[Ppnews] Introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal's Jailhouse Lawyers

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 2 11:27:30 EST 2009

Introduction to Mumia Abu-Jamal's Jailhouse Lawyers

March 02, 2009 By Angela Davis

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Foreword by Angela Y. Davis

288 pages | $16.95

ISBN: 9780872864696

Published by City Lights Books | <http://www.citylights.com/>www.citylights.com

One of the most important public intellectuals of 
our time, Mumia Abu-Jamal has spent more than 
twenty-five years behind bars, the majority of 
that time on death row. He is supported by 
millions all over the planet, not only because of 
the egregious repression he has suffered at the 
hands of the state of Pennsylvania, but because 
he has used his abundant talents as a thinker and 
writer to expand our knowledge of the hidden 
world of jails, prisons, and death houses in 
which he has spent the last decades of his life. 
As a transformative thinker, he has always taken 
care to emphasize the connections between 
incarcerated lives and lives that unfold in the putative arenas of freedom.

As Mumia has repeatedly pointed out, those of us 
who live in the "free world" are not unaffected 
by the system of state violence that relies on 
imprisonment and capital punishment as pivotal 
strategies for ordering society. While those 
behind bars suffer the most direct effects of 
this system, its raced, gendered, and sexualized 
modes of violence bolster the institutions and 
ideologies that inform our lives on the outside. 
In all of his previous books, Mumia has urged us 
to reflect on this dialectic of freedom and 
unfreedom. He has asked us to think deeply about 
the racial and class disproportions in the 
application of capital punishment, rarely taking 
advantage of the opportunity to call upon people 
to save his own life, but rather using his 
writing to speak for the more than 3,000 people 
who inhabit the state and federal death rows. 
Over the years, I have been especially impressed 
by the way his ideas have helped to link 
critiques of the death penalty with broader 
challenges to the expanding 
prison-industrial-complex. He has been 
particularly helpful to those of us­activists and 
scholars alike­who seek to associate death 
penalty abolitionism with prison abolitionism.

In this book, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners 
Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A., Mumia 
Abu-Jamal introduces us to the valuable but 
exceedingly underappreciated contributions of 
prisoners who have learned how to use the law in 
defense of human rights. Jailhouse lawyers have 
challenged inhumane prison conditions, and even 
when they themselves have been unaware of this 
connection, they have implicitly followed the 
standards of such human rights instruments as the 
Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of 
Prisoners (1955), the International Covenant on 
Civil and Political Rights (1966), and the 
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, 
Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 
(1984). Mumia argues that the passage of the 
Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a 
violation of the Convention Against Torture, for 
in ruling out psychological or mental injury as a 
basis through which to recover damages, such 
sexual coercion as that represented in the Abu 
Ghraib photographs, if perpetrated inside a U.S. 
prison, would not have constituted evidence for a 
lawsuit. If jailhouse lawyers are concerned with 
broader human rights issues, they also defend 
their fellow prisoners who face the wrath of the 
federal and state governments and the 
administrative apparatus of the prison. Mumia 
Abu-Jamal's reach in this remarkable book is 
broadly historical and analytical on the one hand 
and intimate and specific on the other.

We are fortunate to be offered this history of 
jailhouse lawyers and this analysis of their 
legacies by one who can count himself among their 
ranks. Mumia's words in the opening section of 
the book about the general conditions that create 
trajectories leading prisoners to jailhouse law 
are compelling. He writes of a "deep, abiding 
disenchantment with lawyers that forces some 
people to become their own, and also to assist 
others. In every penitentiary, in every state of 
the U.S., there are men and women who have 
learned, through study and experience, and trial 
and error, the principles of the law." See note.

