Jailhouse Lawyers

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA

Foreword by Angela Y. Davis

288 pages | $16.95

ISBN: 9780872864696

Published by City Lights Books | www.citylights.com

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 trail, and calls for a retrial. The following questions were mailed to Mumia Abu-Jamal at SCI-Green Prison in WaynesburgPennsylvania by his editor at City Lights Books, Greg Ruggiero.


(1) 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, 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 questions 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 effect 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 lawbooks—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.



(2) 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 re-typed, 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.



(3) What are your hopes for Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book. What will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?


I would hope that Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA 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 USprisons 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 website?


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.



(4) The last section of the book touches on the importance of resistance generated by social movements, can you elaborate?


Lemme 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 (Pantheon Bks [1982] 1985 (rev’d)). 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. The 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 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 US 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?"


This is in Germany.


Think of what Ed Mead said, when he noted if ex-felons could’ve voted in one state in 2000, (Florida), Americaand world history would’ve been dramatically different.


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 (esp. 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 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’ve set the lock and death-knell to slavery (instead of the hidden legalization of it thru 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 multi-racial, (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.



(5) Angela Y. Davis wrote the foreword to Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The USA. Can you speak a little about Angela’s analysis of the prison-industrial complex in general and how it relates to liberation struggle and insurgent black intellectual life in the United States?


Dr. Angela Y. Davis is the closest thing we have to W.E.B. DuBois, and has performed to the highest standards of a scholar-activist that hearkens back to the distinguished career of DuBois.


As we suggested about the role of social movements, she has been in the forefront of not just the prisoners’ rights movement, but she has taken the next step forward—that of prison abolition.


In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Open Media Series/Seven Stories Press: 2003) she puts the case for abolition of prisons, a project that is, if nothing, forward-looking. (http://www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100778090)


A story, if I may. Several years ago, I was speaking to my sister (a staunch Pan-Africanist), and remarked about a recent book I read by Davis, on prison abolition. She said, "Now, Mu—I don’t know about that! Some of them crazy Negroes need to be locked up!"


I told her to read Davis‘s book, and get back to me on it.


The point is, like DuBois, she was always ahead of the pack, scouting, sensing new territory, looking for the broadest horizons of freedom.


Giver her broad and deep experience in several social, radical and revolutionary movements, Davis is far more than a potent figure in insurgent intellectual life. Her hands touch that movement, but many more. Angela’s work as a feminist scholar has enriched generations of men and women, from every walk of American life, as has her work on gender issues, and culture.


Her works on prison illustrates how deeply indebted the American prison system is to the slave, and post-slavery eras.


In her essays, she has traced that relationship and shown how it has created the monstrous system that we see today.


But, in addition to her scholarly work, she was a moving force in the Critical Resistance movement, which mobilized people from broad swaths of the prison struggles.


Her works force us to examine the historical abolitionists, who fought, against great odds, the evils of slavery. She has tried to move them to that stage regarding prisons, and beyond.


"Social movements change realities."


Isn’t this reality ripe for the changing?




In support of Mumia and the publication of JAILHOUSE LAWYERS, organizations around the country will be holding "More Than a Book Party" events on or around Mumia’s birthday, April 24, 2009. T
he "More Than a Book Party" events will be dedicated to the thousands of jailhouse lawyers who practice their craft in their own and their brothers’ and sisters’ struggle for justice, against all odds and with the high risk of being subjected to the venom, punishment, and brutality of the prison system that is directed against them more than to any other sector of the prison population.  THESE ARE THE HEROES AND SHEROES WE WILL HONOR.  PLEASE INVITE SOME OF THEM WHO ARE FORMER PRISONERS TO PARTICIPATE IN YOUR "MORE THAN A BOOK PARTY" EVENTS!








…and more to come!


If you are planning to organize an event or would like to order in bulk, City Lights Books can also offer you a 45% discount on any bulk orders of 20 copies or more. The book retails for $16.95, for orders of 20 copies or more the discounted price would be $9.32 per book, plus shipping and handling.  Prepayment would be required and books are nonreturnable.

If you or your organization would like to place a bulk order, please contact Stacey Lewis at 415.362.1901 or stacey@citylights.com


JAILHOUSE LAWYERS will be available from City Lights Books at a 30% discount weeks before you can get it at any other bookstore, or from Amazon.
Sign up for an email alert and when the book becomes available for sale we’ll shoot you an email letting you know:

Let’s use the opportunity of the publication of this brilliant, moving, vintage Mumia book to build the momentum for his case, to raise the money we desperately need in these challenging economic times, to get the word out – to produce literature, flyers, posters, videos, DVD’s;  to send organizers out to help build new chapters and strengthen old ones, TO GET THE PEOPLE OUT IN THE STREETS … all the work that we must do in order to FREE MUMIA as he faces LIFE IN PRISON WITHOUT PAROLE OR EXECUTION!

Please make a contribution to help free Mumia. Donations to the grassroots work will go to both INTERNATIONAL CONCERNED FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF MUMIA ABU-JAMAL and the FREE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL COALITION (NYC).


Please mail donations/ checks to:
NY 10030


215 476-8812

For more info about Mumia’s new book, JAILHOUSE LAWYERS, go to City Lights Books

Leave a comment