Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Prisoners Defending Prisoners: Review of New Book by Mumia Abu-Jamal

Prisoners Defending Prisoners: Review of new book by Mumia Abu-Jamal

by Carolina Saldaña

“My only wish is to tell a story that has never been told before,” says Mumia Abu-Jamal of his new book Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A., City Lights Books, 2009.

Mumia Abu-Jamal’s sixth book written from death row is coming out at the very time that the Supreme Court of the United States has slammed the door in his face and the campaign to execute him has been renewed. The book was presented on April 24 in Philadelphia, New York, Oakland, Detroit, Boston, Houston, Portland, Los Ángeles, Seattle, Olympia, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., to celebrate his birthday and open a new stage in the battle for his life and freedom.

See the Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble at Philadelphia event:

He tells us that there are tens of thousands of jailhouse lawyers in the prisons of the United States. Little known, if they are known at all, outside prison walls, they are men and women who handle their own cases, defend other prisoners, or file suits to bring about changes in prison conditions.

With insight, respect, empathy, and humor, Mumia brings us the words and experiences of around thirty of them, some of whom he has known personally in the prisons of Pennsylvania and others who have corresponded with him or responded to his surveys. Most of them fight their cases in unfamiliar territory because they didn’t go to law school before they ended up in prison; they’ve learned the law on their own, usually with the help of other, more experienced prisoners.

“They've not forgotten how to fight,” says Mumia. “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.... Some of these people have, quite literally, saved people's lives by their work. Others have changed the rules of the game.”

To thank them for their services in protecting the Constitution, they are punished more harshly than any other single group of prisoners.

In this book, we get to know Steve Evans, who learned the law by himself and taught many other prisoners (with the exception of snitches and baby rapers) how to handle their own cases. His pupil Warren Henderson had to learn to read before he could learn the law, but he developed such a love of reading that he stole hundreds of books with the dream of setting up a library for the kids in the ‘hood when he got out of prison, and went on to successfully defend himself in court. Midge DeLuca, who had cancer when she went to jail decided to help other women who needed medical care after reading a line from her favorite poet Audre Lorde, “only our silences will hurt us.”

We also meet quite a few rebels, revolutionaries, and political prisoners, such as the MOVE members and sympathizers who dramatically defied the authority of the courts in a long series of trials, often with unorthodox tactics; Rashaan Brooks-Bey, who organized strikes and other actions for prisoners’ rights, and along with his co-plaintiffs Russell Maroon Shoatz, Robert Joyner, and Kareem Howard, openly confronted the judge and demanded that the police be jailed; Martin Sostre, the legendary organizer of the Afro-Asian Book Store in Buffalo, NY, who won many suits and influenced many of his fellow prisoners; Iron Thunderhorse, long-time prisoners’ rights organizer, now legally blind; and Ed Mead, originally a social prisoner turned prisoners’ rights activist, and later member of the George Jackson Brigade and then co-founder of Prison Legal News.

Scorned by judges and district attorneys and faced with a serious lack of resources and public apathy, jailhouse lawyers often lose their cases, but they have scored some impressive wins.

-- In Pennsylvania, Richard Mayberry’s battles to represent himself began in the mid-‘60s, and in spite of being sent to the hole many times, he finally eliminated some of the major obstacles. He also won a class-action suit in 1978 that brought drastic changes in the prisons of several states in the areas of health, overcrowding, and punishments such as the “glass cages.”

-- In 1971, David Ruiz filed suit against the Texas prison system, which was run like a slave plantation, resulting in far-reaching reforms ordered by Judge William Wayne Justice.

-- In Pennsylvania, at the beginning of the ‘80s, a class action suit filed by Rashaan Brooks-Bey resulted in the closure of a repressive unit at the Pittsburgh prison. The prisoners also won two hours of outdoor exercise instead of fifteen minutes, laundry service, covered food trays, and an end to four strip searches every time they had a visitor.

-- In California, appeals filed by Jane Dorotik have led to the freedom of a good number of women falsely imprisoned at Chowchilla. Her work is underscored in a chapter dedicated to the work of several women jailhouse lawyers at a time when there has been a tremendous increase in the women’s prison population ––300% in the last few years.

-- Barry “Running Bear” Gibbs achieved the revocation of his own death sentence as well as those of two other prisoners. He remembers how he felt when one of them yelled out the good news. Says Running Bear: “Saving someone’s life via pen and paper is a rewarding and unforgettable experience.”

-- The shameful sentencing of 9 MOVE members to prison terms of 30-100 years in 1978 was followed by an astounding victory for the organization in 1981, when Mo and John Africa successfully defended themselves on arms and explosives charges. Their unusual tactics included summoning the 9 MOVE prisoners to testify about the aims of their struggle, the good character of John Africa, and the treason of the state’s witnesses, as well as a final speech by John Africa about the survival of the planet. The jury, with tears in their eyes, exonerated them completely.

