As Mumia Abu-Jamal fights for his life inside a Pennsylvania state prison, his comrades have coalesced around a movement to secure his release and that of other political prisoners from the Black Power Era who’ve entered their twilight years while incarcerated.
According to history professor Johanna Fernandez, one of Abu-Jamal’s closest confidants, Pennsylvania state officials should allow Abu-Jamal, 66, to seek medical treatment as a free man.
She told The Informer, Abu-Jamal, while chained to his bed during an emergency visit to a local hospital in February, learned he contracted COVID-19 and developed congestive heart failure. Those ailments followed the manifestation of liver cirrhosis amid the delayed treatment of hepatitis C two years ago that has since precipitated a severe skin condition.
“It shocks the conscience. It’s abuse and torture,” according to Fernandez, a history professor at Baruch College (City University of New York) who produced the 2010 film, “Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal” and edited written works of Abu-Jamal’s over the last decade.
In recent weeks, Fernandez and other members of the “Movement to Free Mumia” coalition have circulated photographs that show the development of open sores around the political prisoner’s ankle and discoloration in his face.
They have also embarked on a letter-writing campaign aimed at Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetszel, and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Fernandez, along with Pam Africa of the MOVE organization and other political advocates, continue to maintain contact with Abu-Jamal. Fernandez told The Informer that Abu-Jamal shuddered at the thought of having to receive treatment while shackled for 24 hours out of the day. She likened Abu-Jamal’s situation to the medical attention he received five years ago when, in response to the open sores, prison doctors wrapped Abu-Jamal’s body with gauze.
“This is happening to people across the country who are in prison and have to be hospitalized,” Fernandez said.
“We have to expose the barbarism of a system that echoes of slavery. From what we can see in the case of Mumia and other Black prisoners, the past is really in the present.”
A spokesperson for Wolf didn’t respond to The Informer’s inquiry about Abu-Jamal’s release, given his current health condition.
COVID-19 and the Possibility of Reform
During the first seven months of the pandemic, the U.S. state prison population decreased by more than 170,000 because of the COVID-19-related release of inmates. The rapid spread of COVID-19 also compelled local and state officials across the country to release defendants without bail, divert low-level offenders to other programs, and shut down some small correctional facilities.
Political and social activists and global observers watching this phenomenon see it as a turning point in the fight against mass incarceration. Last April, Michele Bachelet, the United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights, implored governments to release those detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and people with dissenting views.
Around that time, Iran, Indonesia and Turkey had reportedly taken steps to do so.
Because of the circumstances of his incarceration, and his prison writings condemning mass incarceration and other societal ills, Abu-Jamal has been designated by Amnesty International and other organizations as a political prisoner. Even so, state and federal officials over the last 40 years have resisted releasing him.
Forty Years and Counting
In 1982, Abu-Jamal, a journalist, founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the Black Panther Party and supporter of the MOVE organization, was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. While driving a cab, Abu-Jamal saw Faulkner and his brother involved in a scuffle during a traffic stop. His attempt to intervene turned into an exchange of gunfire with the police officer. Abu-Jamal suffered a gunshot wound to the stomach and Faulkner took several shots, including one to the head that ended his life.
Despite criticisms of constitutional inconsistencies in Abu-Jamal’s murder trial, and the accumulation of evidence in subsequent years highlighting collusion between the judge and prosecution to suppress key evidence and coerce witness statements, state and federal judicial officials have declined to revisit Abu-Jamal’s case.
In 2011, however, Abu-Jamal was taken off death row. He has since been in the general prison population.
For some people like Dr. Phile’ Chionesu, often referred to as Empress Chi, however, the time has come for the Pennsylvania state government to release Abu-Jamal. Given the circumstances of his incarceration and the shift in power in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, Empress Chi, organizer of the Million Woman March and the Black Human Rights Movement, said that the U.S. must show a commitment to advancing human rights.
“This would show an indication of goodwill given the fact that the country has come out of clear and blatant application of white supremacist programming and actions,” said Empress Chi.
“This would demonstrate that things are trying to move in a direction that represents so-called American democracy or what have you,” Empress Chi added.
“This would give a clearer indication for there to be further discussion and the possibility of what needs to happen in bringing about change. The system must have a change with the Black human rights movement.”