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“Without Struggle, There Is Nothing”–Mumia Abu-Jamal Speaks from Death Row about His Case, Prison Reform and “Jailhouse Lawyers”

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We speak with author, journalist and death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Speaking from his Pennsylvania jail cell, Abu-Jamal calls the recent Supreme Court decision to deny his appeal to overturn his conviction “Kafkaesque.” He goes on to say, “The fight goes on…without struggle, there is no progress…without struggle, there’s nothing.” Abu-Jamal’s new book is Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to my interview with author, journalist, death row prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. Last week, the Supreme Court denied his appeal to overturn his conviction for the 1981 killing of a white police officer following a controversial trial before a predominantly white jury. Abu-Jamal contends, as well as a number of [inaudible], that the case was marred with racial bias, including the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from the jury. The decision leaves in place a federal appeals court ruling upholding Abu-Jamal’s conviction.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, are now trying to appeal a separate ruling for a new sentencing hearing because of flawed jury instructions. If re-sentenced, Abu-Jamal will face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

On Monday, I spoke with Mumia Abu-Jamal from his cell on death row. We conducted the interview from the offices here in San Francisco of Prison Radio, which has been recording Abu-Jamal’s weekly commentaries for years now. The call came in from Pennsylvania death row just after 9:00 in the morning.

    OPERATOR: You have a collect call from…

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Mumia Abu-Jamal.

    RECORDING: An inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Greene.

    OPERATOR: This call is from a correctional institution and is subject to monitoring and recording. Custom calling features are not allowed during this conversation. If you do not wish to accept this call, please hang up now. To accept the call, press zero. Go ahead with your call.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Hello, hello?

    AMY GOODMAN: Hello.


    AMY GOODMAN: Hi, Mumia. This is Amy Goodman.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Hello, Amy Goodman.


    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: How are you?

    AMY GOODMAN: Good. Can you talk about your reaction to the Supreme Court ruling in your case, Mumia?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I can, yes. Anger, disbelief and surprise. Surprise at my disbelief. I mean, you know, a million reactions. It’s almost like Kafkaesque, you know, because, of course, I know that certs are rare things, and I don’t know what the number is, perhaps two out 1,500 might get granted. But in this case, where a judge writes a forty-one-page dissenting opinion, where the courts below said there’s no prima facie evidence of a Batson violation in the case, and they use a rule that has never been used before in our circuit, and rarely in United States, where there’s a clear split, not only between circuits, but in one circuit, you can say surprise, because, you know, that is quite rare. It’s almost unprecedented.

    AMY GOODMAN: You’ve almost exhausted all of your appeals, Mumia. What do you plan to do now?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I’ll have to talk to the lawyer, of course, about that, but, you know, the fight goes on. I am a believer firmly in “without struggle, there is no progress.” Frederick Douglass used to say that, of course. It was true then; it’s true now. You know, without struggle, there’s nothing. There really is nothing. So we struggle on, struggle on.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe where you are right now, Mumia?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Yes. I’m about, oh, I’d say four feet away from the door. I’m in a cell. I’m on death row. And there are about thirteen — twelve cells on this level and twelve cells above, so twenty-four cells in this block or this unit. It’s relatively quiet. That’s because other guys are locked in their cells, or some are taking showers and whatnot. But it’s a — I like to call it a prison in a prison in a prison.

    AMY GOODMAN: How are you speaking to us?

    OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Greene and is subject to monitoring and recording.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I didn’t hear you.

    AMY GOODMAN: How are you speaking to us?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I’m speaking to us using a personal phone call, one of three granted per week. So —-

    AMY GOODMAN: They hand you the phone in your cell?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, they roll it up to the door and uncork or unlock the pile, what’s called a pile or a slot, and you’re able to dial if you have money on your account or you have a number that accepts a collect call or something like that.

    AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal, your book is now coming out, called Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA. This is your latest book. You are exhausting all of your appeals. You hardly mention your own case in this book. Why focus on jailhouse lawyers? And tell us what that means.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, as I describe in other parts of the book, a visitor, a visitor from England named Selma James, the former wife of C.L.R. James, the great historian, a West Indian, I was talking to her once, and I was just telling her stories about guys I knew who were jailhouse lawyers. And when I mentioned the term “jailhouse lawyers,” she looked at me quizzically, and her eyebrows went up. It dawned on me she had no idea what I was talking about. And she actually asked, “Well, what’s that?” And I explained it to her.

    And I was surprised that she didn’t know. I mean, I do know that, you know, for millions of people in this country, prison is something they know intimately. But for millions of other people in this country, all they know is what they see, say, in a movie or something like that or something they read in a book. They really have little idea of what such a thing is.

