DEATH ROW: Journalist and campaigner Eric Allison gives his inside track

May 31, 2012 Source :

by Eric Allison

During my time behind bars, I acquired something of a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer.

Not major league; I didn’t reverse any wrongful convictions, or take a case to the House of Lords, as some of my more illustrious fellow con lawyers managed; but I enjoyed some minor victories and liked being a thorn in the side of my keepers and fighting them on behalf of prisoners with a grievance occupied my time nicely.

My work – all pro bono – did not endear me to the authorities who held me; no penal system takes kindly to criticism from those it locks up.

But my experience and the payback from my keepers, pales into insignificance alongside the real jailhouse lawyers brought to life  in the pages of a remarkable book of that name.

Jailhouse Lawyers is the work of one of the most celebrated prisoners in the American prison system, Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been on death row in a Pennsylvania penitentiary since he was convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia in 1981.

Jamal, 54, is perhaps the best known prisoner in the world; feted by lawyers and academics and supported by activists worldwide.

He has been given honorary citizenship of 25 cities, including Paris, Copenhagen and Montreal.

Although no mean lawyer himself, the book is not about the author.

He takes an admirably humble view of his own achievements, preferring to pay homage to the celebrated convict lawyers who have taken cases to the highest courts in the US. Practitioners who, in Jamal’s words, have learned their law, “not in the ivory towers of multi-billion-dollar-endowed universities”, but in the “hidden dark dungeons of America.”

The term dungeons is not misused; in the US, prisoners who offend their keepers are placed in the “hole” and the common thread linking those featured in the book is the amount of time they have all spent in the hole, some for decades.

And while some penal systems “dress up” the names used for isolation blocks (care and separation units, in this country for example), in the US, the hole is precisely that – a hole in the ground. Hardly the places to prepare to take groundbreaking cases to the United States Supreme Court, as many of those named have done.

In 1991, a group of academics studied the disciplinary actions, against prisoners, in jails across the US.

They found no segment of the american prison population outweighed jailhouse lawyers when it came to prisoners targeted by the administrators for punishment.

The prison lawyers headed the table, “scoring” twice as many spells in the hole as, for example, gang members or political prisoners.

Despite this persecution, many have become legends in their own legal time; often teaching other inmates to follow what has become a successful tradition.

The fact that jailhouse lawyers have become so firmly entrenched in US legal circles is a massive tribute to those practising their craft under the most restrictive and oppressive conditions.

Men such as Richard Mayberry, who has won more civil actions from behind bars than most conventional lawyers win in a lifetime.

In legal circles in the US, it is said to be a rare law report which does not begin or end with Mayberry mentioned in the citation or text.

Or David Ruiz, who, in 1971, naively complained about prison conditions to the assistant warden of the Texas penitentiary which held him. That action earned a long spell in the hole.

Learning fast, Ruiz rewrote his complaints and passed them out to a lawyer and began the battle which would change Texas penal history. A decade later, the United States Supreme Court forced the Texas penal authorities to spend billions to bring their system into “some semblance of modernity”.

The fight for justice from inside has never been easy. Even in supposedly enlightened times, attempts have been made to silence the jailhouse lawyers.

In 1996 the then President Bill Clinton put his name to the Prison Litigation Reform Act which, far from reforming, put financial and legal restraints on those who sued from behind bars.

The author’s death sentence is currently under review. In April this year, the United States Court of Appeals unanimously declared his death sentence to be unconstitutional.

His case was remanded for a new hearing.

The death penalty  may be imposed again or Abu-Jamal may receive a sentence of life without parole.

Irrespective of his fate, this compelling and inspiring work should be mandatory reading by those who make and practice law.

Reform rarely comes from the top, the poker player holding four aces never asks for a new deal.

Jailhouse lawyers worldwide have usually been dealt a bad hand in life; these chronicles show us that, even with the odds stacked against them, they do not always lose the game.

Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v the USA. By Mumia Abu-Jamal, Crossroads Books, PO Box 287 NW6 5QU £11.99 + 10% postage. Email: crossroadsbooks@

• Selma James presents her new book, Sex, Race and Class – The Perspective of Winning, at the Owl Bookshop  207-209 Kentish Town Road, NW5 2JU  at 6.30pm tonight (Thursday)

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