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Live from Death Row

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Here for the first time are the prison writings of Abu-Jamal--including the censored commentaries from NPR--an unflinching account of the brutalities, humiliations and actrocities of prison life. Articulate and compelling, the work is certain to fuel the controversy surrounding capital punishment and freedom of speech.

224 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 1995

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About the author

Mumia Abu-Jamal

53 books218 followers
American political activist and journalist

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5 stars
1,158 (48%)
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3 stars
363 (15%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 113 reviews
Profile Image for TJ Shelby.
900 reviews29 followers
July 23, 2010
I was recommended this book by a friend thinking that it would sway my stance on capital punishment. I am in a small majority of social liberals who support capital punishment. Mumia aptly points out major corruption in nearly every aspect of our criminal justice system, local police, correctional officers, district attornies, and judges. He also demonstrates the propensity for discrimination against blacks and backs it up with solid statistics and facts.

One of the most damning is how much more likely black criminals are to receive the death penalty than white criminals. It leaves me with the following options:

1. Oppose the death penalty because of the disparity.
2. Support the system but rally behind the cause that less blacks need to be executed.
3. Support the system but rally behind evening the disparity and thus, more whites need to be executed.

I stand behind option 3. Justice should be color-blind. Why whites get life without parole while blacks get the death penalty is a statistic that MUST be investigated. However, to receive either sentence means we no longer wish these individuals to be loosed upon society.

Also painfully apparent is the irony of calling our prison systems "correctional facilities." Nothing could be further from the truth. Secondly, capitalism is now dictating prison policies and procedures and not humanitarian goodwill. As citizens, we want reformed criminals with corrected behaviors that do not want to end up back in the system. However, our prison systems are capitalistic ventures of state governments and less prisons/prisoners means less taxes for state budgets and less jobs for state citizens.

Overall, great read. No solutions offered, just boldly proclaimed problems that people choose not to see.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
Author 5 books96 followers
June 10, 2009
Read it! Then act on it. Due to a recent Supreme Court reject of the case, he might not be "live" much longer. Write a letter to President Obama, ask for his executive clemency! If you need help writing that letter, send me a mail and I will send you a letter to draw from.
Profile Image for Donna Davis.
1,745 reviews234 followers
September 9, 2016
Mumia is a former Black Panther. The facts support his having been framed in the murder of the cop, a crime for which he was nearly executed.

Live from Death Row, written before his sentence was commuted, is not, however, a vehicle he uses to advocate for himself or plead his own case to the public. He has written other books I haven't read, and I don't know if he did that there.

Instead, here he uses his own situation to discuss the racism inherent both in the U.S. court system; he also talks about racism on death row.

The mandatory fresh-air time, prized and treasured by men who rarely see the clear blue sky, is an Apartheid one, at least in Supermax, RHU,SMU, and SHU (ultimate maximum security prisons, which he says have swelled since jailhouse overcrowding has made prisons tenser places and more people are tossed into "the hole"). The vast majority of prisoners are Black, though they are a minority of the population at large, and in the Pennsylvania prison he describes, 80% of those maximum security cases, those who wear Black skin, are crowded into a courtyard. They can't see green grass or the outdoors, only four brick walls and way up there, blue sky. Why? And where are the other prisoners going?

The other prisoners (who are also maximum security) who are not Black have a SEPARATE courtyard, which is surrounded by chain=link fencing with razor-wire, but has the view. The 20% have the perk of a much less crowded space and the capacity to see Mother Earth during their treasured time outside prison walls.

As to the racist system that places Blacks on death row at such a startlingly high rate, he offers the following statistics and footnotes all of them like the scholar he was before being incarcerated, and continues to be behind prison walls. He uses a Georgia case because it is one which caused the Supreme Court to recognize the following facts:

*defendants charged w killing Caucasian victims are 4.3 times as likely to be sent to death row as those charged w/killing Blacks;

*the race of the victim determines whether or not a death penalty is returned;

*nearly 6 of 11 defendants who received the death penalty for killing Caucasians would not have received the death penalty if their victims had been Black;

*20 of every 34 defendants sentenced to death would not have been given the death sentence if their victims had not been Caucasian.

He continues to pound one damning fact upon another, and cites court cases to back them up; those above come from McClesky vs. Kemp (1987). If the case sounds old, I would argue that precedents are set by very old cases indeed, and of course, this book was published early into the 2000 decade. I doubt a more recent gathering of data would return more favorable information; in the case of jail overcrowding, I suspect the recession has made it worse.

