Half a lifetime ago, Mumia Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for killing a rookie cop on the streets of Philadelphia. In the decades since, the former radio and print journalist has authored five books and written and recorded hundreds of articles and speeches criticizing his captors and the government that imprisons more than two million of its people. Despite the constraints of 23-hour lockdown and Plexiglas sound barriers, he became a preeminent “voice of the voiceless,” framing the modern prison abolition movement.
Abu-Jamal’s commentaries, a rich baritone echoing off the walls of a maximum-security visiting room, air regularly on 185 radio stations around the world. His books can be read in seven languages. That is not to say that most Americans or American prisoners have heard him or heard of him.
“He has an appeal worldwide,” said William DiMascio, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a reform group founded in 1787. But, he said, “I have never heard anybody [on the] inside make a reference to him and his thinking. I think most people behind bars think he’s trying to promote his own case. Anybody in a position to bring about reform is probably going to avoid him like the plague because he’s not a respected voice in mainstream society.”
Radio producer Noelle Hanrahan, who has been visiting and recording Abu-Jamal’s essays for her Prison Radio project since 1992, said Abu-Jamal refuses to compromise his journalism “to fit the reformist agenda.” In 1999, National Public Radio killed a series of commentaries he’d recorded for “All Things Considered.” They were anthologized in his book All Things Censored.
In the meantime, Abu-Jamal’s case has languished through the appeals process, a mixed blessing commonly experienced by lesser-known death row inmates. May 17 may have been a turning point. His new legal team presented oral arguments petitioning the Third Circuit Court for a new trial. San Francisco lawyer Robert R. Bryan told the three-judge panel that Abu-Jamal’s trial judge, the late Albert F. Sabo, exhibited racial discrimination in personal remarks, during the jury selection process, and in permitting the prosecutor to downplay the importance of the jury’s verdict in the final outcome of the case.
In the years that Abu-Jamal and the slain officer’s families have awaited a resolution, the incarcerated population has nearly tripled, yet the political voice of prisoners has become progressively muffled, and what Angela Davis and other abolitionists call the “prison state” has transformed dramatically. Abu-Jamal and his case became a minor cause célèbre and a focal point in the 1990s with the potential to galvanize change around prison issues. To the chagrin of many organizers, both have faded into obscurity, even as the “prison state” grew more potent and far-reaching.
Prison reform has been around as long as there have been penitentiaries. Streets in downtown Philadelphia bear the names of several white, land-owning men who began the Pennsylvania Prison Society to make sure the new Walnut Street Jail and all future prisons in the newly formed United States would be “just, humane and restorative,” DiMascio said. Before the Walnut Street Jail, prisons were dungeons, purgatories where prisoners awaited punishment. After it was built, loss of freedom was seen as sufficient punishment.
Among early prison reformers were Quakers and Episcopalians, signers of the Declaration of Independence and members of the First Continental Congress.
Religiously rooted reform movements cropped up during Reconstruction and again in the early 20th century aimed at improving prison conditions and rehabilitating inmates. A spate of about three dozen prison riots swept the country in the 1950s, prompting systemic changes to regimented prison life that required prisoners to march in lines and prohibited them from talking. But day-to-day procedures at some facilities, especially those in the Jim Crow south, would not be overhauled until inmates took legal action—like David Ruiz, who filed and ultimately won one of the country’s longest-fought civil rights class action suits against the Texas Department of Corrections in 1980. The 12th District Court found that severe and arbitrary discipline, overcrowding, poor security and healthcare and unsafe working conditions violated prisoners’ constitutional rights.
For 40 years, prisoners continued to file federal lawsuits to force wardens to improve their conditions, said Paul Wright, former inmate and editor of Prison Legal News, an independent monthly magazine that counts state and federal prisoners as 65 percent of its subscribers.
By mid-century, national movement leaders began emerging behind bars. From California’s death row at San Quentin, convicted rapist and kidnapper Caryl Chessman authored four best-selling memoirs that sparked one of the largest campaigns to end the death penalty. Chessman exhausted appeals to Gov. Edmund G. Brown, who opposed capital punishment, and was executed in the gas chamber in 1960.
The radical analysis of prison abolitionists blossomed in the 1960s and early ‘70s as a direct offshoot of the civil rights and anti-war movements. When draft resisters and members of the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army and other groups were jailed and convicted on criminal charges, they began mobilizing other inmates behind bars.
The abolition movement reached a flashpoint in the summer of 1971 when Black Panther George Jackson, author of Soledad Brother, died at the hands of San Quentin prison guards. Weeks later, inmates at New York’s Attica State Prison, who had petitioned Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for reforms, seized Yard D at the facility. The three-day standoff ended in the deaths of 29 inmates and 10 guards, all slain by National Guard troops. Frank Smith, a leader in the Attica uprising and a key negotiator before the siege, was tortured along with dozens of surviving prisoners; they won $12 million in a federal lawsuit against the state and prison officials years later.
