Interviewer: I’m honored to have this opportunity to ask you this question, and nd this question stems from your book, Jailhouse Lawyers, and in the book you, I quote, you wrote about how we often think of trials as “nice, neat, and polite proceedings, where solemn gentlemen discussed issues of weight and importance with intricate fairness and equality.” Okay, what we see today as trials are descendants of other older Saxon trials in England, with such as trial by ordeal known as “judgment by god” which is meant to be trial by fire or trial by water. MY question is, in a previous presentation we did with Megan’s class, how do we expose the corruption that is the facade of the trial and the court system, particularly with wrongful convictions, how do we work to educate society that this system is a facade of justice and equality?
Mumia: Well, I think- I refer often to what Malcolm used to say that, of all our studies, history best rewards our research. And, you know, if you look at Anglo-Saxon law and especially British law, you know, during its, um, Middle Ages and, uh, prior to the illusion of democracy, um, you can see, right, really the ugly face of what the law was.
It’s uh, it was war, right, trial by fire or trial by water. And either way, you’re almost guaranteed to lose, uh, at- you know, if we jump forward to, uh, this era, that hasn’t changed very much. I mean, in most cases when a person goes on trial, they end up in prison.
Um, the other reality is this. Probably in 95% of the cases, it’s not a trial. It’s a deal, right? So very few people go to trial these days because of the onerous punishments that await them. So a lot of guys take plea deals, right? And, you know, I’ve seen guys take plea deals for life sentences because they’re terrified of getting a death sentence when, you know, in Pennsylvania and perhaps in half a dozen states, a life sentence is what I call “slow death row.”
Um, so I think we go back into the history, but we also talk about American history and how the law is used against the weak, the poor, the dispossessed, and how people with means and money—shall we say the name Epstein, right—are able to essentially buy their way out of the ravages and the threats of trials until it becomes impossible for them to do so.
Uh, already, when we talk about state systems in the federal system, we have a two-tiered system. Actually we have a mini-multi-tiered system. When the wealthy, right, uh, commit crimes, they’re able to buy their way, um, out of the worst and into kind of the, um, the penthouse of the system. And that’s a fundamental injustice right there, but I always go back to history, because we can see the framework of these systems being constructed when we look at it historically.
Interviewer: Do you think the restorative justice movement that is growing right now is just another reform strategy, or do you think it has the potential to transform the criminal justice system—and life for those that are incarcerated?
Well, I think that, you know, yesterday, when I talked to you in part one of this segment, um, I talked about how the system really became an economically driven system, right? Once you interlock the economic interests, right, into this fallacy of the system, um, you really preclude any other forces from interfering with it, because now you have people who are in the system for jobs, not just for years, but literally, literally for generations.
Uh, you can see that in Pennsylvania, you can see that in New York, you can see that in most state prison systems where people, you know, their- their children, their grandchildren come in as guards with minimal training and get paid a really astronomical amount money for really a minimum of work. Um, so that’s the economic thing.
Um, and to talk about reforms, I mean, this thing must be deconstructed from its fundamentals, and I really believe, as I suggested earlier, that Angela Davis has the right side of the historical argument about this question, which is abolition, you know, not reform.
Let me give you an idea, though, where I’m coming from. In the seventies, you have a prisoners rights movement emanating mostly from the west coast and then flowing, uh, with some less speed across the rest of the nation. What that generated, right, was a reform that had prison administrators and the media transform language about prisons. You were no longer in a prison. You were in a correctional institution. Guards were no longer guards. They were correctional officers. And wardens were to be called superintendents, right, and you had counselors, right? So you had a mellowing of the language, but what else did you have?
You had the construction of the biggest incorporation- uh, incarceration program in the history of the United States and perhaps the world itself. And you had people being locked up for longer, longer periods of time under really punitive and repressive systems. What you had was a strengthening of the system of repression, but you had a softening of the language. That is what reform does. It changes the language, but it doesn’t address systems and structures. So we can not fall for this, uh, mirage of reform. Again, you either have social transformation or you don’t, and it’s really, as basic as that, in my view.
Interviewer: But if you would like to talk on any advice you’d give these young students on how they can be involved in this movement for prison abolition, obsoletion, or any ways we can best support you and other, other, um, incarcerated individuals in general, then we’d love- we’d love your insight.
Mumia: Well, I think, especially in this era of social media, the closest one can do is to write someone in prison and correspond with them and allow that person, whoever he or she is, to talk to you or to write to you about, you know, their daily and weekly and monthly and annual conditions and what they experience—because what I find is that most people, when they talk about prisons, they aren’t really talking about prisons. They’re talking about an image of prisons as projected by the corporate mass media.
Um, there was a show, years ago, back in the nineties, I believe on HBO called Oz. I cannot tell you how many people ask me questions about stuff they saw on Oz, and I would tell them, you know, while I was on death row at the time, every time that show was broadcast, you would hear guys laughing up and down death row, because from our perspective, just the looking at the show, it was the funniest thing in the world because it wasn’t realistic. Nothing about prison was really reflected there. It was a Hollywood projection.
And I think most people think about that when they think about prison, but if you want to know, write to people, and even if you want to go further, uh, talk to them on the phone as we’re doing or visit—and you will learn things that will blow your mind, because most people don’t know what happens in these hell-holes. It will blow your mind. It will blow your mind. So let’s deal with some reality as opposed to projections and you know, that way you can and, in a lot of ways, find out what’s happening in your name by the state to human beings who aren’t really that different from you.
So that’s what I have to say. I thank you for your time, Megan.