I recently read in the national news that the most minor offenders--i.e., those who were arrested because they possessed marijuana or because they did not have a Green Card on their person at the time they were approached--have been released to ease crowding in prisons. I wonder how much good it has done.

I applaud Mumia for using his well-known case to set the facts before us, rather than trying to build momentum to save himself. There was a considerable amount of public pressure NOT to execute him, and I do think that had to do with his sentence being commuted; as it was, my kids' urban U.S. high school was "barely holding together", according to a counselor I knew there, the day that Mumia's case was turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you are interested in reading about social justice issues, this relatively slender volume holds an astounding amount of really critical information. I appreciate Mumia's relentless effort to make the public, both in the US and internationally, aware of the atrocities that continue to visit Black prisoners in the USA.
Profile Image for Benjyklostermann.
58 reviews1 follower
August 17, 2019
Powerful writing and spirited criticism of the US system of law as well as the state of prisons in America. And to think these pieces were written 25-30 years ago, and human conditions or proper reforms still have not been fully realized today. I did expect more on his actual trial and appeals. But his prose was really insightful and I am inspired to learn more and advocate for fairness.
Profile Image for Sidik Fofana.
Author 2 books234 followers
April 20, 2022
SIX WORD REVIEW: Never forget Life Africa's tragic death.
Profile Image for Priya Prabhakar.
8 reviews119 followers
June 8, 2021
Wow. Mumia Abu-Jamal is such a brilliant writer, even, as he describes, is "teetering on the brink between life and death" on death row. There were some parts of his prose that struck me so deeply, such: "Prisons are repositories of rage, islands of socially acceptable hatreds, where worlds collide like subatomic particles seeking psychic release. Like Chairman Mao's proverbial spark, it takes little to start the blazes banked within repressive breasts." I liked that this book contained several smaller essays of his and it's really interesting and telling that he chooses to write more anecdotally about the lives of other comrades on death row rather than writing about himself, which, I think is a testament to John Edgar Wideman's remarks about Mumia Abu-Jamal in the intro: "Although dedicated to personal liberation, he envisions that liberation as partially dependent on the collective fate of black people." Mumia Abu-Jamal is so deeply well-versed on legal histories and frameworks of the prison industrial complex in the United States, especially the cases of folks on death row. This gives his writing so much power, and I deeply appreciated his description of his evolution of thought, from believing that the criminal justice system will eventually serve justice early on in his life, to a nihilism that calls for its entire abolition.

The book reflects its age as well, given that some of the frameworks presented forth are a little antiquated in their description and analysis, however, it's inspiring to see how Mumia Abu-Jamal's writing and journalism has set the precedent and has inspired the staunch abolitionist politics we see today. I am excited to read more of his books, writing, and listen to his radio work, and learn from his politics and theory more deeply. When talking about the three-strikes law, Mumia Abu-Jamal's analysis of its future consequences is completely accurate, talking about the "unprecedented prison building boom" that we see today.

I feel deeply lucky to be alive at the same time as Mumia Abu-Jamal, especially as we celebrate May Day in 2021, the year of the political prisoner, in honor of Abu-Jamal himself. We must continue to advocate, demand, and fight for his freedom.
Profile Image for Adam.
19 reviews
February 10, 2021
A searing exploration of the deeply ingrained racial injustices perpetrated throughout the criminal justice system of the United States of America, Mumia Abu-Jamal screams into the void in a last ditch attempt to change how people view the death penalty.
I first became aware of this book while reading Angela Davis's Are Prisons Obsolete? and decided, based on the intriguing title, to further educate myself on the state of American justice. What I was not ready for, however, was the breadth of topics Abu-Jamal touches upon throughout the book; whether the lifestyle of death row inmates or the political point-scoring that led to life destroying policies or the formation and inner workings of the Black Panther party and the subsequent MOVE party that spawned in its wake, Abu-Jamal is able to eloquently and effectively get his point across in a relatively short space of time. Some may see the book as being too wide spread with little deep insight into each topic discussed but I don't think Abu-Jamal is writing to give a brief history of the African-American experience, but instead to inflame the reader's morality. Abu-Jamal is hoping to spark a righteous flame in the reader and ignite another revolutionary.
The fires sparked in this book should not be only for the release of Mumia himself, but for the wider population. For any country in which the police are agents of the state, protecting the capital of the 1% rather than the good of the people. If you are a supporter of capital punishment, I find it impossible to believe you can read this book and not have your opinions swayed on the death penalty at least a little. There's a specific passage quoted by Mumia in the book that I found particularly apt and that I think speaks to the false nature of the "eye for an eye" concept:

"For there to equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life." - Albert Camus
Profile Image for RevDrJude.
Author 8 books91 followers
October 6, 2010
A Case for Reasonable Doubt a DVD of the 60 Minutes show about Mumia's case. (A really good film!)

