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From Cell to Screen: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal — Part 2

By: Prison Radio Friday March 16, 2012 3:13 pm

 

 

–Part two of an interview with filmmakers Noelle Hanrahan and Stephen Vittoria about their new documentary Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal.

By Alex Simon from Huffington Post

(reprinted with permission –view part one here.)

Since being incarcerated, Mumia has almost developed a new voice.

SV: I think many people believe he found his voice after he was incarcerated. But if you look into the history of his life, the real history of his life, you’ll find that his voice started to resonate long before he was ever incarcerated in 1982. When he was fourteen, fifteen years old, he became a writer for the Black Panther Party, left high school, traveled the country and was writing very serious pieces for the Black Panther newspaper. He absorbed a crash course in journalism from some very important mentors and before long he was contributing to a paper that was selling 250,000 copies per week, around the world, while he was still a teenager. So his voice, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, wasn’t really that different from his analysis today, except of course for his prose which is obviously more sophisticated now that he’s in his late fifties.

There are probably people out there who will say “Who the hell cares about hearing voices from behind prison walls?” I’d argue that we have an entire nation behind prison walls right now. From 1776-1992, the United States incarcerated one million people. From ’92 to 2000, the U.S. incarcerated another million people. We literally have a nation behind bars — Mumia calls it the “prisonhouse of nations,” and he’s been this important voice exposing what the government is trying to pull off.

NH: And you can’t say that what happens on the inside doesn’t affect the outside. California spends more on incarceration than it does on its schools. It has a direct public policy impact. Whether it’s a way to control voting rolls, because convicted felons can’t vote in most states, whether it’s the controlling of the unpaid labor force, whether it’s a stop-gap valve for issues to do with employment, I’m not sure what all the economic reasons are behind it, but the mainstream media has not stepped up to address this crisis.

We just recorded an amazing interview with Mumia this morning. He has been taken off death row, and put into the general population for a life sentence because his death sentence was overturned. He wrote a letter back to the death row inmates, talking to them in a really personal way, about how he missed them and how in their light and humanity, they were more than just “death row.” He encouraged them to open their minds, and to study and to learn and to acknowledge that enough people have turned their lives around inside through education. Mumia, for example, is conversational in Spanish and German and fluent in French. He also taught himself to read music. He’s got a five-octave range.

SV: When we talk about him finding his voice, from 1992 until now, the man has written and published seven critically-acclaimed books from death row. He has broadcasted more than two thousand essays from inside his cell, solitary confinement. He is handed a telephone, and from a hand-written pad of paper, usually in one take, he reads his essays. For years, he was only allowed to use the inside of a ballpoint pen, because the prison authorities were afraid he could use the hard plastic shell as a weapon.

NH: And all of his books were written by hand, except his last one, when he was finally allowed to have a plastic typewriter.

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(Mumia Abu-Jamal during a recent visit)

There’s an old saying that there are no guilty men in prison. Everyone maintains their innocence. For many people, all they’re going to see when they look at Mumia is a man who was lawfully convicted in a court of law for one of the most heinous crimes on the books: the murder of a police officer. What do you say to those people?

NH: The American justice system has an incredible ability to convict the innocent. That’s been exposed in detail over the past several years, most particularly in Illinois, when a journalism class, I believe from Northwestern University, investigated the cases of all the inmates on a state prison’s death row, and based on their findings, fully half of those convictions were exonerated. That, plus the DNA projects, The Innocence Project, have shown that innocence issues are a huge structural problem in many states. I also wonder at some level if the American public is paying enough attention. Are they recognizing what’s happening to themselves, even? The structure of the American criminal justice system is criminalgenic: it creates crime. There are things that people believe about the Constitution that are just not true. 90% of all crimes are plead, not taken to trial. That kind of pressure on the system, isn’t about the weighing of justice, it’s about creating a culture of incarceration.

Again, is it a matter of social class and race more than anything?

NH: I think so. I can find as many criminals and sociopaths on the campus of Stanford University as I can on a street corner in Philadelphia.  There are only certain people who go to prison. You have to be a certain class and a certain type. And you get a gold card to get out if you have connections. I think at every moment, the color of your skin and your social class can determine if you finish high school and go to college, or whether or not you go to prison. At this point, in our culture, to have an expectation that one out of three young black men will end up in prison is obscene. I can’t live in a culture like that unless I can do what I do, which is broadcast Mumia’s voice and create an anecdote to this dream state that the rest of the country seems to be in.

On the flip side, there have been many cases of real animals being let out of jail on a technicality and then go out to commit more heinous crimes. So what would you say to a person like Bob Dole, who is always going to support the system, and for whom the system has always worked, unlike someone from Mumia’s background, in arguing that sometimes the system makes mistakes.

NH: What I would say to Bob Dole is that he had a major role in defining American culture by being in the senate, that you need to look at the result of policing policies, that we have become a culture that is extraordinarily violent, that at the same time has a huge prison population, which at the same time is cutting funds for education.  This is what Bob Dole should look at, as well as study cultures with less violence, more interest in free medical health care, education and less of an incarceration nation. That, I think, is what our national political leadership should aspire to. For some reason, this one is seriously broken, and he was the head of the whole thing for a long time as Majority Leader.

