Speaking Truth to Power
Mumia Abu-Jamal’s 27 years on Death Row for a murder he did not commit would have turned almost anyone else into an embittered, defeated man. Instead, he has remained what he always was, “the voice of the voiceless,” as he demonstrates yet again in his most recent book, Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. (City Lights Books, 2009.)
Through hundreds of essays, radio commentaries and now six well-written, meticulously researched books, he has defied the walls that encase him to speak out against oppression. His voice is heard weekly throughout the United States on Pacifica Radio and his writings are read and admired throughout much of the world. From the bowels of Death Row, where 3,600 others languish in the United States, Abu-Jamal presses on for justice, day after day, year after year.
Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. opens a tightly shut door into the operations of the U.S. penal system by chronicling the exploits of dozens of jailhouse lawyers—both men and women—who have fought the injustices the courts and the prisons have dealt them and their fellow prisoners. Their accomplishments, against all odds, have been incredible. Their story is a story never before told.
For the vast majority of the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States and for Abu-Jamal himself, the overriding, inescapable reality about the U.S. justice system is that the law is only what a judge says it is.
As Abu-Jamal has found out through his long and tortuous appeal process, “What published opinions claim, in all their legal niceties, matters little.” Although he does not reference his own case in this or any other book he has written, valid constitutional legal claims that have won others new trials have done nothing for him. It did not matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a federal district court, or a U.S. court of appeals that the prosecutor at his 1982 trial violated his constitutional right to a fair trial by using peremptory challenges to purge ten otherwise qualified blacks from sitting on his jury.
It didn’t matter even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Batson in 1986 that racial discrimination in jury selection was grounds for a new trial. (Abu-Jamal currently has a request for a Writ of Certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court on his Batson claim, a request that marks his final legal recourse. If Cert is denied, he will remain in prison for life barring clemency by a future governor of Pennsylvania.)
Abu-Jamal himself is a jailhouse lawyer, who wryly notes that it is “the bane” of the vast majority of jailhouse lawyers “to be able to help everybody but themselves.” He references a Pennsylvania case where he and another jailhouse lawyer won a new trial for an inmate sentenced to death. Given this new chance, the inmate copped a plea and had his sentence reduced to life, a reduction that got him off Death Row into the general prison population.
Becoming a jailhouse lawyer has long been met with retaliation by prison guards and prison administrators. Even to this day, jailhouse lawyers are the most discriminated against and punished by prison authorities. Abu-Jamal cites a 1991 nationwide study led by scholar Mark S. Hamm entitled “The Myth of Humane Imprisonment” that “found that no segment of the modern prison population—not blacks nor gays nor AIDS patients nor gang members—outweighed jailhouse lawyers when it came to prisoners who were targeted by the prison administration for punishment.”
The report noted that guards and administrators “had a standard practice of singling out jailhouse lawyers for discipline and retaliation for challenging the status quo.” Abu-Jamal finds it telling “that those who, for the most part, are most apt to use pen and paper—rather than, say, a ‘lock in a sock’—to address and resolve grievances, are the most targeted of all prison populations.” To this day, in every “hole” in every prison, Abu-Jamal writes, “you will find some jailhouse lawyers who are there on pretextual—and frequently false—disciplinary reports,” even though since 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to discipline prisoners for representing themselves or other prisoners.
In that case, Johnson v. Avery, the high court rejected Tennessee’s punishment against an inmate for assisting a fellow prisoner with his legal work.
No nation in the world incarcerates as many of its citizens as does the United States. Right now one in every 99 people in the country is behind bars. More staggering is that one in every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is in prison. Because blacks are so overrepresented in U.S. prisons, Abu-Jamal sees the prison system as nothing more than a modern day extension of the Slave Codes that prevailed before the Civil War and the Black Codes that took their place in the South right after it.
For the newly emancipated blacks living below the Mason-Dixon Line, the Black Codes criminalized various behaviors for which only blacks could be “duly convicted.” Black Codes made crimes of vagrancy, breach of job contracts, absence from work, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts.
President Clinton, a former constitutional law professor, signed into law in 1996 two draconian measures that undermined what little recourse prisoners have to post-conviction justice. One was the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that made it far more onerous and difficult for prisoners to file wrongful convictions claims in Federal Courts; the other was the Prison Litigation Reform Act which limited the number of suits prisoners could file in federal courts and flat out barred suits against the state for mental or emotional injury.
No longer could a prisoner seek redress or compensation for psychological damages inflicted by sociopathic guards who make sport of demeaning prisoners. Ironically, the ringleader of the Abu Ghraib guards in Iraq was a former guard at SCI-Greene in Pennsylvania where Abu-Jamal is incarcerated. “Long before U.S. Army Reserve Corporal Charles Graner brought pain, humiliation, and torture to Iraqi people detailed in Abu-Ghraib outside Bagdad, he was giving the blues to prisoners in Pennsylvania, where he was known as a brutal, sadistic, racist guard,” Abu-Jamal writes.
Under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, the acts of mental torture committed at Abu Ghraib, if committed in U.S. prisons, would have no standing.
“Is it surprising,” Abu-Jamal asks, “that a nation that began its existence with Slave Codes, then continued for a century with an equally repressive set of Black Codes, would institute, by hook or crook, Prisoner Codes?”
Despite the Prison Litigation Reform Act, Abu-Jamal estimates there are tens of thousands jailhouse lawyers practicing pro se for themselves and their fellow inmates. They do this out of need, particularly when it comes to challenging unfair prison conditions, and because the great majority of prisoners are not entitled to court-appointed counsel post-conviction.
In the first instance, real lawyers are banned from representing inmates in suits against prisons and prison authorities in every state but Arizona. In the second instance, court-appointed attorneys—for a myriad of reason, but mostly relating to money—have failed miserably in representing the legal and constitutional rights of indigent defendants at their original trials.
As Clarence Darrow stated over a hundred years ago, “…the courts are not instruments of justice. When your case gets into court it will make little difference whether you are guilty or innocent, but it’s better if you have a smart lawyer. And you cannot have a smart lawyer unless you have money. First and last it’s a question of money…We have no system for doing justice, not the slightest in the world.”
Darrow said that if the courts were organized to promote justice “the people would elect somebody to defend all these criminals, somebody as smart as the prosecutor—and give him as many detectives and as many assistants to help, and pay as much money to defend you as to prosecute you.”
Because the justice system in the United States has become so politicized around “law and order” and has erected an entire industry to house those convicted, the United States—which represents five percent of the world’s population—now incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prison population. That would go a long way in explaining why there are tens of thousands of jailhouse lawyers working pro se for themselves and other inmates and why Abu-Jamal’s latest book is such an important one.
J. Patrick O’Connor is the editor of Crime Magazine (www.crimemagazine.com) and the author of The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal, published by Lawrence Hill Books in 2008.
—CrimeMagazine.com, April 5, 2009