“Of Jailhouse Lawyers.”
To be a jailhouse lawyer is to be, above all, a prisoner, and as such, among the most despised of men and women in the nation. “Jailhouse lawyer” was similarly a term of derision, a joke, a mockery until, that is, they began to win. Early in this era of mass incarceration, around the eighties, a guy named Hiram filed suit against the prison at Huntington, PA, because of their practice of giving guys yard that literally lasted as long as it took to smoke a cigarette—or about five to seven minutes long.
Hiram read old statutes, investee law books, and filed suit in state court—and won an order that forced officials to give at least an hour a day, five days a week in the yard. It was a revelation, and the change from six minutes every other day to 60 minutes a day could not be more dramatic.
Hiram wasn’t a joke. He represented the rare power of intelligence against state repression.
I’ve studied and written about jailhouse lawyers for years. Few have been as impressive as Richard Maybury of Pennsylvania. He has spent decades in prison. Yes, but he has also cut decades off of sentences: his and his clients. Once, after a series of verbal jousts with a state court judge, he was sentenced to 11 and a half to 22 years for contempt of court.
Mayberry launched an appeal that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme court and won. In its 1971 opinion, Mayberry v. Pennsylvania, the court, in reversing Mayberry’s conviction, issued a new rule forbidding courts from sentencing defendants who had performed contempt before. New presumably unbiased judges had to be appointed to avoid the taint of judicial bias.
Mayberry detests the term “jailhouse lawyer” and rarely uses it. He uses the law by necessity to get closer to home, to push back against state repression, and sometimes to make positive change.
There’s another kind of jailhouse lawyer that rarely is referenced by that term, because he skipped by the jailhouse. I refer here to the late Dr. Huey P. Newton, one of the co-founders of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA in 1966. Newton, before he helped form the party, was a deep student of the law—not to practice it as a lawyer, but to break it and get away with it. He writes the following in his first book, Revolutionary Suicide published in 1973:
“I first studied law to become a better burglar, figuring I might get busted at any time and wanting to be ready when it happened. I bought some books on criminal law and burglary and felonies and looked up things—everything possible. I tried to find out what kind of evidence they needed, what things were actually considered violations of the law, what the loopholes were, and what you could do to avoid being charged, if at all. They had a law for everything. I studied the California penal code and books like California Criminal Evidence and California Criminal Law by Frick and other cons, concentrating on those areas that were somewhat vague. The California penal code says that any law which is vague to the ordinary citizen, the average reasonable man who lives in California, and who was exposed to the state’s rules, regulations, and culture, doesn’t qualify as a statute.” Dr. Newton added: “My studying helped, because every time I got arrested, I was released with no charges.” Huey P. Newton, from the Huey P. Newton Reader, page 20.
To be short, Dr. Newton describes how he avoided the jailhouse, but he utilized the law as a true jailhouse lawyer would for liberation. In this era of mass incarceration, it is important to know that there are not enough lawyers in the country to help the millions who are held in the iron houses we call prisons. There are not enough lawyers to try the cases of the accused—not to mention the cost of hiring a lawyer. Prisons are the preserves of the poor, and most prisoners can’t begin to afford real legal help. So, in the bleakest of circumstances, most people are forced to turn to a jailhouse lawyer and hope, just hope, that they won’t get burned.
Or do as Huey did, self-study, to look for cracks in the walls of repression. Now, I don’t think it’s fair to ask you to read what Huey read way back then, but you should read The Jailhouse Lawyer Handbook, which shows you how to prepare your legal papers—even providing forms so that you can do it the right way. Keep on struggling.
From imprisoned nation, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
These commentaries are recorded by Prison Radio.