--A few months later, MOVE sympathizer Abdul Jon was able to get assault charges thrown out against him, Jeanette, and Teresa África, at least temporarily, after the three suffered a brutal beating by the police. His clear, logical arguments made the high-sounding (false) arguments of the D.A. laughable. Although it was a minor victory, says Mumia, it gives something of the flavor of the long string of MOVE trials.

Mumia brings out the irony of the situation in which even though John Africa was exonerated by a jury for possession of arms and explosives, he was murdered on May 13, 1985, along with Theresa Africa and 9 other MOVE members with explosives illegally obtained from the federal government to bomb MOVE’s house.

Yet not a single local or federal agent was ever brought to justice. The only person accused, tried, and sentenced to 7 years for “inciting a riot” was Ramona Africa, who dared to survive the massacre. If she hadn’t handled her own case, she would probably have spent many more years in jail, due to all the initial charges against her.

Mumia has no doubt about the fact that, in the final analysis, the law is whatever the judge says it is. In one interesting chapter, he explores several definitions of the law, including that of the person “now deemed the avatar of Western Capitalism,” Adam Smith: “Laws and governments may be considered in this and indeed in every case as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.”

For prisoners, however, the law is neither a theory nor an idea because they experience its brutal reality. Furthermore, those who know Black History are aware that millions of people were legally enslaved. There were different laws for Africans, called “Slave Codes,” which reemerged after the Civil War as “Black Codes” and penalized behavior such as “vagrancy, breach of job contracts, absence from work, possession of firearms, an d insulting gestures or acts.”

Mumia explains that precisely because jailhouse lawyers had challenged the use of the law as an instrument of domination, former President Bill Clinton, in 1996, achieved the passage of a law limiting the rights of prisoners to file appeals or suits and prohibiting recovery for psychological or mental harm or injury, in violation of the Convention against Torture. To the Slave Codes and the Black Codes, he says, we can now add Prison Codes.

Naturally, the book reveals many aspects of the conditions in United States prisons, including the torture practiced there: “What millions saw in the garish reflections of Iraq was but a foreign edition of the reality of American prisons: places of legalized torture, humiliation and abuse—practices exported from domestic U.S. hellholes to ones overseas.”

What distinguishes street lawyers from jailhouse lawyers? The conservative bent in the profession, explains Mumia, goes back to the days when professional lawyers were seen as instruments of the British Crown, who only worked for the rich. “Of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence (no women signed) in 1776, twenty-nine of them, or roughly 52 percent, were lawyers or judges.

They would erect a legal structure that would protect property yet deprecate freedom—at least the freedom of enslaved African people. The lawyers brought with them a sensibility that is at the heart of the profession, an inbred conservatism.” As a matter of fact, the first three Presidents of the United States were aristocrats, albeit without title, and slave owners. “They helped erect a legal structure that would protect the wealth and privileges of their class.”

Today, when lawyers graduate from law school, they aren’t “officers of the community,” but “officers of the court.” Their loyalty is not the accused, but instead “to the court, the bench, the civil throne.” This explains, at least in part, the great distance that exists between lawyer and client and the client’s lack of trust in him. It is almost impossible for a poor person to have a good lawyer and even more so when the defendant is not white.

Jailhouse lawyers, however, have a different relationship to the State. In some cases, even the most progressive street lawyers have taken the side of the State against them. Mumia explains that in the midst of the post 9/11 anthrax scare, several states passed laws allowing the State to open legal or court mail outside the presence of the prisoner, in violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The measure was negotiated with the support of the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) but finally rolled back thanks to the hard work of three jailhouse lawyers ––Derrick Dale Fontroy, Theodore Savage, and Aaron C. Wheeler. On the other hand, it’s extremely rare for a jailhouse lawyer to negotiate a case. They have no loyalty to the court, they re not professional lawyers, and they have no one to whom they can sell out. They’re not part of the “club.”

Even with the high esteem that Mumia has for the jailhouse lawyers described in this book, he also points out the limits of their efforts. At the end of the ‘70s, Delbert Africa had warned him of a dangerous trap. He explained that the problem is that many prisoners study the law, they believe the law, and they believe it applies to them. Then, when they realize that the system doesn’t follow its own laws, and that on the contrary, laws are made and broken at the whim of the judge, they just go crazy.

Mumia assures us that he has known prisoners who have gone mad for this very reason. He’s also known some who have taken advantage of the prisoners they represent. But the main limit he points out is the insufficiency of their good efforts when it comes to making fundamental changes in the prison system. In order to put an end to this system, any effort to use the law against power must be in the context of broad social movements, both inside and outside of the prisons, to transform the society as a whole.

Modest, as ever, Mumia barely mentions his own work as a jailhouse lawyer who has helped other prisoners get out of prison. One of these is Harold Wilson, who has now changed his name to Amin, participates in the campaign to free Mumia, and spoke at the book presentation in Philadelphia on April 24 and in New York City on April 25.

Videos from Philadelphia event:

(Samiya Davis:
(Abdul Jon: )

Angela Davis speaking in Oakland:

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