SV: If ever there was a case with a lot of gray area surrounding what actually went down, it was this case. One of the reasons I structured the narrative the way I did was because I didn’t want to make Long Distance Revolutionary about Mumia’s case. I wanted to make it about this man’s life as a writer, as a public intellectual, and most importantly as a revolutionary. Until he has another chance to make his case in open court on a level playing  field, there’s really no point in talking about it in the context of a film. It’s just too volatile and polarizing. It’s kind of like if you make a film about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, you’re just going to have people on opposite sides of the fence hurling rocks at each other. Who the hell wants to watch that?

NH: The case, in many ways, obscures what Mumia is about and why he is such a lightning rod, and the really interesting things he’s doing, who he really is.

SV: And it’s that very thing which really interested me as a filmmaker. As far as his case goes, I wasn’t there. I’ve heard both sides. The case is completely all over the place. The only thing we really know about the case, what really happened on December 9, 1981 is that this myth of American justice was nowhere to be found. That’s the one thing I think we do know. We may not know exactly how the events transpired, but moments after this flashpoint, after Mumia was shot and clinging to his own life, he was beaten senseless by two or three Philadelphia cops, including a Captain. It was an utter and complete sham that the system, which people watch on fairytales like Law & Order, they think this really exists. It’s a con game summed up by the old adage “law is politics by other means.” And that’s why our film focuses so keenly on Mumia Abu-Jamal as a journalist, writer and revolutionary, because that’s the heart of who he is.

 

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(Dr. Cornel West interviewed in Long Distance Revolutionary)

What’s the genesis of the film’s title?

SV: Dr. Cornel West came up with the title while we were filming his interview, so I have to give Brother West props for that. But “Long Distance Revolutionary” refers to a man who in the 1960s, not only cut his teeth and nurtured himself on the revolution that was taking place in the streets, but wholeheartedly believed in all its tenets. Flash- forward to over forty years later and he has never stopped believing, never stopped moving that revolution forward. Let me read you something that Mumia wrote recently. He’s talking about the revolutionary movement of the 1960s, be it black or white, but he’s talking now to the Occupy movement: “Nor could they imagine you, in their age-leavened arrogance. They thought their generation, the sixties, were the real rebels, even as they are blind to the betrayals that have marked them as enemies to the very thing they fought for as youths.”

Is that the main thing you’re trying to accomplish with this film, to get Mumia’s voice heard on a larger scale?

SV: That and for people to understand for the last thirty years, there has been this myth heaped upon the public about this “deranged cop killer.” Glenn Beck called him a “Communist cop killer.” This film, not unlike the McGovern film in many ways, goes to great lengths to offer an alternative history of the facts, as if the great Howard Zinn was helping us out along the way… and in the final analysis I think Long Distance Revolutionary does that by not focusing so much on the case itself, but by focusing on the amazing achievements of this man, and his voice, from death row.

–Alex Simon is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and holds an MFA from The American Film Institute. He is co-Editor of The Hollywood Interview.com, an award-winning screenwriter, and lives in Los Angeles.

(Learn more about this new film at: www.mumia-themovie.com)

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—-Prison Radio first began recording prisoners in 1990. Our mission is to challenge unjust police and prosecutorial practices which result in mass incarceration, racism, and gender discrimination by airing the voices of men and women victimized by an unjust criminal justice system. Our website www.prisonradio.org features Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essays and much more, including the latest news about his case. To receive our email newsletter, please sign up on the bottom of our website’s front page.

 

From Cell to Screen: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal — Part 1

By: Prison Radio Thursday March 15, 2012 11:50 pm

–An Interview with filmmakers Noelle Hanrahan and Stephen Vittoria

By Alex Simon from Huffington Post

(reprinted with permission –stay tuned for part two)

Mumia Abu-Jamal

“Wrapped in the sweet, false escape of dreams, I hear the unmistakable sounds of meat being beaten by blackjack, of bootfalls, yells, curses; and it merges into the mind’s movie-making machine, evoking distant memories of some of the Philadelphia Police Department’s greatest hits — on me. “Get off that man, you fat, greasy, racist, redneck pig bitch muthafucka!” My tired eyes snap open; the cracks, thuds, “oofs!” come in all too clear. Damn. No dream. Another dawn, another beating on B-Block, another shackled inmate at Pennsylvania’s Huntingdon prison pummeled into the concrete by a squadron of guards.” – Mumia Abu-Jamal “B-Block Days & Nightmares”

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Stephen Vittoria is that rare commodity in Hollywood today: a filmmaker with a conscience. To be more precise, a filmmaker with a strong political conscience. After making two feature films, Black and White (aka Lou, Pat & Joe D., 1987) and Hollywood Boulevard (1996), as well as three feature documentaries: Save Your Life — The Life and Holistic Times of Dr. Richard Schulze (1998), Keeper of the Flame (2005) and the award-winning art house hit One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern (2005), a portrait of the South Dakota senator who tried to unseat Richard Nixon from the White House in 1972.

