By Alexandra Sayer
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Jailhouse Lawyers

This article is over 10 years, 5 months old
Mumia Abu-Jamal
Issue 367

Mumia Abu-Jamal is perhaps the US most famous prisoner. After nearly 30 years he was finally been moved off death row in January. His latest book sheds light on a different and relatively unknown figure in the legal system: the prisoner defending other prisoners – the “jailhouse lawyer”.

Abu-Jamal insists that the law exists to serve the ruling class. He tracks the development of the law from the Slave Codes (which defined the rights of slaves) into the equally repressive Black Codes (which imposed restrictions on freed slaves after the Civil War). The transformation of the Slave Codes into Black Codes served to racialise specific crimes.

Abu-Jamal argues that prison reforms during the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s eroded the rights of prisoners to hold the state accountable for their treatment and that this marked a move from the Black Codes towards a new kind of “Prisoner Code”.

Abu-Jamal emphasises that the law is a tool of class and racial domination which favours the wealthy and acts to disenfranchise those without means (literally, often removing the right to vote for convicted felons). But out of this is born the jailhouse lawyer who proves that occasionally the law can be wielded as a weapon against the system.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is the case that has come to be known as John Africa vs. The System. Africa, co-founder of the revolutionary MOVE group of the 1980s, not only chose to represent himself in court but refused to pay regard to the customs of the courtroom. He would not allow for any objections to be made during the questioning of witnesses because he saw this as legal trickery.

He did not dispute the charges against him. Mead simply dismissed them and used his closing statement as a platform for his views on crime and its causes. He won the case and baffled the prosecutors.

Abu-Jamal does address the limitations facing the jailhouse lawyer, but he does so through the experience of another jailhouse lawyer turned revolutionary, Ed Mead.

Mead highlights the contradictory nature of the jailhouse lawyer. He began his journey in prison with the “delusional belief that the bourgeois courts were actually going to dispense justice to the underprivileged” but eventually came to the conclusion that the courts are part of the state’s apparatus of repression.

Instead he identifies the tremendous potential in prisoners’ power beyond the courts. For Mead jailhouse law was a means and not an end.

Unfortunately Abu-Jamal does not flesh out this argument. He acknowledges the paradox of the jailhouse lawyer as both subversive of and subject to the law, yet at the same time exonerates the jailhouse lawyer in language clouded by sentimentality. This is understandable given the context in which he is writing as well as his own position as jailhouse lawyer and political prisoner. While he won the appeal to have his death penalty dropped he is still currently facing the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In his closing chapter Abu-Jamal makes a plea to jailhouse lawyers which I think can be extended to all those using the courtroom as their own tool: to use their briefs and legal pleadings to “to speak truths about power in a radical and revolutionary context, to the people”.

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