    But when I explained it to her, and I said, “These are people who are not lawyers in the street, but they’re men and women, thousands of them, who over many, many years learned the intricacies of civil law and criminal law and divorce law and other kinds of law and actually help others with their misconduct, sometimes getting new trials, sometimes civil trials about conditions. They’re jailhouse lawyers,” and she was fascinated by it. And she suggested actually that “You should write this down, Mumia,” she said. So I thought about it, and I said, “I’ll get back to you.” And I thought about it, and it sounded like a good idea. So I wrote it down.

    AMY GOODMAN: You, yourself, are a jailhouse lawyer. We interviewed Harold Wilson, who ultimately was exonerated off of death row, and he talked about the difference you made in his case, using your library time to help him.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, those were the days. Those were the days. Those were, you know, years ago, when I was quite active in that. Of course, in the last few years, I’ve been a little busy on other matters. But everything in that book is really a period and a place and a revelation about what life is in the halls on death row among jailhouse lawyers and their struggles, really, across the nation. So, I have heard nothing but good things about it, and I think people will be surprised when they read it, because it isn’t something you’ll see on TV. It isn’t something you really read about, to my knowledge. It’s the only book of its kind. So -—

    AMY GOODMAN: What about street lawyers? That’s the question you ask as a chapter of one of your titles. What do you mean by “street lawyers”?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, that’s lawyers who are not in jail yet, one should say. The question is, what is their role in America? What is their role? And that role has — I think an honest assessment has to be that it’s been diminishing over time, and that’s because courtrooms are increasingly the domain of prosecutors and judges who were formerly prosecutors. And with the mandatory sentencing laws and with some of the real draconian sentences that people are facing, sometimes jailhouse lawyers can do little more than, say, cut deals for people. So, you know, you really have to look at them differently than one did, say, a generation ago, and that’s because the law has changed profoundly.

    AMY GOODMAN: What is the Ruiz Effect, how one jailhouse lawyer made change in Texas?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Ruiz was convicted of theft, burglary or something, and he —- when he came to jail in the ’70s, he naively wrote out a complaint and give it to the deputy warden. The warden promptly read what it was. Back in those days, you had to do that, because the deputy warden would notarize your documents before they could be filed in court. Well, the deputy warden looks down and then sees it’s what’s called a 1984 or civil rights complaint against his prison. And so, he threw Ruiz into the hole, and he tore that complaint up to shreds. Ruiz found another way to get his complaint filed, and it became really an epic case in Texas. It was called Ruiz v. Estelle. Estelle was the director of the -—

    OPERATOR: This call is from the State Correctional Institution at Greene and is subject to monitoring and recording.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Estelle was the director of the Texas DOC, or Department of Corrections. And that case ended up costing Texas billions of dollars, because the whole system was — if you remember the movie Brubaker, it was kind of like that. They had building tenders, they call them, and these guys, they actually were guards in everything but name. They were armed. They administered discipline. They handled commissary. They handled mail. They essentially ran the jail on behalf of guards. And they terrorize people, and they brutalize people, and they intimidated people, and they beat people. And one judge in Texas looked at that and said, “Whoa, this is, you know, unconscionable.”

    AMY GOODMAN: Mumia, I want to move quickly, because I know we only have a few minutes before the phone is hung up, and I wanted to ask you about looking at the outside world through the bars of death row in this new presidency, the presidency of Barack Obama. Do you hold out any hope for President Obama in the world today, and also in your own case?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I have held out hope for the people, because I believe in the people, because the people may change. If the people don’t organize and protest, then no change will happen. It doesn’t matter who is sitting in what office or in what judgeship or whatever. And that’s just a fact. That’s just the truth.

    Several weeks ago, a reporter in The New Yorker wrote an article, and I found it quite remarkable. I’m not a subscriber, but someone sent me a Xerox of that article. And it dealt with control units and all across the United States. And it illustrated quite convincingly to me how people are tortured all across the United States in almost every state of the union every day. You know, people are driven crazy. People are subjected to all kinds of vile and violent and vicious treatment, and they’re driven out of their minds by solitary confinement. Well, we can all celebrate the impending closing of Guantanamo, but there are Guantanamos in almost every state of the union and have been for I think several decades now.

    I think that’s the next phase, is people want to understand how to change this draconian system that we have in this country. That can be done, but people need to be aware of it, and people need to struggle for it, and they need to fight for it. Without struggle, there is no progress. Frederick Douglass was right.