Occupy the Justice Dept. for Mumia Abu-Jamal and All Political Prisoners on April 24

By: Prison Radio Thursday March 1, 2012 5:22 pm

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Mumia Abu-Jamal is back with his unstoppable commitment to writing and recording his commentaries with Prison Radio. He has been calling regularly since being moved into general population at SCI Mahanoy and is able to call more often. His insightful, moving, timely essays will continue to be broadcast around the world to inform and to inspire. This week in Paris, “The Vision of Fanon” was played when he recevied the Fanon Award, and at Temple University in Philadelphia, “Dubois Country” was played at a conference on W.E.B. Dubois.

New photos of Mumia – the first taken since 1996 – show that the injustice leveled against him has not diminished his love, courage, and strength. You can see them HERE.

Click HERE for the legal update and blow by blow of our first step toward freedom in 2012: the fight to get Mumia out of the hole.

To keep up to date with breaking news about Solitary and PA Prison Conditions visit www.hrcoalition.org and the investigative news service www.solitarywatch.com. Also, please consider signing this important petition to release Russell Maroon Shoats from 21+yrs in Solitary HERE.

 

Occupy4Prisoners

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(ABOVE: The Free Mumia banner, which hangs in the Prison Radio office, was created by Penny Schoner.)

Mumia recorded “Souls on Ice” which was played at the Occupy4Prisoners rally at San Quentin, part of a nationwide day of action for prisoners called by Occupy Oakland at the urging of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown, and Barbara Becnel. Over a dozen communities across the country participated in prisoner solidarity demonstrations, including Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Durham, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Fresno, Portland, and Washington D.C.

Other prisoners and former prisoners wrote and/or recorded messages, including Lynne Stewart, Khalfani Malik Khaldun, Kevin Cooper, Jane Dorotik, Krista Funk, Herman Wallace, Robert King, Steve Champion, Todd Ashker, Pelican Bay Human Rights Movement Hunger Strikers in Solidarity (PHSS) and others. You can read their statements HERE.

 

Message to the Movement

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Prison Radio is also reprinting Mumia’s pamphlet Message to the Movement which sold out its original print run. This new version will contain Mumia’s original essay, as well as a new Spanish translation by long time Prison Radio collaborator Lori Berenson. And the pamphlet will also feature Alice Walker‘s recent poem Occupy Mumia’s Cell.

The Occupied Media Pamphlet Series is a special project launched with Adelante Alliance to participate in the movement through the printed word. To get a copy go to our website store HERE.

 

Save the Date: April 24th Occupy the Justice Department

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The next big action will be Occupy the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. on April 24, Mumia’s birthday. Free Mumia and ALL political prisoners!

 

Solidarity and Victory

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On Wednesday evening, twenty-five prisoners at Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) ate their first meal since Sunday night. The hunger strike was inspired by the Occupy4Prisoners National Day of Action called by Occupy Oakland. Siddique Abdullah Hasan (pictured above), one of the hunger strikers, called Prison Radio and recorded a statement, saying they initially intended a one day fast as a “symbolic gesture, a way of locking arms with the people on the outside.”

By Monday evening the prisoners had decided to issue demands and continue refusing food. Their demands included specific changes in the conditions of their confinement at Ohio’s super-max prison as well as calls for broader reforms. They resumed eating after Warden David Bobby agreed to grant a number of their demands, including:

1. Reversing the recent decision to reduce outdoor recreation time for prisoners to a schedule alternating between 3 and 4 hours per week;

2. Improving enrichment programming, including new movies and religious movies for the prison television station;

3. Bringing the head dietitian from Central Office in Columbus to review OSP food policies and hear prisoner complaints about inedible and scorched food;

4. A number of specific instances of price-gouging, skimping and lack of variety in the commissary.

Hasan said “Warden Bobby has been a man of his word in the past, so we don’t anticipate the kind of situation going on in California” referring to slow response to negotiations during last year’s large prisoner hunger strikes in California.

The prisoners consider their hunger strike a victory because they won these specific demands and also because they helped raise awareness of state and even nation-wide issues regarding the artificial economy of state pay and commissary prices.

Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a Muslim Imam, has been on death row fighting what he says is a wrongful conviction following the 1993 Lucasville Uprising. More information about the Lucasville Uprising is available on a new website Hasan and other prisoners helped create, at LucasvilleAmnesty.org.

—-Prison Radio first began recording prisoners in 1990.  Our mission is to challenge unjust police and prosecutorial practices which result in mass incarceration, racism, and gender discrimination by airing the voices of men and women victimized by an unjust criminal justice system. Our website www.prisonradio.org features Mumia Abu-Jamal’s essays and much more, including the latest news about his case. To receive our email newsletter, please sign up on the bottom of our website’s front page.

The Framing of Kevin Cooper, on San Quentin’s Death Row –An interview with J. Patrick O’Connor

By: Prison Radio Tuesday February 7, 2012 4:18 am

The Framing of Kevin Cooper, on San Quentin’s Death Row

–An interview with J. Patrick O’Connor

By Hans Bennett, Prison Radio

In this interview, author J. Patrick O’Connor discusses his newly released book Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and The Framing of Kevin Cooper, explaining why he is convinced of Kevin Cooper’s innocence. O’Connor asserts that the police and prosecution orchestrated an obvious frame-up that continues to be upheld by federal appeals courts, albeit with the blatantly unfair rulings by US District Court Judge Marilyn Huff blocking critical forensics tests that had been ordered by the US Ninth Circuit Court in 2004.

