Mumia Abu-Jamal and Selma James tell the story of jailhouse law

The Crossroads Centre in Kentish Town has helped to publish a book by the imprisoned journalist about prisoners who defend themselves against the legal system

�When Selma James visited Mumia Abu-Jamal in 2004 at the prison where he was on death row, she became captivated by his story.

Abu-Jamal, a prominent journalist and black rights activist from Philadelphia, was accused of killing a police officer and sentenced to death following a trial which Amnesty International condemned as completely unfair. Human rights activists the world over are familiar with his case, which has become representative of the failings of the justice system both in America and Europe to give a fair and unbiased trial. His demands for a new trial are supported by Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Desmund Tutu and by the European Parliament.

The surprising thing for James, who works with Kentish Town-based Legal Action for Women, was what her conversation with Abu-Jamal uncovered: that he was an integral part in a makeshift legal system of “jailhouse lawyers” who represented each other in the quest for real justice. “When he mentioned jailhouse lawyers, I said, ‘What’s that?’ Jailhouse lawyers are prisoners who, for various reasons, read the law and use it to defend themselves and other prisoners. I was stunned by that information because it meant that something else was going on in prisons – it was another very different view of who prisoners are,” says James, talking to me at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town.

“I said immediately, ‘You must write a book on this and, if you do, I will edit it and I guarantee publication.”

James and Abu-Jamal began work on the book, up against the unforgiving prison system which prevented him from using the internet and meant that the story of jailhouse law had to be told using expensive prison-issue typewriter ribbons and collected from letters passed through a network of assistants in America. Despite these hurdles, Abu-Jamal, who has authored numerous other books, has managed to give a compelling account of the central characters in a real-life story that shines a light on a little-known aspect of prison life. “We wanted to bring the story to the attention of the public,” says James.

Armed with the story, James and colleague Niki Adams decided to look into jailhouse law in the UK and what they found amazed them. Jailhouse law was alive in our prisons too: inmates were representing other inmates and fighting charges on legal points that their professional lawyers had failed to spot and act on.

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This chimed with their experience: “We know that legal self-help exists and we know this because of this centre – we have to help women to look into cases that they or their relatives are fighting to find details about their case that have been overlooked by the lawyers and the courts that may mean the accused person is found not guilty. We jumped at the chance to publish Mumia’s book because, as a women’s centre, we know that problems like this have an effect on women, who often seek help for their male relatives inside prison.”

For James and Adams, the string that connects the plight of Abu-Jamal and that of UK jailhouse lawyers with a small women’s centre in Kentish Town is one which, if pulled, could unravel the whole justice system. Miscarriages of justice, like Abu-Jamal’s, acknowledged by humanitarian groups, are being fought all over the UK and America (among other places uncovered, for example Germany) by jailhouse lawyers against a backdrop of punitive detention environments. “Even at the launch of the book, Lord Ramsbotham (chief inspector of prisons) commented on how many prisoners say they didn’t commit the crime they were imprisoned for and how he believes that a lot of them are probably right,” says James. “They are not paying attention to him – why?” The existence of organisations, like the Innocence Network and a wrongful conviction research unit based at the University of Bristol, confirm that many people are wrongly treated by our legal system. The frequency of falsely accused people facing prison is also set to soar with a drop in the availability of legal aid, James and Adams predict.

On October 11, the overturning of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was upheld by the supreme court. Abu-Jamal will still face life in prison. He may be one man, very far away, but, for James, echoes of his story should resonate in every society with a legal system. “The standard of repression which prisons represent is threatening all of us, particularly with arrests being made now for peaceful protests – anyone’s son or daughter could face this system. This is something that is a part of our society and we need to be more aware of what is happening here.”

n Jailhouse Lawyers by Mumia Abu-Jamal, published by Crossroads Books, is available from and from the Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town. More information about Mumia Abu-Jamal is available from