I've been getting most of my info from 2 organizations working to Free Mumia:

Refuse & Resist! and Partisan Defense Committee. My understanding of what Mumia really wants most is to get out of jail.

The organizations say the only way to accomplish this is by drawing International Media attention to the issues of his case.

I spoke to a woman this summer from Philadelphia who said; "They will never let Mumia out of jail!" My intention is not to convert anyone, insult ugly ignorance nor incite the worst case sceneio. My heart song is merely to connect like minded individuals, shedding some positive light and love, on the serious issues of racism, the death penalty and injustice; and hopefully getting media attention, highlighting the hundreds of millions of people around the world who care about Mumia's Freedom.

"The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal has become a battleground in society because it concentrates so many of the reactionary elements riding high in the US today - the criminalization of black men, the suppression of dissent, the expanded death penalty, the gutting of defendant's rights, and a whole political atmosphere of blame and punishment aimed at the most oppressed. This is a dangerous time for the people, and no time to think that the government will back off from killing Mumia because they are 'too busy' with other problems, their war on the world and the shredding of civil liberties. Mumia is one of their problems. His dissenting voice from Death Row is all the more precious to the people under the government's massive clampdown on dissent and opposition; when people are locked up secretly for having an Arabic name or coming from countries the US says are 'sponsoring terrorism'; when people are persecuted for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag on command, or for protesting the war and occupation of Iraq."

"To win justice for Mumia, and ultimately for all of us, we need a movement that is broad and diverse, because no one section of the people has the power to make this government back down. This requires the efforts of us all: Youth, black people, people of color and conscience, working people, celebrities, artists, the legal community, the movement against the death penalty, the anti-war movement and massive international pressure. When all these different forces come into action, determined to stop the execution, when Mumia's story and writings are in many different places, the tables become turned. This is what the government has to see and here, loud and clear." (Refuse & Resist!) Free Mumia!!!

I heard on NPR that all war is untimately about race. I feel just as passionate about ending racism as I do

Peace on Earth - I'm quite serious.

"For 22 years Mumia has lived, locked down, on death row in western Pennsylvania, under threat of death. He has never given up in despair or begged for a break. Mumia is a revolutionary journalist who has continued to write the truth from behind bars, inspiring a whole new generation of resistance - in this country and internationally. If Mumia is murdered by the state, he would be the first Black revolutionary legally executed for his political beliefs since the days of slavery. We cannot and must not let this happen."

Here are some websites where you can learn more:
www.prisonradio.org - You can hear Mumia's beautiful voice and radio show here!
Profile Image for Angie.
90 reviews6 followers
August 27, 2015
Just reading the sections on how Mumia was railroaded during his trial and the following appeals and how The Baldus Study has proven that "defendants charged with killing whites are 4.3 times more likely to be sentenced to die then defendants charged with killing blacks; 6 of every 11 defendants convicted of killing a white would not have received a death sentence had their victim been black" are infuriating. From that study alone it shows how the Black Lives Matter movement is very much needed. Cause the courts apparently don't think so. And before you argue that that study is old, take a moment, pause, and think of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, and the many other cases that have happened in the last couple years and reconsideer.

I also found it very strange to realize that our "correctional" centers don't have much correcting going on. Mumia is right, what is the point of have prisoners locked up most of the day in tiny cells and then give them an hour or two of time in a courtyard outside. For prisoners going back to the regular world someday this is asinine. We are giving them no tools or skills to help make themselves a better people and they end up leaving the same or worse then they were before.

