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Prisonhouse of Nations: A Review of Mumia Abu-Jamal's 'Jailhouse Lawyers'

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Prisonhouse of Nations:
A Review of Mumia Abu-Jamal's Jailhouse Lawyers

Richard D. Vogel
Copyright 2009 by Richard D. Vogel


Permission to copy granted

Mumia Abu-Jamal,Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The U.S.Awith a forward by Angela Y. Davis (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009), 286 pages, paperback, $16.95.

Author's Note: Mumia Abu-Jamal has been a prisoner on Pennsylvania's death row since 1982 when he was convicted of killing a police officer in a politically charged case that remains highly controversial and is still under appeal. During his long confinement Abu-Jamal has gained recognition as a significant intellectual as well as an effective jailhouse lawyer. He contributes political commentary regularly on Prison Radio and is the author of numerous articles and books, including two bestsellers,Live from Death Rowand Death Blossoms.

Angela Y. Davis has been a leading political intellectual and activist since the 1960s. Renowned for her resistance to all forms of repression in the US, she has produced many important articles and books on American culture and politics. A staunch advocate of abolishing prisons, Davis has published two important books on the issue:Abolition Democracyand Are Prisons Obsolete? In her introduction to Jailhouse Lawyers, she reviews Abu-Jamal's many achievements and calls for his release.

More than a book about prisoners defending prisoners in what the author justly calls "the Prisonhouse of Nations"i, Mumia Abu-Jamal's Jailhouse Lawyershas the potential to jump-start the prison reform movement in the US. In addition to telling the individual stories of the best (and worst) jailhouse lawyers defending themselves and their fellow prisoners in the face of official hostility and, in many instances personal danger, and presenting a lively history of jailhouse lawyering in modern America, Abu-Jamal clearly exposes the political and racial bias of the US criminal justice system and explores the role of jailhouse lawyers in the jungle of American law.

Abu-Jamal's book is remarkable because it is totally accessible and informative for newcomers and veteran prison activists alike. The reader of Jailhouse Lawyersis treated to a wide array of vital information from Clarence Darrow's sensational "Address to the Prisoners of Cook County Jail" which candidly exposed the truth about "justice" in America to a masterful evaluation of the landmark legal battles of inmate David Ruiz in Texas that changed the face of incarceration in America.

In chapter 3, "When Jailhouse Lawyers 'Represent'", Abu-Jamal offers stirring accounts of winning legal self-defenses mounted by the accused that have never been told before. The success story of John and Alfonso Africa, both members of MOVE, a revolutionary community organization that was targeted by the Philadelphia police in the early 1980's, is a sterling example. Charged with the illegal procurement of weapons and bomb making materials, the two men faced more than a decade in federal prison. To the chagrin of the judge, the prosecutor, and their own court-appointed backup attorneys, the Africas insisted on representing themselves in their own way -- and won. Their story is an epic of unorthodox courtroom drama.

Abu-Jamal's survey of the "best of the best" jailhouse lawyers includes the legendary inmate-litigator Richard Mayberry who once threw a book at the judge presiding over his case (In retaliation Mayberry was sentenced to an additional 10 to 22 years in prison for contempt, another charge that he successfully challenged in court.) and a talented and successful woman prisoner-litigant who insists on remaining anonymous despite significant legal victories for her fellow inmates. Abu-Jamal reserves the title "worst of the worst" for jailhouse-lawyer snitches who betray their clients for personal advantage.

Abu-Jamal's reporting in Jailhouse Lawyersis exemplary; however, it is his political analysis of punishment in America that provides the background for challenging the foundation of the Prisonhouse of Nations.

What "the Law" Is

Chapter 2, "What 'the Law' Is", is the political heart of the book. In this succinct history of the legal profession, Abu-Jamal explores how criminal law has been practiced in the US. From the Slave Codes of colonial America to the modern neoconservative initiative to deny prisoners access to the courts, the author traces the interplay of race and social class in criminal law upon which the American Prisonhouse is built. The conclusion of Abu-Jamal's history, based on the insights of keen observers, the blatantly biased decisions of the courts, and his own personal experience, is unequivocal, "The law is a tool of class domination and, as we have seen of racial domination as well." (p. 62)

In chapter 2, Abu-Jamal also exposes the misinformation that neoconservative politicians put forth in order to pass the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) of 1996 that was specifically designed to silence the voices of jailhouse lawyers. Abu-Jamal's probing analysis of the role played by the mainstream media in promoting the PLRA exposes the way that official propaganda has historically been used to manipulate public opinion on the issues of crime and punishment in America.