Many of the jailhouse lawyers evoked in the pages 
of this book­including the author himself­were 
well educated before they entered prison. 
Studying the law was more a question of focusing 
their intellectual skills on a different object 
than of familiarizing themselves and becoming 
comfortable with the discipline of learning. But 
there are also those jailhouse lawyers who 
literally had to teach themselves to read and 
write before they set about learning the law. 
Mumia points to what was for me a startling 
revelation: jailhouse lawyers comprise the group 
most likely to be punished by the prison 
administration­more so than political prisoners, 
black people, gang members, and gay prisoners. 
Whereas jailhouse lawyers are now punished by 
what Mumia calls "cover charges," historically 
they could be charged with internal violations 
for no other reason than that they used the law 
to challenge prison guards, prison regimes, and prison conditions.

The passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act 
(PLRA)­understood by many to have saved the court 
from frivolous lawsuits by prisoners­was a 
pointed attack on the jailhouse lawyers Mumia 
sets out to defend in these pages. He 
successfully argues that many significant reforms 
in the prison system resulted directly from the 
intervention of jailhouse lawyers. Some readers 
may remember the scandals surrounding conditions 
in the Texas prison system. But they will not 
have known that the first decisive challenges to 
those conditions came from jailhouse lawyers. 
Mumia refers, for example, to David Ruiz, whose 
1971 handwritten civil rights complaint against 
Texas prison conditions was initially thrown away 
by the prison administrator charged with having 
it notarized. As we learn, Ruiz rewrote the 
complaint and bypassed the prison administration 
by giving it to a lawyer, who handed it over to a 
federal judge. This case, Ruiz v. Estelle, was 
eventually merged with seven other cases 
originating with prisoners. They challenged 
double- and triple-celling and work regimes that 
incorporated the violence of plantation slavery.

Moreover, Texas, along with other southern prison 
systems, relied on what were known as "building 
tenders," i.e., armed prisoners acting as 
assistants to guards, for the governance of the 
institution. The largely white guards and 
building tenders poised against the majority 
Mexican- and African-American prisoners led to 
"abuse, corruption and officially sanctioned 
injustice." For those who assume that charitable 
legal organizations in the "free world" were 
always responsible for the prison lawsuits that 
led to significant change, Mumia reminds us that 
what is now known as "prison law" was pioneered 
by prisoners themselves. These lawyers behind 
bars practiced at the risk of punishment and even 
death. Ruiz himself was placed in the hole after 
filing this lawsuit against the warden. But, as 
Mumia points out, the state of Texas was 
eventually compelled to disestablish the building 
tender system and to curtail its overcrowding and 
the overt violence of its regimes. Such 
contemporary suits as the recent one brought in 
part by the Prison Law Office against the State 
of California, which focuses on overcrowded 
conditions and the lack of health care in 
California prisons, have been precisely enabled 
by the work of jailhouse lawyers­those who risked 
violence and even death in order to make their voices heard.

In light of the major transformations that have 
historically resulted from the work of jailhouse 
lawyers, it is not surprising that Mumia argues 
strenuously against the Prison Litigation Reform 
Act, whose proponents largely relied on the 
notion that litigation by prisoners needed to be 
curtailed because of their proclivity to submit 
frivolous lawsuits. One of the cases most often 
evoked as justification for the passage of the 
PLRA was mischaracterized as claiming cruel and 
unusual punishment because the prisoners received 
creamy instead of chunky peanut butter. This was 
not the entire story, which Mumia offers us as a 
powerful refutation of the underlying logic of 
the PLRA. Popular representations of prisoners as 
intrinsically litigious were linked, he points 
out, to representations of poor people as more 
eager to receive welfare payments than they were 
to work. Thus he connects the 1996 passage of the 
PRLA under the Clinton administration to the 
disestablishment of the welfare system, locating 
both of these developments within the context of rising neoliberalism.