In conclusion: This is an IMPORTANT book. Read it nerds.
Profile Image for Eva-Marie.
1,672 reviews129 followers
May 9, 2010
This was a mistake for me to have picked up. I know next to nothing about this man or this case but was/am interested in learning more. Being that I don't know a lot about this I can't come to a conclusion on whether I think he's innocent or guilty and whether or not I think the trial was biased.
I'm inclined to assume he's guilty. Most people convicted are guilty. He may be one of the few with mitigating circumstances, I don't know. But the little of this book that I read was someone crying about prison conditions. Um, yeah, prison sucks. Don't kill people. Don't rape kids. Don't rob old ladies or banks. I'm fairly positive I wouldn't like prison too much.... so I refrain from commiting crimes.
Or, I'm sorry, should we fill the prisons with king sized beds and gourmet food? Or maybe have no prison at all? Just let everyone do whatever the hell they want?
If anyone knows of a book that I could learn more about this man's case from I'm be interested in getting the recommendation.... I do NOT, however, want to read about how prison life is lacking.
March 23, 2009
This book changed my Life literally. I read it and it called me to action. Mumia is an innocent political prisoner and I have worked as an Activist on his case for 11 years now. His writings about the horrible conditions on the Death Rows of American Gulags is both insightful and vital. Although incarcerated in a room the size of a tiny bathroom for almost 14 years at the time he wrote this book, Mumia turned the story of his and the other prisoners plights into sheer poetry. Another must read!
Profile Image for Andrew Duenez.
6 reviews
September 7, 2011
Mumia describes the significance of the "correctional" system we have here in the US. From this book, among other mediums, I have learned that the US is becoming a prison country. The face of that prison system is blacker than any other aspect of American life. In some states where the african am. population is but a quarter, the prison is made up of over 50% of black life. it's pretty crazy that we just accept it all. I mean "they" distract us with so many things that we don't have time to think about these things. Recommend if you know nothing about the prison system.
Profile Image for Chris.
226 reviews3 followers
July 24, 2018
Say what you want, guilty or not, there is no denying that Mumia Abu-Jamal is a brilliant mind. I respect the amount of research he put into his writing, and the tone of the book brings about views and points that need to be more prevalent to society now.

I also found it interesting to note that in this book, Mumia represents himself as 'this writer', a term that I found simple yet endearing. I want to read more about his case, his writing, published articles. An amazing read, we'll worth it if you want to find cracks in the system.
Profile Image for Brad.
114 reviews7 followers
April 14, 2011
Yeah, he's biased. I'd be biased as hell. I'd want to bias someone in the face.
56 reviews
March 24, 2019
Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Free Mumia.
Profile Image for Jim Thompson.
311 reviews1 follower
February 17, 2021
This has been on my "to read" list for a ridiculously long time. Something I've always meant to get to, never picked up until now, even as I read some of Mumia's other books ("Death Blossoms" long ago, "Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?" more recently).

This is, like "Have Black Lives Ever Mattered?," a wonderful and powerful and painful book (perhaps "Death Blossoms" was as well; it's been so long I barely remember it). It's a mix of sorrow and outrage and deep compassion, a look not just at life on death row and the dehumanization of men and women in prison, but at the wider racism in society, the exploitation of the powerless by the powerful, the lack of mercy that we find all around us.

I've read a few brief reviews of this book that focus on the question "did he do it?," that seem to think that the value of the book can be best determined by a simple "yes" or "no" answer to that question.

This book isn't about Mumia's guilt or innocence, or even centrally about Mumia (though there are bits of personal history here and there). And I don't have a solid "yes" or "no" answer to give (though I have opinions and guesses). Mostly, that question strikes me as irrelevant, as this book is about something bigger than one shooting, one trial, one sentence, is a burning (and somehow still loving) accusation against an entire system of injustice, and entire society that allows that injustice.
Profile Image for linnea ☆゚. * ・ 。゚.
83 reviews2 followers
May 7, 2021
5/5 stars

"The police, tools of white state capitalist power, are a force creating chaos in the community, not peace. They have created more crime, more disruption, more loss of property, life, and peace than any group of criminals in the nation."

Read this book.
80 reviews1 follower
January 23, 2022
I think this book deserves the full five. I found it easy to read and provocative about race in correlation with the prison system. It Sparks alot of moral and ethical questions that I think are interesting to ponder, and in between those philosophical considerations, we get so perspective of what it's like to be in prison.