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This week, O’Connor launches a California book tour, beginning in the San Francisco Bay Area (view schedule here). On Monday, O’Connor sat down for a video interview with Prison Radio, where he discusses aspects of this story not addressed in the text interview below (watch video here). Marking the book release, Prison Radio has recorded a special message from Kevin Cooper himself (listen here). To learn more about Cooper’s case and what you can do to help, visit www.savekevincooper.org.

Prison Radio: How did you get involved in Kevin Cooper’s case?

J. Patrick O’Connor: During the fall of 2008, I was in the Bay Area on a book tour for The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal.  During the tour, supporters of Kevin’s approached me at various venues and asked me to consider writing a book on Kevin’s case.

PR: How did you go about writing this book?

Mumia Abu-Jamal Transferred to General Population, Following Global Campaign

By: Prison Radio Tuesday January 31, 2012 12:45 am

The Next Step Is Freedom

 

By Noelle Hanrahan, Prison Radio

 

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(Photo of Mumia Abu-Jamal, taken by Prison Radio)

My dear friends, brothers and sisters — I want to thank you for your real hard work and support. I am no longer on death row, no longer in the hole, I’m in population. This is only part one and I thank you all for the work you’ve done. But the struggle is for freedom!

– From Mumia. Ona Move. Long Live John Africa!

Monday, January 30, 2012. Mumia Abu-Jamal is off death row and out of solitary because you called and wrote and faxed and emailed. He is out of the “hole”.  We did it. This was an international effort, including the delivery of over 5000 petitions, thousands of letters, and the threat of legal action. Because of your solidarity and actions, tonight Mumia called and recorded “Of Idiots and Sages”, a new essay on forced sterilization written on a scrap of paper at SCI Mahanoy from lockdown. Mumia gives all of you a shout out and tells it how it is. Hear both at prisonradio.org.

Mumia has been held in solitary confinement on death row for over 29 years. Imagine visiting with a thick plexiglass barrier between you and your mother, wife, daughter or son, for three decades.

Politicans from Tom Corbett (Gov. of PA), to Ed Rendell (former Governor), to Seth Williams (the Philly DA), and prison authorities John Wetzel (Secretary of Corrections) and John Kerestes (superintendent of Mahanoy), tried to keep Mumia silent and in the hole.

On Dec. 14th he was transferred from SCI Greene to SCI Mahanoy in Frackville PA, a medium security facility where he was thrown in the hole. But you delivered the message: You would not let Mumia and others in the RHU remain there and be silenced. It took six weeks. But the prison got real heat, backed down and transferred him to General Population.

Today, when you read this, Mumia will hug his wife for the first time in nearly three decades.

Read this full article, including a message from Mumia’s wife, Wadiya A. Jamal, by clicking here.

–Prison Radio first began recording Mumia Abu-Jamal’s radio essays in the early 1990’s and we continue to this day. Our mission is to challenge unjust police and prosecutorial practices which result in mass incarceration, racism, and gender discrimination by airing the voices of men and women victimized by an unjust criminal justice system. Our website www.prisonradio.org features Mumia’s essays and much more, including the latest news about his case. To receive our email newsletter, please sign up on the bottom of our website’s front page.

The Torture of Mumia Abu-Jamal Continues off Death Row –Supporters Demand Transfer to General Population

By: Prison Radio Friday January 20, 2012 12:26 am

(Artwork: Ascncios Mac)

The Torture of Mumia Abu-Jamal Continues off Death Row

–Supporters Demand Transfer to General Population

 

An interview with Bret Grote of Human Rights Coalition

By Hans Bennett of Prison Radio

 

On December 7, following the US Supreme Court’s refusal to consider the Philadelphia District Attorney’s final avenue of appeal, current DA Seth Williams announced that he would no longer be seeking a death sentence for the world-renowned death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal–on death row following his conviction at a 1982 trial deemed unfair by Amnesty International, the European Parliament, the Japanese Diet, Nelson Mandela, and many others. Abu-Jamal’s sentence of execution was first “overturned” by a federal court in December, 2001, and during the next ten years, he was never transferred from death row at the level five supermax prison, SCI Greene, in rural western Pennsylvania.

 

Shortly after the DA’s announcement in early December, Mumia Abu-Jamal, now 57 years old, was transferred to SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, PA, 100 miles from Philadelphia. Once there, it was expected that he would be released from solitary confinement and transferred into general population where he would finally have contact visits and generally less onerous conditions. However, he was immediately placed in “Administrative Custody,” in SCI Mahanoy’s “Restrictive Housing Unit” where his conditions of isolation and repression are now in many ways more extreme than they were on death row.

