Jerry Rosenberg: Convicted killer who became a lawyer and prisoners’ advocate

"Attica State, Attica State, we’re all mates with Attica State” sang John Lennon, commenting on the notorious prison siege of summer 1971 which left more than three dozen dead during a politically febrile period in post-war America.

During that siege one inmate, Jerry Rosenberg, who had by then served six years for murdering two policemen, attempted peace talks and later became legal adviser to the rioters.

He subsequently helped about 200 fellow prisoners pursue their cases and became America’s best-known “jailhouse lawyer”.

Rosenberg had already served four years for another robbery when, in the course of attempting to rob a Brooklyn tobacco firm with an accomplice in May 1962, two New York City policemen were killed. The robbers fled, and Rosenberg briefly went underground, until his claustrophobia made him give himself up – and proclaim his innocence.

He and his accomplice were convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, but this was then commuted to life imprisonment by Governor Rockefeller.

Rosenberg was incarcerated in Attica prison, in upstate New York, where all the officers were white but only half of the 2,000 inmates were, and where conditions were grim. Rosenberg had never got beyond the eighth grade but he set about taking two law degrees through correspondence courses with an Illinois school. Then, on 21 August 1971, the black radical prisoner George Jackson – the subject of a Bob Dylan song – was shot in San Quentin prison, and in September 1971, a full-blown riot broke out in Attica.

Half of the prison’s inmates rose up, gained control of key areas and won an advantage by knocking out (fatally, in time) an officer about to summon help.

They took hostages, barricaded themselves in, and, across that long weekend, officials tried to broker a settlement, with Rosenberg among those speaking for the prisoners. Diplomacy was never given a chance, because on Monday Governor Rockefeller sent in state troopers. Prison officers perhaps assisted in using tear gas as cover for gunfire and helicopters.

When the smoke cleared, the bloody scene revealed at least 39 people dead – 10 of them hostages. Rosenberg, who had been shot in the knee, worked on behalf of the riot’s leaders and, when transferred to Sing Sing and other prisons, undertook numerous other cases. In offering legal assistance to fellow inmates he led the way, and now the US Supreme Court has made it mandatory for such self-taught lawyers – who cannot obtain any official licence – to be allowed to assist fellow prisoners in their cases.

Not that Rosenberg always favoured the worthiest. In 1978, the murderous mobster Carmine Galante was inside for breaking parole (earlier, annoyed that a rival was already dead, he blew up his tomb). Rosenberg’s advice was a step towards Galante being released – only for him to be shot dead the following year.

Police pressure perhaps hindered Rosenberg’s own release. This was despite dwindling health which included, in 1988, his heart stopping while he was being operated upon. Philosophically brazen, Rosenberg claimed that having been dead, his body should be released; the Supreme Court reasonably countered that death is irreversible: Rosenberg was still here. In 1982 Stephen Bello published Doing Life: the extraordinary saga of America’s greatest jailhouse lawyer, which was later made in to the television film Doing Life (1986), starring Tony Danza. Rosenberg died in prison.

Christopher Hawtree

Jerome Rosenberg, jailhouse lawyer: born Brooklyn, New York 23 May 1937; twice married; died Alden, New York 1 June 2009.