I think it's worth the read for anyone interested in the system.
Profile Image for Quinn Raymond.
5 reviews
February 4, 2023
amazing read. super poignant, really hits the heart strings. made me tear up too many times. if u read this and ur not pro prison reform/entire judicial system reform u dont have a heart. this country sucks
Profile Image for Chuck.
10 reviews10 followers
June 28, 2022
A very harrowing read over the past few months. A very bleak view from not only inside a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania but a detailed account of what death row inmates see on a daily basis.
12 reviews
December 11, 2019
I think this book is an important conversation because it such a big part in our society. Whether criminals should be killed in the electric chair has always been a question, is it morally right?, do they deserve it? But what happens while they are waiting for their death, what do the inmates do? This book answers all these questions. One part that stood out to me the most was that inmates in death row are not allowed contact with their visitors. I can understand where they are coming from. But, after the visit, inmates are stripped down, bend over and check all their body parts. Because if there is already and no contact, why humiliate them? I never knew this about prisons, so it really helped me understand what they are going through. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in human rights in general. It can be really mind opening.
Profile Image for Amal Omer.
34 reviews
March 4, 2023
amazingly written- so honest and easy to follow. learned a lot- def one of the best books i’ve ever read !!!
Profile Image for Adam.
316 reviews19 followers
March 27, 2013
As if there's something I could possibly say to highlight Mumia's powerful words that he doesn't say himself. . .

In lieu of extracting quotes from this book, as I normally do with my readings, I simply have set the entire piece aside in my head as worth rehashing, rereading, and keeping on the tip of my tongue an forefront of my thoughts.

Life from Death Row is a compilation of essays from long-time death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. As a professional reporter, Mumia made a career of presenting the news, the world around him, and the struggles for freedom. After being railroaded to a death sentence through an almost unbelievably unfair prosecution (multiple times), Mumia has continued his commentary from the confines of a Pennsylvania prison.

His insight into the great injustices of American law, society, and politics are crisp, clear, and convincing. His short essays spare the reader of fluff, cutting straight to the heart of issues with a pointed zeal that could rouse even the most apathetic of observers.

Mumia's words are an all too powerful reminder (or yet not powerful enough?) that our criminal injustice system doesn't so much have a long way to go as it is simply fundamentally flawed. Race, class, law, and politics collide in this brilliant compilation, well worth reading time and time again as the struggle continues.

41 reviews
March 1, 2017
Although the majority of the essays were written in the late 80's and mid 90's the themes of injustice, despair in the face of racial oppression and the fight to win liberty and dignity amidst the oppressive cage that is death row and society at large still rings true today. It is truly a shame that such a talented writer with poignant thoughtful, and full of sound social criticisms is locked in a cage. Without a doubt, Brother Mumia remains a controversial figure but I dare challenge any of his critics to put forward counter sound arguments on his criticisms of the empire we call America? His rhetorical genius and commitment to telling truth to power even after so many failed trials and more recently with the deterioration of his health is something to admire. I can clearly see why Bother Cornel West called Mumia the modern day Frederick Douglass (this comparison is clearly seen is his essay what is the fourth of July to the prisoner) and a true long distance revolutionary. I also see why the gracious and talented Alice Walker called Mumia the freest black man in America.
1 review
September 16, 2013
I read the book "Life on Death Row", I really liked this book because it viewed more then one persons case and how they waited for death and survived until their due date. I liked that this book was very graphic and got intense and I liked that because it kept me reading. I liked that it stated facts and on the bottom of every page showed where they got the info. Also, at the end of the book the author even talked about his own experience on death row. Something's I didn't like about the book was at some points it got very boring and almost repeated itself. And how sometimes it would feel like I've already read some parts of the book that I really haven't. All and all this was a very good book and would recommend it to anyone who likes real life graphic experiences and story's that will keep you reading.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
469 reviews9 followers
November 21, 2014
This book was required reading for my Global & Transnational Literature class at the University of Utah.

This was my least favorite of the texts that we read. Abu-Jamal is obviously very educated, and has diligently researched court cases and examples of injustice in the US court system. However, I found his language to be stiff, and difficult to read. The presence of such heavy legal jargon made his memoir feel like a textbook. Most of our texts have focused on life in prison, which I have found fascinating. Perhaps this book disappointed because I expected it to do the same: tell me what life is like in the US prison system. But it didn't. It was more about the courts, the prosecutors, the judges, and the influence of race on the doling out of death sentences.

For the right audience, I imagine that this book would be a favorite. It just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Skevi.
30 reviews
April 9, 2020
After reading this book you will be left mourning the fact that Abu-Jamal is not a free man and contemplating the injustices that are carried out across the United States against black people everyday. The books is set up almost like a diary, a collection of various stories that Mumia has collected over his early years behind bars. While telling his story he also recounts the stories of the inmates around him. This book made me realize just how jaded we are raised to be in this country in regards to the inhumane abnormalities that plague our society. It provides us with a look into the mind of an inmate on death row while also learning about how archaic those creatures who run prisons are. It was truly a privilege to read this book but if you're expecting for a happily ever after, put it down and continue living in your bubble of ignorance.
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