 

Presently at SCI Mahanoy, Mumia Abu-Jamal is shackled around his ankles and wrists whenever he is outside his cell, even to the shower and during already restricted visits–where he is already behind Plexiglas; Before going to the yard he is subject to strip searches before and after the visit; He is only allowed bits of paper to write notes on, with a rubber flex pen, and four books (no shelves); No access to news reports; Letters delayed; Glaring lights on 24 hours a day; Only one brief phone call to his wife and one to an attorney; No access to adequate food or commissary, and more.

 

In the first week of January, at Abu-Jamal’s request, supporters began a campaign directed at the PA Secretary of Corrections, SCI Mahanoy, and DA Seth Williams, demanding that Abu-Jamal be immediately transferred to the general population. The National Lawyers Guild (for whom Abu-Jamal serves as the Vice President) has released a statement and created an online petition demanding his transfer to general population.

 

Furthermore, Abu-Jamal has asked for supporters to not just call for his release from the hole, but to challenge the very practice of solitary confinement and what are called in Pennsylvania “Restricted Housing Units.” Supporting Abu-Jamal’s call to action, the Pennsylvania-based prison-activist organization called Human Rights Coalition explains that “Mumia may be in solitary, but he is not alone. The PA Department of Corrections holds approximately 2,500 people in solitary confinement on any given day, many of them for years at a time.”

 

Ten Extra Years Spent On Death Row

 

In 2001, US District Court Judge William Yohn first “overturned” Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death sentence, ruling that for a death sentence to be reinstated, the Philadelphia District Attorney must first hold a sentencing-phase jury trial, where the jury could only decide between execution or life without parole. The DA immediately appealed this ruling, in an effort to execute Abu-Jamal without bringing him to court before a jury in Philadelphia.

 

Following Yohn’s 2001 ruling, Abu-Jamal could have been transferred from solitary confinement on death row at SCI Greene, and into general population. If transferred, he would have had more freedom, including contact visits with family and friends.  However, Judge Yohn granted the motion by the DA to keep Abu-Jamal in punitive conditions on death row while the DA appealed Yohn’s ruling. As a result, Abu-Jamal stayed on death row during an appeals process that lasted almost ten years, a process that has now upheld the sentence’s removal.

 

In March 2008, the US Third Circuit Court affirmed Yohn’s 2001 ruling, but in January 2010, the US Supreme Court vacated the 2008 ruling and remanded it back to the Third Circuit. In April 2011, the Third Circuit affirmed the 2001 ruling for the second time. Finally, in October 2011, the DA’s final attempt to challenge the decision was rejected by the US Supreme Court, and in December the DA officially accepted the life sentence.

 

Fighting for Mumia’s Release

 

While Abu-Jamal and his international network of supporters celebrated the final overturning of the death sentence, it was a bittersweet victory for a movement that has long fought for his release. In 2008 when the Third Circuit first affirmed Yohn’s 2001 ruling, the Court also ruled against a new guilt-phase trial, effectively ended that avenue of appeal for Abu-Jamal to be released from prison.

 

At this point, a new trial will likely require the bringing forth of new evidence.  The investigation of police and prosecutorial misconduct, including the suppression of crucial evidence and the intimidation of witnesses could also lead to a new trial. These are the avenues that will be pursued to obtain Mumia’s freedom. Among the new evidence that has come out in recent years, Philadelphia journalists Linn Washington Jr. and Dave Lindorff have recently performed a ballistics test, (watch video) fundamentally challenging the DA’s shooting scenario/theory used to convict Abu-Jamal.

 

In Philadelphia on December 9, the 30th anniversary of Abu-Jamal’s arrest, supporters organized a large event at the National Constitution Center that was attended by over 1,000 people. Declaring that a sentence of life without parole is unacceptable, speakers ranging from author/activist Cornel West to Ramona Africa of MOVE & the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal, pledged to continue fighting for Abu-Jamal’s freedom. Prerecorded video messages to the December 9 event were delivered by author/activist Michelle Alexander and the internationally renowned human rights activist Desmond Tutu, who days before has already released a statement declaring:

 

“Now that it is clear that Mumia should never have been on death row in the first place, justice will not be served by relegating him to prison for the rest of his life—yet another form of death sentence. Based on even a minimal following of international human rights standards, Mumia must now be released. I therefore join the call, and ask others to follow, asking District Attorney Seth Williams to rise to the challenge of reconciliation, human rights, and justice: drop this case now, and allow Mumia Abu-Jamal to be immediately released, with full time served.”

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Interview with Bret Grote

 

In this interview we speak with Bret Grote from Human Rights Coalition (HRC), who’s website describes itself as “a group of predominately prisoners’ families, ex-prisoners and some supporters,” whose “ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.” HRC seeks “to empower prisoners’ families to be leaders in prison organizing, while at the same time reduce the shame of having a loved one in prison or being formerly incarcerated,” and “to make visible to the public the injustice and abuse that are common practice throughout our judicial and prison systems across the country, and eventually end those abuses.” Learn more at www.hrcoalition.org.

