Profiles of prisoners who help their fellows in legal matters, by a Pennsylvania death row inmate.
Convicted for the 1981 murder of a police officer, Abu-Jamal (We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, 2004, etc.) offers a hodgepodge of stories about imprisoned men and women who have picked up enough law to represent themselves and others, fight for prisoners’ rights and challenge prison conditions. These advocates learned the law “not in the ivory towers of multi-billion-dollar-endowed universities,” he writes, but “in the bowels of the slave-ship, in the hidden, dank dungeons of America—the Prisonhouse of Nations.” This sort of radical polemic will limit his informal history’s appeal to the already converted. Drawing on correspondence with two-dozen jailhouse lawyers around the country, Abu-Jamal discusses the lives and work of men and women—some educated, others barely able to read and write—who do legal research, file grievances and litigate cases, often earning reputations as troublemakers and dealt with accordingly by prison authorities. Thousands of such lawyers now work among the 2.3 million inmates of America’s prison system, “to help, to uplift, and even to free others.” Brief vignettes depict many of them, including legendary Pennsylvania inmate Richard Mayberry, noted for his bitter courtroom diatribes and celebrated here as a “testament to one man’s power to resist, with intelligence”; Midge DeLuca, a New Jersey inmate with breast cancer who helps others with medical needs; Ed Mead, co-founder of Prison Legal News; and Dan Manville, co-author of the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual, who did time in Michigan, attended law school and now practices law on the outside. Abu-Jamal details the legal strictures governing jailhouse law, including the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996, intended to prevent frivolous lawsuits by prisoners. Far from being frivolous, he argues, many such actions have led to significant prison reforms.
Strident and scattershot.