By Harvey “Tee” Earvin Polunsky, Unit, Livingston, Texas, May 21, 2009
“Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, City Lights Publishers, 2009; order from www.leftbooks.com.
“Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA.” Wow! Before I say what it is, let me say where it belongs: right next to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Like all societies, U.S. prison houses have a beginning. They have a history. And, as has been written, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”
This is our struggle, our history, written by one of our very own, from our perspective, a prisoner’s perspective.
The prisoner’s struggle is a human struggle that has yet to be recognized as such. Save for the most politicized segment of nominally free society, prisoners have had to go it alone, suffering, sometimes dying, without anyone to turn to but ourselves.
What we, the dispossessed, have most needed—lawyers, writers, poets, organizers, educators—have largely come from us. Forged out of struggle, we are the products of state oppression.
Mumia Abu-Jamal says it best in his conclusion, the “Afterword.” We are “men and women, often self-taught, [who] have developed a tradition of selfless service and in some cases excellence, to serve the needs of society’s dispossessed.”
Yes, “Jailhouse Lawyers” is our story, the testimonies of many, told to our greatest voice, our best and most prolific writer. These voices refute that “History is the memory of states,” as maintained by Henry Kissinger in his book, “A World Restored.” No, that memory, that propaganda, is state repression. Lies intended to kill and to bury. But here, in “Jailhouse Lawyers,” in the testimonies of revolutionary resistance, we rise in that beautiful, victorious way described by distinguished poet Maya Angelou:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
The book begins with a lively interview by Mumia of a Philadelphia prisoner, Delbert Africa, years before Mumia himself became a prisoner. Africa is trying with his best effort to get a less-than-informed Mumia to see and understand how some prisoners come into the system, study the law for years believing that there is justice in it—that it is fixed by precedents and thus applies equally to all, favoring neither rich nor poor—only to discover a most shocking truth, a truth oftentimes too much to handle.
“Them dudes get in there, read alla them law books, and before you know it, they be crazy as hell!” Delbert Africa argues.
“What do you mean crazy?” Mumia asks.
“Well, they may not be crazy when they get here, but after a few months of reading that shit, they go down to City Hall, and when they see that them folks down there in City Hall, in the System, don’t really go by that so-called law, well!—it plumb drives them dudes crazy!”
“Yeah, man, but why it drives ’em dudes crazy?” Mumia presses, still not understanding.
“Cuz they can’t believe that the system don’t follow they own laws.”
What Mumia could not conceive of then, he would bear witness to later, perhaps still, to some extent, disbelieving his own eyes. After all, this is America, is it not? Where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are supposedly inviolable rights; where none stand at risk of losing life, liberty or property without due justice.
This is what we’re taught from grade school. And these are the values that we hold up before the world, loudly and proudly proclaiming to be a nation of freedom. Freedom that we love so much that our young volunteer for military service to defend what we have with their life.
“Jailhouse Lawyers” shatters these myths and awakens us to the true function of their law, its origin, its intent and who it serves, beginning with the Declaration of Independence (the breaking away of the rich slave masters, the wealthy landholders and the powerful governors of the colonies that were in rebellion and demanding freedom; a freedom that included the freedom to keep others in bondage).
The slaves were governed by separate, uniquely designed laws, known as slave codes, to keep them subdued.
After slavery was abolished in its traditional chattel form, a new series of laws were passed called “Black Codes” that made everything but breathing a crime for the ex-slaves.
Consequently, many were arrested in droves, as the Black Codes did what they were designed to do: re-harness their labor.
We, the prisoners, are the new slaves, governed now by “Prisoner Codes,” codes that have lately become stricter with the passage of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
In all the ways that people can resist bondage, slaves, ex-slaves and prisoners have done it. In every way that one can go about attempting to acquire justice, they have done it.
Using the law and litigation is just one of the many avenues taken by those who fight back. These men and women who litigate from behind prison walls are commonly called writ writers or jailhouse lawyers.
It is their stories that Mumia brings to us in his latest book. These men and women are our heroes and finally their history has been recorded for all to read.
At the Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez gave Barack Obama the book “Open Veins of Latin America.” I wish that I could give “Jailhouse Lawyers” to every person in the United States, including the 2.3 million slaves locked in these plantations.
The writer is a founding member of Panthers United for Revolutionary Education, a group of politically active, death-row prisoners in Texas. Earvin has been on death row since he was 18 years old and is now 51. Earvin is an honorary member of Workers World Party.
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