 

 

Prison Radio: Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal argue that his current time in the hole is a form of retaliation for his being a longtime political activist. In his recent article entitled, “Sadism in the Cell: Thanks to a Vindictive Prison System, Abu-Jamal is Still in ‘The Hole,’” Linn Washington Jr. contextualizes recent events by documenting a long history of repression, ultimately arguing that “while Abu-Jamal detractors indignantly dismiss all claims of his being a political prisoner, his post-arrest ordeals provide a compelling case of a person specifically targeted by authorities for who he is politically more than for the crime he is supposedly serving time for.” Why do you think it is that Mumia is currently being held in “Administrative Custody?”

 

Bret Grote: In regard to Mumia, the inference should always be that the government is targeting him because of his politics due to the more than forty years that federal agents, Philadelphia police and prosecutors, governors of Pennsylvania, and prison officials have been conspiring to silence him. The current rationales offered by prison officials for his placement in solitary confinement do not withstand scrutiny, which lends further support to the inference that he is continuing to be targeted.

 

First, they asserted that they were waiting for the filing of paperwork by the District Attorney’s office of Philadelphia so that his sentence would be formally changed from death to life without the possibility of parole. According to information available on the DOC’s website, however, all death-sentenced prisoners are held on death row at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene or SCI Graterford. Abu-Jamal was removed from death row virtually as soon as Philadelphia DA Seth Williams announced he would not seek to re-impose the death penalty. If the prison were in fact waiting for a formal re-sentencing prior to placement in general population, Mumia would still be on death row.

 

Second, they have recently decided that his hair exceeds the regulatory length and that he needs this cut. It took them five weeks to notify him of this. Obviously, the length of Mumia’s hair was not unknown to prison officials. In fact, he was held on disciplinary status while on death row earlier during his confinement for eight years, although he was removed from that status-without cutting his hair-in the early-90s at some point.

 

The shifting rationales indicate that they are digging their heels in and seem prepared to try to continue subjecting Mumia to solitary confinement torture, which has been his fate for thirty years.

 

It is important to note that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has recently declared that, in his opinion, prolonged solitary confinement of more than fifteen days violates article 1 (prohibiting torture) or 16 (prohibiting other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. He further stated that the Convention is violated when solitary confinement is imposed as punishment. These standards applied to U.S. prisons renders the overwhelming majority of solitary confinement practices criminal.

 

PR: Can you please tell us more about how PA Prisons use solitary confinement and what are called “Restrictive Housing Units.” How is it used? Against whom? Are there other examples of solitary confinement punishment being used to retaliate against political activists?

 

BG: While the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) operates in a seemingly arbitrary nature, there are some factors that place prisoners at high-risk for being kept in long-term solitary confinement: 1) political activism and jailhouse lawyering; 2) race; and 3) mental illness.

 

To start with, those who file grievances about staff misconduct and abuse, or file lawsuits about civil and human rights violations, are routinely subjected to repressive treatment. Pennsylvania is far from alone in this practice. Professor of Corrections and Correctional Law at Minnesota State University, James Robertson, has stated that “Retaliation is deeply engrained in the correctional office subculture; it may well be in the normative response when an inmate files a grievance, a statutory precondition for filing a civil rights action.” He also refers to a survey of Ohio prisoners that found “that 70.1% of inmates who brought grievances indicated that they had suffered retaliation thereafter; moreover, 87% of all respondents and nearly 92% of the inmates using the grievance process agreed with the statement, ‘I believe staff will retaliate or get back at me if I use the grievance process.’ [FN18] Among staff supervisors, only 21% believed that retaliation never happened, with one warden characterizing it as ‘commonplace’ when inmates resort to the grievance process.” As Robertson says, guards who retaliate “cannot be regarded as rogue actors. They act within the norm.” (“One of the Dirty Secrets of American Corrections”: Retaliation, Surplus Power, and Whistleblowing Inmates, 42 U. Mich. J.L. Reform 611 (2009)).

 

Russell Maroon Shoats, a former Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army member who has been incarcerated in PA prisons for almost 40 years is a prominent example of a political prisoner targeted for repression via placement in long-term solitary. Maroon has been held in the hole for more than twenty years and has not had a misconduct citation during that time. Although it is true that he escaped in the late 70s and early 80s, prison officials have told supporters and family that he is being kept in solitary because he is an organizer and a leader.

 

Andre Jacobs and Carrington Keys, two members of a group of prisoners known as the Dallas 6, have been held in solitary for approximately 11 and 9 years respectively as a result of their speaking out against torture and other human rights violations inside PA’s control units.

 

Damont Hagan is another who has been continually targeted for his outspokenness, including a recent incident where he was assaulted and placed in a cell with nooses at SCI Huntingdon. He was recently held in the solitary units at SCI Cresson, a prison that the Justice Department has announced an investigation into, in part due to the guard-encouraged suicide of John McClellan in May 2011.

 

Caine Pelzer, Ravanna Spencer, Rhonshawn Jackson, Michael Edwards, Jerome Coffey, Andre Gay, Kerry Shakaboona Marshall, and countless others have been thrown into solitary for the sole purpose of breaking their spirit. Look them up on the PA DOC inmate locator and send them a letter.

 

Regarding race, the disparities within the solitary confinement population may be the most extreme in the entire criminal legal system, which is saying a lot. We do not know the exact figures because the demographics are not public, but reports of solitary units overwhelmingly comprised of people of color in PA prisons are common.

