Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. The U.S.A., by Mumia Abu-Jamal, Published by City Lights Publishers, ISBN 978-0-8728646-9-6; 286 Pages; $16.95

Prisoners helping prisoners with legal issues would not seem strange to most people. But the idea of prisoners protecting the U.S. constitution is a notion not many can grasp unless they take the time to read Jailhouse Lawyers.

In Jailhouse Lawyers, author and PLN Columnist Mumia Abu Jamal raises the bar for the serious scholar who has never considered the concept of justice being defended “from the bottom.” He educates the reader of the extent to which the constitutional rights of “free” society are protected by the often desperate efforts of its incarcerated citizens. He introduces us to prisoners whose names are legends in legal circles as well as to unknown prisoners who have made major differences in the way the law works for every citizen whether free or incarcerated. Mumia also reminds us that this bottom-up protection often comes with a very high price to those who fight for it. Such is the dynamic that drives Jailhouse Lawyers.

Consider Clarence Earl Gideon, the legal legend with an eighth grade education. Almost everyone knows that if they are arrested they have the right to an attorney. Few realize that they enjoy that right because of a hand-written petition filed by a 51-year-old, uneducated prisoner.

As Mumia puts it, “At the time of [Gideon’s] filing, nearly half of the people convicted in courts could not afford a lawyer and thus, like Gideon, had to either try to defend themselves or sit silently while the state exacted its pound of flesh.” Now Gideon v. Wainwright is the standard that ensures every U.S. citizen the right to counsel in a court of law.

Richard Mayberry is a jailhouse lawyer of legendary status by virtue of his numerous courtroom victories. Mayberry’s successes are made even more remarkable given the circumstances under which he labored. As Mumia tells us, Mayberry had no formal training in the law and “In 1963 there were no law libraries in Pennsylvania prisons, and being caught with a law book was an automatic trip to the hole for possession of contraband.” In one case Mayberry suffered retaliation from a judge for no reason other than he had the audacity to act as his own defense counsel.

David Ruiz upended the entire Texas prison system when he dared to defy the rampant cruelty dispensed by guards and prisoners alike while prison administrators turned a blind eye. Ruiz’s first writ was actually torn up and thrown away by the unit warden. But because of his perseverance Texas was subjected to over 25 years of federal court supervision and, just as with Mayberry in Pennsylvania, the state was forced to completely revamp the way it ran its prisons.

Or consider the inception of the magazine Prison Legal News (PLN). For over a decade its founder, Paul Wright, suffered multiple forms of retaliation from jail officials for documenting court decisions that would help other prisoners fight their cases. Because these he was willing to suffer for the constitutional rights of others, what started as a ten-page newsletter has become a nationally recognized, award winning, human rights magazine.

In Jailhouse Lawyers, Mumia takes us behind the deception of our nation’s highest elected leaders and exposes how they have eroded prisoners’ efforts to litigate based on fear-induced propaganda, political prejudices and outright lies by the media. He exposes how former president Bill Clinton, purported champion of unwitting minorities nationwide, sold the civil rights of their incarcerated loved ones downriver as he capitulated to the conservative agenda of political eugenics advanced by the Republican party.

With the stroke of a pen and without so much as a minute of debate on the floor, former President Clinton signed into law the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) which drastically curtailed a prisoner’s ability to defend his or her rights in court.

Jailhouse Lawyers points out that if the atrocities committed in Abu Ghraib took place in an American prison, the PLRA “signed by President Clinton does not allow for recovery for psychological or mental harm or injury.” Yet many of the deplorable acts perpetrated in Abu Ghraib were committed by U.S. Army Reservists employed as prison guards in the U.S.

In the forward, political activist Angela Davis reminds us, “Mumia has urged us to reflect on this dialectic of freedom and unfreedom.” Because the truth is that the survival of many of our constitutional rights is not based on “charitable legal organizations in the ‘free world.’“ They are “pioneered” by prisoners. Jailhouse Lawyers is available from Prison Legal News for $16.95, plus $6.00 shipping for orders under $50.00.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login