In Her Own Words: An interview wit' Angela Davis
JR Valrey is the Minister of Information for the Prisoners Of Conscience Committee, an Oakland based organization founded by Fred Hampton, Jr. with the mission to liberate the minds and hearts of African and colonized people. The POCC takes the stand that all prisoners are political. JR is a regular contributor to The Liberator.
Angela Davis is a legendary political activist professor in the U.C. System who has a history of resistance. She is a former political prisoner who has done work with the Communist Party, and she is also author of 8 books analyzing race, class, and gender. She also is a cofounder of the prison abolitionist group, Critical Resistance. She recently wrote a foreword to political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal's new book “Jailhouse Lawyers”, in which the Block Report did an interview with her to help promote.
I was first taught about Angela Davis being a political prisoner, later on the first jailhouse lawyer that I met through the mail was her codefendant who is still locked up, Ruchell Magee, whom I used to write occasionally. So this book gave me a better insight into what life as a jailhouse lawyer really is like. I dug the fact that Mumia picked a subject that is rarely discussed on this side of the walls. I learned a lot and it wet my appetite to wanting to learn more about these legal warriors. Check out Angela Davis as she talks about her foreword in Mumia's new book, in her own words...
M.O.I. JR: I want to talk to you today about your foreword in Mumia Abu Jamal's new book, “Jailhouse Lawyers”. Since I know a lot of readers do not have the book, I want to start off with reading a few quotes, and I will ask you questions in relation to the quotes. You say in your foreword, “Mumia points to me what was for me a startling revelation. Jailhouse lawyers comprised the group most likely to be punished by the prison administration, more so than political prisoners, Black people, gang members, and gay prisoners whereas jailhouse layers are punished by what Mumia calls 'cover charges'. Historically they could be charged with internal violations for no other reason that they used the law to challenge prison guards, prison regimes, and prison conditions. In your opinion what is the importance of Mumia choosing jailhouse lawyers to be the subject for his new book?
Angela: Well first of all, this is an amazing book. Everyone should read this book. And I was extremely excited to learn that he was working on a book on jailhouse lawyers because the story of jailhouse lawyers is a hidden story. Most people in this country are not aware of the extent to which resistance to the regimes of prisons, state prisons, federal prisons all over the country, has been shaped through the work of jailhouse lawyers. There is a long tradition of resistance. And Mumia, himself, is a jailhouse lawyer. And if one thinks about how many men and women have used the law in order to challenge the prison regimes, one gets a sense of what a powerful legacy that resistance is.
M.O.I. JR: In another quote in your foreword you say, “Mumia argues that the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act is a violation of the Convention Against Torture for in ruling out psychological or mental injury as a basis to recover damages such sexual coercion that was represented in the Abu Ghraib photographs if perpetrated inside of a U.S. prison, would not have constituted evidence for a lawsuit. Why did you point this out in your foreword?
Angela: Many people assume that the the P.L.R.A., the Prison Litigation Reform Act, as I tried to point out in the foreword, simply prevents prisoners from engaging in frivolous lawsuits. But as Mumia points out, it is a pointed attack on the capacity of prisoners to use the law itself. It is not about frivolity at all, it is about taking away from prisoners one of the only instruments that they've been able to develop to challenge the whole system. So we can't assume that under the Clinton administration the P.L.R.A. was passed, and that put prison lawsuits to rest. It's important for those of us on the outside to support the rights of prisoners to use the law to resist the violence of the state.
M.O.I. JR: Again to quote you, you say in the foreword of “Jailhouse Lawyer”, “The way he situates the P.L.R.A. historically as an inheritance of the Black Codes, which were themselves descended from the Slave Codes, allows to recognize the extent to which historical memories of slavery and racism are prescribed in the very structures of the prison system, and have helped to produce the Prison Industrial Complex.” Can you discuss the importance of Mumia making this connection in “Jailhouse Lawyers”?
Angela: Well this is one of the things that I really loved about Mumia, he knows how to make these historical connections. He makes connections with what might appear to be very dispirit and different kinds of phenomenon, for example he points out that the P.L.R.A. was passed at the same time as the disestablishment of the welfare system, and that there is a connection between preventing women primarily from having access to safety nets for their families, and this assault on prisoners being able to defend themselves. So I really like the way that he makes those connections with slavery. I think of the prison system today in this country, and especially the system of capital punishment, I think of it as a historical memory of slavery, as a palpable inheritance of slavery. And as a matter of fact, the existence of those systems provide us with real evidence of the fact that slavery was not fully abolished. So I like the way in which he can show us the similarities between the Black Codes, that were produced in the aftermath of slavery to basically replicate the system of slavery after slavery was allegedly abolished. And the P.R.L.A. serves a similar contemporary purpose.
M.O.I. JR: Again, you write in “Jailhouse Lawyers”, in the last sentence, “He (Mumia), allows us to reflect on the fact that transformational possibilities often emerge where we least expect them.” Why did you end your foreword with that statement in this book?
Angela: Well you know because people don't usually think of prisoners in general as defending democracy. They think of the prison as the underside, the underbelly, of democracy; as the place where you send people who no longer have the right to be citizens. But I think that what Mumia does, he manages to portray jailhouse lawyers in such a ways as to persuade us regardless of what our political persuasions might be, the jailhouse lawyers have been, in a sense, on the front line of the defense of democracy. I'm not talking about capitalists democracy. I'm not talking about neo-liberal democracy. I'm talking about the kind of democracy that would also tend to not only political equality, but racial equality, economic equality, and sexual equality as well.
M.O.I. JR: What is the importance of us recognizing that Mumia is facing deathrow right at this second, right when he released such an eloquent book on jailhouse lawyers? You also pointed out in this foreword that he rarely speaks of himself, so in the midst of this being a time of the first Black president of America, what does Mumia's imprisonment, with all the flaws in his case, say about the real political climate in America?
Angela: Well, first of all, Mumia's case is so important for us to get involved in. We have to save his life. We have to free Mumia. And yeah, as many people acknowledge he rarely uses his amazing talent and capacities to advocate for himself. He's always advocating for others, and that is all the more reason to be passionate advocates for him. I have traveled in other parts of the world a great deal, and there are movements to free Mumia all over the world. Sometimes I feel very embarrassed that we have not managed to overcome the power of the Fraternal Order of Police for example and the other conservative forces that are determined to put Mumia to death. But this book is yet another reason why we need to defend him, and why we need to use whatever is available to us, whatever knowledge, whatever instruments are available to us to guarantee that his life is saved and that he is eventually set free.
Excerpts from Mumia's book Jailhouse Lawyer's, including Angela Y. Davis's complete foreword can be downloaded as a PDF for free from the City Lights Web site.