 

Over the last thirty-plus years there has been a national trend of warehousing those with mental health needs inside prisons. These people often end up in prison because of their difficulties in adapting to life outside the walls, often because of experiences of childhood trauma and substance abuse, and their challenges in navigating social life is even more difficult inside the walls. The stresses of prison can lead to them getting in trouble with prison authorities due to an inability to follow the rules, which leads them to solitary, which leads to a worsening of their underlying psychological state. This cycle of dysfunction is a normative feature of prison systems across the U.S.

 

This nexus of retaliation, racism, and abuse of the mentally ill is widespread in PA prisons, and there is no shortage of examples to be found by reviewing the weekly PA Prison Reports on our website.

 

PR: Besides solitary confinement, what other aspects of PA prisons does HRC identify as human rights violations?

 

BG: Some of the obvious examples include physical abuse, medical neglect, racial discrimination, and sexual violence, all of which are chronic issues in prisons within Pennsylvania and beyond. In regard to the latter, a guard at SCI Pittsburgh was recently indicted on about 100 counts related to his rape and torture of prisoners at that facility. This is also being investigated by the Justice Department. This story has been suppressed in the national media, a phenomenon commented on by Mumia (1,2), in what can only be understood as yet another example of the corporate media’s complicity in enabling torture in U.S. prisons.

 

Of course, race-based policies of mass incarceration violate the human right of equality under the law and the right to be free from racial discrimination. Michelle Alexander refers to this aspect of the U.S. prison nation as “the new Jim Crow.” Under international law it is known as apartheid, and it is prohibited under the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The United States has never signed or ratified the convention for reasons that should be obvious enough.

 

Pennsylvania is the world leader in another egregious human rights abuse: sending children to prison for the rest of their lives. There are more than 400 people in PA prisons who were sentenced for crimes allegedly committed when they were younger than 18. In this state, life means life, an utterly despicable practice that makes a cruel mockery of any pretense that the society we inhabit is humane, enlightened, or fair.

 

Also of great importance in any discussion of the criminal legal system is the series of laws that enable “legal” discrimination against formerly incarcerated people, prohibiting them from obtaining access to food, housing, employment, stripping people of their right to vote in many states (though not PA) and setting them up for a life of poverty that guarantees high recidivism rates. This should be understood as a matter of deliberate policy, as it has been going on so long that it cannot plausibly be an unintended consequence of an otherwise sound system.

 

The system works to violate human rights in such a comprehensive manner, from the socio-economic conditions that give rise to property and drug crimes and related acts of violence to the damaging and anti-human conditions inside the walls, and then to be  released into a life of second-class status, enforced poverty, and political disenfranchisement, that it is hard to see how it is ‘legal’ in anything but pretense.

 

PR: How is Human Rights Coalition working with PA prisoners and their families to improve conditions for PA prisoners?

 

In Pittsburgh and Philly we have weekly letter-writing to prisoners nights. Visit our website (Pittsburgh or Philly) to learn more and email us at hrcfedup@gmail.com or info@hrcoalition.org. We are constantly receiving phone calls and emails from people looking to advocate for their loved ones. In 2011 we initiated a Political Action Committee in order to be better organized through the building of a membership base and engaging in consistent acts of advocacy, education events, and building other campaigns. The PAC is in real need of some committed organizers to help us build momentum.

 

One of the campaigns we’ve been increasingly involved with here in Pittsburgh is Decarcerate PA, which was started in Philadelphia. While the broader vision is to push for decarceration – shrinking the prison population, closing prisons, redirecting social resources to programs that care for people and communities – the immediate objective is to push back against planned prison expansion. The state of Pennsylvania is sinking some $685 million into building two new prisons and expanding a host of others. If more people are continually sent into these hellholes, then our efforts to improve conditions in any given situation will be futile.

 

PR: What is HRC doing specifically to challenge the use of solitary confinement?

 

BG: Aside from public education and advocacy, we are working to develop a legislative campaign with allied organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the NationalReligious Campaign Against Torture, and the ACLU. While it is still in the planning stages, this campaign can be useful as a means for furthering political organizing objectives.

 

Ultimately, any efforts to push back against torture and get people out of prison is contingent upon the wholesale removal from power of both corporate-backed imperial parties, the redistribution and redefinition of political power, and the elimination of an economic system with its roots in the market, replaced by one that has its roots in the earth. Anything less spells certain doom for our specific efforts to abolish solitary confinement, mass incarceration, and prisons, as well as our very survival on this planet.

 

PR: HRC is also now starting a campaign to have Russell Shoats transferred out of solitary confinement at SCI-Greene. How can our readers support this?

 

BG: Russell Shoats, discussed above, is a co-founder of HRC who has spent 20 years in the hole as a consequence of his principles and resistance to the inhumanity and criminality of this system. He is a 68-year-old revolutionary who has taught and inspired countless other prisoners and activists inside and outside the walls.

 

Along with HRC, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild have submitted letters to the PA DOC requesting that Maroon be released into general population.