Mumia Abu-Jamal's Jailhouse Lawyers is a 
persuasive refutation of the ideological 
underpinnings of the Prison Litigation Reform 
Act. The way he situates the PLRA historically­as 
an inheritance of the Black Codes, which were 
themselves descended from the slave codes­allows 
us to recognize the extent to which historical 
memories of slavery and racism are inscribed in 
the very structures of the prison system and have 
helped to produce the prison-industrial-complex. 
If slavery denied African and African-descended 
people the right to full legal personality and 
the practices of racialized second-tier 
citizenship institutionalized the inheritance of 
slavery, so in the twentieth and twenty-first 
centuries, prisoners find that the curtailment of 
their capacity to seek redress through the legal 
system preserves and reaffirms that inheritance.

Mumia's profiles include both men and women, both 
people of color and white people, with disparate 
motivations and often very different ways of 
identifying or not identifying themselves as 
jailhouse lawyers. Prisoners have challenged the 
law on its own terms in ways that recapitulate 
the grassroots organizing by ordinary people in 
the South that led eventually to the overturning 
of laws authorizing racial inferiority.

As Mumia points out, if there is increasing 
respect for the religious rights and practices of 
people behind bars, then it is largely due to the 
work of jailhouse lawyers. In the state of 
Pennsylvania, where Mumia himself is imprisoned, 
one extremely active jailhouse lawyer profiled in 
the book is Richard Mayberry, who initiated many 
important lawsuits, including the case known as 
I.C.U. (Imprisoned Citizens' Union) v. Shapp, 
which broadly addressed health, overcrowding, and 
other conditions of confinement in Pennsylvania prisons.

The I.C.U. case ended in a settlement, which 
required an agreement by all parties. Mayberry 
served as class representative and signed on 
behalf of thousands of state prisoners, and a 
court-agreed settlement went into force, creating 
new rules that covered the entire state system. 
The I.C.U. provisions became the foundation for 
every subsequent regulation that governed the 
entire state, and they lasted for decades, until 
the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. (82)

Mumia not only offers accounts of cases and 
profiles of prison litigators who have had a 
lasting impact on the prison system in the United 
States, he also reveals the extent to which 
jailhouse lawyers provide legal assistance to 
their peers, both with respect to their cases and 
with respect to institution violations. In 
relation to the latter, outside lawyers are often 
actually prohibited from representing prisoners, 
whereas jailhouse lawyers are permitted to assist 
prisoners in their defense of institutional charges.

Whether the lawsuits generated by jailhouse 
lawyers are expansive in their reach, potentially 
affecting the lives of large numbers of 
prisoners, or whether they are specifically 
focused on the case of a single individual, they 
have indeed made an enormous difference. Mumia 
Abu-Jamal has once more enlightened us, he has 
once more offered us new ways of thinking about 
law, democracy, and power. He allows us to 
reflect upon the fact that transformational 
possibilities often emerge where we least expect them.

Free Mumia!

ANGELA YVONNE DAVIS is Professor Emerita of 
History of Consciousness at the University of 
California and author of eight books. In recent 
years a persistent theme of her work has been the 
range of social problems associated with 
incarceration and the generalized criminalization 
of those communities that are most affected by 
poverty and racial discrimination. She draws upon 
her own experiences in the early 1970s as a 
person who spent eighteen months in jail and on 
trial, after being placed on the FBI's "Ten Most 
Wanted List." She has also conducted extensive 
research on numerous issues related to race, 
gender and imprisonment. She is a member of the 
executive board of the Women of Color Resource 
Center, a San Francisco Bay Area organization 
that emphasizes popular education of and about 
women who live in conditions of poverty. Having 
helped to popularize the notion of a "prison 
industrial complex," she now urges her audiences 
to think seriously about the future possibility 
of a world without prisons and to help forge a 
twenty-first century abolitionist movement. Her 
most recent books are Abolition Democracy and Are 
Prisons Obsolete?, both published in the Open 
Media Series. Her forthcoming books, The Meaning 
of Freedom and Narrative of the Life of Frederick 
Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself A 
New Critical Edition will also be in the Open 
Media Series, published by City Lights Books.

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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