Beyond Reform: The Radical Alternative

Abu-Jamal presents the radical alternative to US prison injustice in chapter 8 which chronicles the career of social prisoner-jailhouse lawyer- revolutionary Ed Mead. Mead, who began his criminal career at age 13, was goaded to resistance by his conviction for a crime that he didn't commit. Out of a sense of outrage and for the primal purpose of self-defense, he became a jailhouse lawyer.

Initially apolitical, Mead went about his business of hustling other prisoners but couldn't help noticing the social class difference between the prisoner population and the people who supported the system. His transformation to revolutionary occurred while he was incarcerated at McNeil Island in Washington State. In the heat of the battle to defend a prisoner-initiated work strike in 1971, Mead came to the realization that the bitter conflict inside the walls at McNeil was part of the nascent class struggle that was threatening the status quo across the nation.

Though he has experienced considerable success as a prisoner-litigant, Mead recognizes the severe limitations of practicing jailhouse law. The conclusion that he draws from his incarceration and resistance cuts straight to the chase -- "The main thing," he observes, "is to put jailhouse lawyering in the context of class struggle." Out of prison now, Mead sees his role as a radicalizing agent whose job is to deliver ex-prisoners to the cause of social revolution.

That the fight for justice for the men and women behind bars in America must be part of a broader struggle for social justice in the nation at large is an underlying theme of Jailhouse Lawyers. It is in this vein that Abu-Jamal concludes his argument for justice behind bars:

The best impetus for successful jailhouse lawyering is successful social movement to move the law and society beyond the barriers of the past. No movement can effectively exist in a vacuum; we are all interconnected. Jailhouse lawyers must look beyond the state's imprisoning bars, brick, and cement to build relationships with others in the so-called "free" world to further and support social movements that spread liberating and progressive space within society. (p. 248)

Throughout Jailhouse Lawyersthe prisoner-litigator-authoris soliciting those in the "free" world who care about justice to support the struggles for the rights and lives of the millions of men and women held captive in the Prisonhouse of Nations.

It is time for us to shake off what Abu-Jamal calls the "Big Chill" of the Reagan era and rejoin the fight.

A Ghost from the Past

While reading Jailhouse Lawyersone cannot ignore the haunting memories of Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson(1970) and Blood in My Eye(1972) by the same prisoner-author whose death during an alleged escape attempt at San Quentin Prison in 1971 sparked the uprising at Attica prison in upstate New Yorkii. It is impossible not to juxtapose the impassioned words of George Jackson, in the end blinded by righteous fury, against the measured prose of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Not to compare, but to remind ourselves that it is the same struggle -- the struggle against injustice masquerading as justice in the US -- that is still unresolved, and, indeed, presents an even bigger challenge than it did forty years ago.

It is becoming increasingly clear in the course of the ongoing political and economic crisis that the Prisonhouse of Nations is unsustainable and an opportunity for change will soon be at hand. If those of us in the "free" world join forces with jailhouse lawyers and prisoner-activists to meet the challenge, a better outcome could be forthcoming this time around.


Richard D. Vogel is the author of "Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited,"; "Silencing the Cells: Mass Incarceration and Repression,"; and "Capital Punishment Update,"; all published byMonthly Review.

iAbu-Jamal's description of the USA as the Prisonhouse of Nations is not hyperbole. The United States incarcerates more people than any nation in the world with a staggering 2.3 million people behind bars in 2008. China, with 5.5 times the population of the US, is second with 1.5 million prisoners, and the Russian Federation places a distant third with a prisoner population of 890,000. According to the official data gathered by the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College, London, the US is the undisputed leader among the nations of the western world with over 750 per 100,000 of its citizens in legal confinement (

iiA Time toDie (1975) by Tom Wicker is the definitive account of the Attica prison uprising. Wicker, a political columnist and associate editor of the New York Times, was one of the observers summoned to Attica by the insurgent prisoners to act as mediators. He ended up as the chronicler of the bloodiest repression of prisoners in US history.


(VIDEO: Angela Davis in Oakland, April 24)

Purchase Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A., directly from City Lights Books. Read the foreword by former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis and an interview with Mumia about his new book. In Mumia's words, "This is the story of law learned, not in the ivory towers of multi-billion-dollar endowed universities, but in the bowels of the slave-ship, in the hidden, dank dungeons of America."

"More Than A Book Party" events were held in the US around April 24, to mark Mumia's birthday and the release of Jailhouse Lawyers. Read more about events in: Philadelphia (including a Revolutionary Week of Events), NYC, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, Portland, Seattle & Olympia, WA, Houston, Washington, DC, and Baltimore.

Read reviews by: Carolina Salda├▒a, Linn Washington, Jr., J. Patrick O'Connor, Jaisal Noor, Todd S. Burroughs and Kiilu Nyasha


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Hans Bennett is a multi-media journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. An archive of his work is available at and he is also co-founder of "Journalists for Mumia," (more...)
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