 

Supporters can visit a recently-created website and click the “Follow” link at the bottom right to receive email updates when new postings are available. There is a sample letter on the site, and soon more material will be added. A new interview was just posted where Maroon discusses his thoughts on the importance of democracy and self-determination to movement building, the power of the feminist movement and matriarchal politics, Occupy Wall Street, and the imperative of centering food security (and square-foot gardening) in our movements.

 

PR: Anything else to add?

 

BG: It is absolutely critical to the fate of movements for social justice in this country that the situation of prisoners and the function of prisons in the social order take a central role in our analysis and practice. Everybody can correspond with a prisoner, help out a local group, get on email lists, and research the reality of the prison nation. It is not the land of the free, never was, never was intended to be, and the sooner we disabuse those around us of that notion the better chance there is to win some badly-needed victories. There is no dream too big and no action too small, let’s keep at it till the walls crumble.

 

–Prison Radio first began recording Mumia Abu-Jamal’s radio essays in the early 1990’s and we continue to this day. Our mission is to challenge unjust police and prosecutorial practices which result in mass incarceration, racism, and gender discrimination by airing the voices of men and women victimized by an unjust criminal justice system. Our website, www.prisonradio.org features Mumia’s essays and much more, including the latest news about his case. To receive our email newsletter, please sign up on the bottom of our website’s front page.

Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist and co-founder of Journalists for Mumia (www.abu-jamal-news.com).

 

ACTION ALERT: Transfer Mumia Abu-Jamal to General Population!

By: Prison Radio Tuesday January 10, 2012 9:43 pm

Last month, following the Philadelphia DA’s decision to not hold a new sentencing hearing, Mumia Abu-Jamal was transferred to SCI Mahanoy, in Frackville, PA, where he as since been held in “Administrative Custody.” His present conditions are actually worse than they were on death row at SCI Greene. Please join us in our call for Mumia to be immediately transferred into general population.

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Call Now! Shut Down Solitary Units. Close Restricted Housing Units. End Torture Blocks.

Demand: That Mumia Abu-Jamal be transferred to General Population! And demand the shutdown of RHU (Restricted Housing Unit) Torture Blocks

Mumia is being kept in solitary in SCI Mahanoy’s dungeon. Its restrictions and conditions belie its modern construction. Mumia just told us on Friday that he wants all of his supporters to broaden this call, to not just focus on his case, but to understand that all torture units must be shut down.

The Human Rights Coalition is a group of prisoners, family members, and supporters that have been exposing and challenging state torture in Pennsylvania for years. HRC states “Mumia may be in solitary, but he is not alone. The PA Department of Corrections holds approximately 2,500 people in solitary confinement on any given day, many of them for years at a time.” Please visit these websites to learn more: Human Rights Coalition http://www.hrcoalition.org and Solitary Watch http://www.solitarywatch.com

Please write, call, and email today! The defeat for the State, having to openly declare that Mumia will live, and the fact that they can no longer legally execute Mumia, has meant a severe backlash. After his transfer off of death row, Mumia was thrown in the hole at SCI Mahanoy.

The prison administration excuse that “paperwork” is holding up his transfer to general population in this medium security prison is transparent. The disinformation is part of the strategy to create confusion and disorient. Make no mistake. These conditions are clearly designed torture. They are being enacted to to silence Mumia and us.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is being held in extremely repressive conditions. And like thousands of prisoners, residents of solitary confinement and isolation units in every hole in every prison across the country, Mumia is being subject to draconian, dehumanizing and brutal conditions. Solitary confinement. He is shackled whenever he is outside his cell, even to the shower. He is shackled around his ankles, waist and wrist. He is shackled while behind Plexiglas during visits. Subject to strip searches before and after visits. Unable to walk freely. Having bits of paper to write notes on, with a rubber flex pen. No shelves, 4 books. No access to news reports, letters delayed. Restricted visiting. Glaring lights on 24 hours a day. Only one brief phone call to his wife. No access to adequate food or commissary. These conditions are worse than death row.

 

HOW TO TAKE ACTION:

1) Write, Phone, and email the Secretary of Corrections: Demand that Mumia be transferred to General Population! And demand the shutdown of RHU (Restricted Housing Unit) Torture Blocks!

John Wetzl, Secretary Department of Corrections

2520 Lisburn Road, P.O. Box 598 Camp Hill, PA 17001-0598 (717) 975-4928 Email: ra-contactdoc [at] pa.gov

2) Write, Phone, and email the Superintendent:

John Kerestes, Superintendent

SCI Mahanoy
301 Morea Road
Frackville, PA 17932
(570) 773-2158 Fax: (570) 783-2008

3) Write, Phone, and email the Philadelphia DA. Demand that they petition the court to free Mumia, based on suppression of evidence. They have buried evidence and the truth for 30 years. The police corruption and the frame up of Mumia must be exposed.

Seth Williams, DA Philadelphia

Three South Penn Square
Philadelphia, PA 19107-3499
(215) 686-8000 Email: DA_Central [at] phila.gov

and finally, send Mumia a note or a card:

Mumia Abu-Jamal
AM 8335
SCI Mahanoy
301 Morea Road
Frackville, PA 17932

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