Live from Death Row.
Bruce Jackson State University of New York, Buffalo
This is a collection of short essays about death row, prison, American criminal justice, and being black in late twentieth-century America by Mumia Abu-Jamal, a prize-winning Philadelphia radio journalist who was working as a part-time taxi driver when he was arrested for the December 9, 1981, murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner. On July 3, 1982, a jury found him guilty and recommended the death sentence; the trial judge formally confirmed the sentence a year later. On June 2, 1995, a month after Abu-Jamal's book was published, Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Ridge, a prodeath-penalty Republican, signed a death warrant ordering Jamal's execution at eight p.m. on August 17, 1995. Abu-Jamal's attorneys got a stay. Since then, the conviction and death sentence have been the subject of almost continual war in the courts and the press by both sides. During the same period, the conditions of Abu-Jamal's incarceration, including his access to writing materials, have become increasingly more restrictive.
During his years on death row, Abu-Jamal wrote articles that were published in such places as The Nation and Yale Law Journal. Tapes of his short commentaries were broadcast by Pacifica Radio. His case has been supported by Whoopi Goldberg, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Ed Asner, and California representative Ron Dellums. Amnesty International and PEN have questioned the fairness of the trial and sentencing.
Mumia Abu-Jamal's case returned to public attention in May 1994 when National Public Radio officials canceled a series of three-minute commentaries Abu-Jamal had taped for NPR's All Things Considered. The tapes consisted of Abu-Jamal's musings about prison conditions, with particular focus on the character of life on death row. NPR managing editor Bruce Drake, who canceled the series two days before the first segment was to be aired, said he had "serious misgivings about the appropriateness of using as a commentator a convicted murderer seeking a new trial." He said that he "did not find [the commentaries] of such a compelling nature as to overcome these misgivings." NPR denied that the cancellation had anything to do with NPR's funding battles in Congress or the ads taken out by Philadelphia police attacking NPR or attacks on NPR programming by the religious right. Senator Bob Dole attacked NPR anyway, just as if the series had been broadcast: Comments on prison conditions by a convicted cop killer were too much to pass up.
Whatever the reason for NPR's cancellation of the series, readers can get an idea of the quality and character of the pieces for themselves, since they are included in this collection of 40 vignettes about life on death row and how criminal justice matters seem to someone who has lived on the row for twelve years. (It is possible to hear some of the segments recorded for NPR. Voyager has issued first person: Mumia Abu-Jamal, a CD-ROM that includes the entire text of Live from Death Row, a video interview with Abu-Jamal, many of his audio commentaries, and statements about his life and work by E. L. Doctorow, John Edgar Wideman, Cornel West, Sister Helen Prejean, and others.)
Except for one passing mention in the final essay, Abu-Jamal doesn't discuss his own case, but in an appendix to the book, Civil Rights attorney Leonard Weinglass, who is handling Abu-Jamal's appeal, briefly describes the killing of Daniel Faulkner and wounding of Abu-Jamal, questions some of the primary evidence in the case, then discusses at some length the bizarre trial in which Abu-Jamal was denied the right to represent himself and was instead represented by a court-assigned lawyer who knew almost nothing of the case and was allowed almost no funds with which to conduct a defense. Weinglass also describes the perhaps unique end of the trial, when the judge permitted prosecutors to cross-examine Abu-Jamal on his sentencing plea, which let them put before the jury such otherwise inadmissible and peripheral items as Abu-Jamal's membership in the Black Panthers when he was sixteen years old, twelve years earlier.
Abu-Jamal's essays are often insightful, objective, and moving; a few are polemical and myopic. This range is hardly surprising from someone locked away, without vital conversation for thirteen years, much of it in solitary. The value of these essays is exactly the mixture of their immediacy, their parochialism, their anger, and their insight. I was particularly moved by the day-to-day stuff: the guy who gets tired of it all and hangs himself by a bedsheet; the sudden perception that there are two exercise yards, one for whites and one for blacks; the descriptions of guards losing it and whacking away with their clubs.
Some of Abu-Jamal's discussions of more general matters have been discussed well and at length in other places, but to many of these he brings the unique perspective of what such matters look like from the other side of the double-razor wire fence. I think particularly of his discussion of the Supreme Court's 1987 McClesky v. Kemp decision. (The court acknowledged that there were massive differences in sentencing when the victim was white or black, but concluded, in one of the grandest non sequiturs of recent jurisprudence, that there was nothing discriminatory in this.)
What I found particularly depressing about Abu-Jamal's descriptions of life on the row wasn't how much is new here but rather how little is new here. The descriptions of prison conditions, relations between guards and inmates, and moments of official capriciousness and callousness could have been written thirty years ago, forty years ago, fifty years ago. The only difference between then and now is that now there are more people doing more time for more crimes in more prisons, more people waiting to be executed on more death rows - a difference of quantity, not quality. After all the prison reforms of the sixties and seventies, many of the same conditions and attitudes still exist. Part of the message of this book for people concerned about prison conditions is this: A lot of the things you thought were fixed weren't, and a lot of things that were fixed didn't stay fixed.
Abu-Jamal's description of condemned men being rushed inside from the exercise yard during a sudden storm because prison officials fear they might be struck by lightning and thereby escape their official death reminded me of one of the weirder aspects of death row in Texas. In 1979, when I did research there, death row consisted of two sides of a wing at Ellis prison farm (the condemned occupy far more space in Texas now). The cells on one side of the wing (row J24) had no electricity; cells on the other side (row J-22) did. Men on J-24 had to read using light bulbs mounted outside their cells; they could have fans and some other small electrical appliances, but only if they purchased an extension cord that was run to the same fixture. If they wanted to turn the light on or off, they did it using a rolled up newspaper or stick of wood. Men on J-22 had light fixtures in their cells which they operated with a simple pull-chain; they had ordinary wall outlets for their electrical appliances. I was told the reason one block had electricity and the other did not was that the first block was filled when the state was killing with the electric chair and they didn't want the condemned electrocuting themselves privately, but by the time the second row was filled, the state had shifted over to killing by lethal injection, so there was no more fear of men cheating the executioner by electrocuting themselves.
You have trouble with that logic? You should. The row is a place where ordinary logic doesn't apply. Indeed, it is the only place in prison where the basic condition of imprisonment doesn't apply: Everyone else in the penitentiary is doing time, but nobody on the row does time. In the regular blocks, you take college courses, you find God, you get people outside who say they'll give you a job forever, and it all helps when you come up before the Board; on the row, you never come up before the Board, so none of that stuff means anything at all. The row is not a place you do time; it is a place you spend time, a place where you wait.
Well, not everyone just waits. Some think, and some want to tell the world what they're thinking, and prison authorities don't much like that. In Pennsylvania, Abu-Jamal tells us, prisoners on the row are permitted to have television sets in their cells but not typewriters. The officials are happy to provide prisoners soporifics to the mind but not devices that give them voice. What are those prison officials afraid of from these men in these prisons within prisons where time does not count? Such things as Abu-Jamal tells us in these forty essays, which left me thinking about the last words of Ralph Ellison's nameless Invisible Man: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you."
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1997|
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