    AMY GOODMAN: Mumia, there’s a piece that came out in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 12th. They write, “Abu-Jamal has never explicitly stated [that] he did not shoot Faulkner. He did not testify at his own trial before his conviction. He served as his own lawyer — with professional backup counsel — yet failed to produce his brother as a witness. Guilty,” it says. Your response?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, half-true, not true, and other not true. I did not testify, because I was representing myself, but I only represented myself for several days. There was an article contemporaneous to the time that explained that I did quite a good job. I was denied the right to represent myself by a judge’s order and a prosecutor’s suggestion. One reporter said, “It looks to me” — this isn’t my supporter; he was a reporter — “It looks to me that Jamal is doing a pretty good job.” I mean, that’s a fact, you see. Even though, again, I am supposed to have a constitutional right to represent myself, that didn’t happen in that courtroom, because Judge Sabo didn’t want it to happen.

    That’s just one right of a trial. I wanted all of my rights. And I got none of them. I didn’t get a right to a fair judge. I didn’t get a right to a fair jury. I didn’t make that happen. I selected two jurors, and when I finished that, I was told that I couldn’t do that anymore. My backup lawyer, who said he did not want to represent me —-

    OPERATOR: You have sixty seconds remaining.

    AMY GOODMAN: Mumia, will you be able to call us back?

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: I can’t, because the computer will turn off in, I think, sixty seconds, and that’s the only call I have for twenty-four hours.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your last forty-five seconds then.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I thank you for this opportunity. I thank you for the call. It’s a pleasure to talk to you, and you looked great on C-SPAN Saturday.

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mumia, thank you for talking to us. Your -—

    OPERATOR: You have thirty seconds remaining.

    AMY GOODMAN: How do you write these books? How do you write? You are so prolific in jail.

    MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: Well, I’m a nerd, my wife tells me, so I read a lot, and I try to make extensive notes. And I use those notes for articles and, of course, for these books. But I write because I love to read. And I read because that’s a way of escaping this madness.

    AMY GOODMAN: Your final message to people all over the world who are listening and watching right now?

    The call has been cut off from death row in Pennsylvania. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was the end of our conversation we had Monday morning just after 9:00 from the offices of Prison Radio. We’re joined now by Noelle Hanrahan. She’s the director of Prison Radio. She’s been recording and distributing Mumia Abu-Jamal’s commentaries for years now.

Welcome to Democracy Now! The significance of being able to get Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice out? How hard is it, Noelle?

NOELLE HANRAHAN: It’s extremely difficult. And it’s critical to hear from prisoners and prisoners voices, because it’s an unseen and unheard of really important part of our culture and our democracy. We don’t have a democracy if we can’t examine all parts of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And does Mumia Abu-Jamal face sanctions for having this conversation?

NOELLE HANRAHAN: Absolutely. Any inmate in a maximum-security prison who dares to become part of the public debate and dialogue could suffer sanctions.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, he does it. He does speak out on the telephone.

NOELLE HANRAHAN: Mumia reaches out to us, and it’s our obligation to really make sure that it happens. So he does weekly commentaries from his cell on death row regardless of the potential penalties. He’s a journalist

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank John Hamilton and also Jennifer Beach and Nolen Edmonston. On our TV broadcast and on our website at, we’re showing many photographs of Mumia Abu-Jamal. But actually, it’s not easy to get photos of him.

NOELLE HANRAHAN: No, they’ve banned all photos of Mumia since 1996.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened then?

NOELLE HANRAHAN: We went in with a camera, and we went in as a journalist, and I recorded Mumia Abu-Jamal. And when that material came out and it was broadcast on Democracy Now!, they eliminated all access to inmates in Pennsylvania to journalists with a pen and paper, much less a camera.


NOELLE HANRAHAN: Because they don’t want this information out, because they’re trying to silence prisoners, because they’re trying to lock them away, hide them away and keep them out of the public debate. It’s our job as journalists to go there and get that information.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Noelle, if you can summarize where his case stands. For example, why was I talking to him on death row?

NOELLE HANRAHAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal’s life hangs in the balance, because the DA is trying to reimpose death. So, pending the outcome of the DA’s appeal before the US Supreme Court —-

AMY GOODMAN: This is the last appeal.

NOELLE HANRAHAN: —- he’s held on death row pending that appeal and pending a new trial on life or death, a sentencing phase trial.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Noelle Hanrahan. Your website, for people to hear Mumia Abu-Jamal and other prisoners?


AMY GOODMAN: Noelle Hanrahan is the director of Prison Radio here in San Francisco.

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