Jackson’s death and the Attica massacre opened the eyes of prisoners and free men and women but also had a chilling effect on prison activists behind bars, said Rose Braz, campaign director for Critical Resistance, a prison abolition group that formed in the late 1990s. The first conference in 1998 was organized by a collective of activists, academics, former prisoners and policymakers. Recently, the organization has made headway with a broader audience by focusing on issues like the fact that prisons are costly. Last year was the first in two decades that the state of California has not had a new prison under construction, Braz said.
On the outside, a young Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote that he was literally kicked into the Black Panther Party as a teenager when a police officer grabbed him and a few Black friends protesting a George Wallace campaign rally in North Philadelphia and stomped on him.
He became lieutenant minister of information for the Panther Party in Philadelphia at 16 and also entered the world of journalism as a local TV and radio reporter, later becoming president of the city’s chapter of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
After his conviction for the death of police officer Daniel Faulkner, Abu-Jamal began contributing articles about prison life to one of the 30-odd prisoner journals that existed in the 1980s. He entered the system as the national prison population began skyrocketing under mandatory sentencing laws and as the states began to build new, more secure facilities to accommodate the growing need. Abu-Jamal’s writings were “a crucial component of the rise of the current wave of activism around prisons in the early and mid-‘90s and an important way for a lot of young activists to get into prison literature and see things from the perspective of prisoners,” said Christian Parenti, author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis.
“Prisoners were pretty much beat down and demoralized” by the political climate in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” said Wright, of Prison Legal News. Programming disappeared, communication between inmates diminished and the movements began to wither, he said. By 2000, 1.9 million people were incarcerated, but only three prison journals remained in circulation. In the modern political climate, Wright sees more concrete changes for prisoners being won as a result of lawsuits and DNA exonerations handled by attorneys at The Innocence Project than by grassroots movements.
The momentum for moratoria on the death penalty gained widespread attention after Republican Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of everyone on Illinois’ death row in 2000. Sept. 11 threw the brakes on some of those efforts; however, a 2006 Gallup poll showed a gradual shift in public opinion back to pre-9/11 numbers with 48 percent of respondents choosing life without parole for first-degree murder compared to 47 percent who said they prefer the death penalty.
Through these changes Abu-Jamal continued to write. His causes spanned the decades, and he did not limit himself to a critique of prison. With a ballpoint cartridge, he penned articles on the slaying of Black Panther State Chairman Fred Hampton by Chicago police and the killings at the MOVE house in Philadelphia, police brutality, the Zapatista rebellion and media censorship. He also wrote about death penalty abolition, the prison industrial complex, three strikes laws, due process after 9/11 and human rights abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
His essays didn’t reach a broad audience until the 1990s, and even then he refused to censor his message. His most loyal supporters are socialists, communists, anti-capitalists, anti-globalization advocates and abolitionists, Hanrahan said, so he never broke through to mainstream audiences.
Abu-Jamal was sanctioned by officials at the State Correctional Institution at Greene County in 1995 for practicing the profession of journalism. In contrast, fellow writer Wilbert Rideau, a death row inmate at Angola prison in Louisiana, was encouraged by his warden and appeared by satellite hookup on ABC’s “Nightline” with Chief Justice Warren Burger. Life magazine called The Angolite editor “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America.” His prison writing was published in Time magazine, and between1994 and 1995 he was a correspondent on Public Radio International’s “Fresh Air.”
Hanrahan said Rideau may have reached greater audiences about prison reform because “he made a journalistic decision to speak generically about his prison experience and represent the prisoner’s position in a way that did not threaten the institution.”
Abu-Jamal’s ideas have reached a wide audience, nonetheless. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association and the Congressional Black Caucus have called for a new trial, as have Nobel Laureates and African and European heads of state. His abolitionist outlook fit the Critical Resistance framework, which called for a deep, radical critique of the burgeoning prison population and the “prison industrial complex.”
“Mumia Abu-Jamal and his case have played an important role in re-invigorating prison activism broadly,” Rose Braz said, noting specifically his arguments against the death penalty and life without the possibility of parole. However, like Hanrahan, Braz is not surprised that his appeals and commentaries have been sidelined by the mainstream media and ignored by the general public.
“Part of what happens with being a radical voice is you get silenced or shut out,” she said. Prisoners don’t hear about abolition because “it’s challenging to be an organizer inside prisons in the U.S., much less to be politicized.”
Abu-Jamal was not transported to Philadelphia for the oral arguments in his case in May, but about 150 of his supporters made the trip. With the wife of the slain officer seated front and center in the gallery, the state prosecutor argued that the defendant had had a fair trial and the courts should move forward with his execution. Maureen Faulkner said she had heard all the testimony at the original trial and believed any jury, regardless of its racial composition, would have found Abu-Jamal guilty of killing her husband Daniel Faulkner.
Hanrahan and Abu-Jamal’s lead counsel, Robert Bryan, thought the judges seemed open to the argument that the trial was unfair. Johanna Fernandez, a history fellow at Carnegie Mellon who has studied the case and traveled to Philadelphia to attend the hearing, thinks a new base of support can be built around the issue of the prosecutor’s systematic exclusion of African American jurors at trial: “This is an issue that a broad cross-section of Americans would agree on, that every person has a right to a fair trial.”
Gabrielle Banks, a former ColorLines staffer, covers criminal court and prison issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.