Prisonhouse of Nations
|Book: Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA|
ZNet Book Page
Publisher: City Lights Publishers
Author's Note: Mumia Abu-Jamal has been a prisoner on
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
More than a book about prisoners defending prisoners in what the author justly calls "the Prisonhouse of Nations"i, Mumia Abu-Jamal's Jailhouse Lawyers has the potential to jump-start the prison reform movement in the
Abu-Jamal's book is remarkable because it is totally accessible and informative for newcomers and veteran prison activists alike. The reader of Jailhouse Lawyers is 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
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
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 Lawyers is exemplary; however, it is his political analysis of punishment in
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
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
Beyond Reform: The Radical Alternative
Abu-Jamal presents the radical alternative to
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
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
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 Lawyers the prisoner-litigator-author is 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 Lawyers one 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
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,” http://www.monthlyreview.org/0903vogel.htm; "Silencing the Cells: Mass Incarceration and Repression,"http://www.monthlyreview.org/0504vogel.htm; and "Capital Punishment Update,"http://www.monthlyreview.org/1204vogel.htm; all published by Monthly
iAbu-Jamal's description of the
iiA Time to Die (1975) by Tom Wicker is the definitive account of the