in the world.

Think about this. Everybody (especially in the so-called left) is hyped about Obama's election. As I wrote in a commentary last year, Mexico had a Black president over a century ago.

If the abolition movement didn't fold their tents after the Civil War, and instead fought for broader, deeper social change, why couldn't Frederick Douglass have been elected president in 1870? To be sure, he was among the most brilliant men in the country, with eloquence and erudition far beyond most men. He was financially and socially stable, and was one of the most respected men in the English world.

As an ex-slave, his election would have set the lock and death-knell to slavery (instead of the hidden legalization of it through the prison-industrial complex), and made the Reconstruction Amendments real.

Social movements have to have the ability to see beyond today's horizon, and have to have the stamina to work for social change. With social movements, everything is possible; without them, nothing is possible.

Years ago, social movements gave birth to the prison movement that transformed social and legal relationships. As has often happened in the past, they didn't go far enough. But they could've.

That means that movements must, by necessity, be multiracial, (or at least bi-racial) to bridge that gap, of the world that is and the world that is becoming.

I think Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners vs. The USA can play a role in that struggle.


Jailhouse Lawyers costs $16.95 and can be ordered by going to citylights.com.