“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” -- Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
In the next few days people all over the nation will celebrate civil rights icon, Martin Luther King, Jr. Folks will attend luncheons, lectures and interfaith services. They’ll clean schools, paint walls and feed the homeless, but go right back to business as usual after the feel good “day of service.” While they’ll quote the “I have a Dream” speech like it’s the only thing he ever said, they’ll totally ignore King quotes like, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” What most folks definitely won’t do is stand for justice everyday of their lives like King did – not even when their lives and that of their families depend on it.
A true warrior will fight to the death for what they believe. King was a true warrior who stood up and fought against old Jim Crow to the death, and if he were here today, I am sure he would fight even harder against the new Jim Crow – the American criminal “justice” system, also known as the prison industrial complex. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander lays it all out in her best-selling book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Alexander argues that racial caste in America has not ended, it has simply been redesigned. In her book, she lays bare the evidence that, “by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control.”
“Today, there are more African Americans under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began,” explained Alexander. In some large urban areas, more than half of working age African American men have criminal records and are subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. The rate of incarceration we have in the United States is unparalleled in the world.”
According to Alexander, if you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. “These men are part of a growing undercaste -- not class, caste -- permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.”
The prison industrial complex – the New Millennium Slavery in America that sends African American children from the schoolhouse to the Big House. FREE, CONTROLLED , LABOR. Sound familiar? Is history repeating itself? Know thy history! Another important quote of King’s is, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” Despite what some think, there are thousands who dedicate their lives and careers to such.
In December 2011, over 1,000 supporters and human rights activists from around the nation and the world gathered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia to reinvigorate the movement for justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal and underscore the violations that for 30 years, kept him unconstitutionally imprisoned on Death Row.
Abu-Jamal, former president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, was convicted of the murder of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner and was on Pennsylvania’s Death Row since 1982. In October 2011, the U. S. Supreme Court rejected a request from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to overturn the most recent federal appeals court decision declaring Abu-Jamal’s death sentence unconstitutional. Supporters continue to press for his release while remembering Troy Davis and others who are unjustly incarcerated.
Keynote speaker Vijay Prashad, professor of International Studies at Trinity College spoke on the hypocrisy of the American government that holds other nations’ human rights violations to the light while ignoring their own. “One in four prisoners on the planet lives in the United States,” Prashad explained. We have the highest per capita incarceration rate of any nation. We incarcerate seven times the number of people incarcerated in China, which is an obscenity. It costs more to incarcerate someone in Trenton State Prison than to go to Princeton University. Why not spend that money to lift people out of poverty and desperation than to kill them because they’re poor? The heart of the problem is that this country would rather kill people than love them. The politics of this country is to protect property over people.”
Lennox Hinds, founder of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and former counsel for the government of South Africa and the African National Congress, took a unique approach. According to Hinds, the U.S. signed an international convention treaty on torture in 1984 that was ratified by Congress in 1998. In short, he says, “According to the treaty, prolonged solitary confinement is considered mental torture. Therefore, I am proposing we launch an international campaign at the United Nations to free Mumia and all other inmates on Death Row.”
He said the U.N. is also interested in such a campaign. “We should file a petition at the U.N. pursuant to Resolution 1503 in which we are calling for the release of Mumia based on his 30 years in solitary confinement in violation of U.S. and international law,” explained Hinds, who teaches in the criminal justice program at Rutgers University. Mumia is not facing death today because of the power of the people. We must use the contradictions in the system to build our case.”
That brings us to Abu-Jamal’s present situation and another overlooked quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”
Although Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was overturned and he should be released into general population that is not the case. According to his attorney, Rachel Wolkenstein, Abu-Jamal is still in Administrative Custody (AC) -- the hole -- at SCI Mahanoy. There is no legal basis for him to be confined in AC. At the point he was no longer under a death sentence, he should have been transferred into general population.
Abu-Jamal is being held in extremely repressive conditions. Like thousands of prisoners, residents of solitary confinement and isolation units in every hole in every prison across the country, he is being subject to dehumanizing and brutal conditions. Abu-Jamal is on a cellblock that houses AC as well as disciplinary custody inmates. He is in solitary confinement with lights glaring 24/7, without adequate food or the opportunity to buy food to supplement his diet. He is shackled and handcuffed whenever he is outside his solitary cell, including when he goes to shower. And he is isolated without regular phone calls or access to his property, including legal materials, books and typewriter. His visiting hours are limited. In short, Abu-Jamal is being subjected to conditions that are more onerous than those on death row.
The Human Rights Coalition, an organization of prisoners, family members and supporters that have been exposing and challenging state torture in Pennsylvania for years stated 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.”
Cornel West, featured speaker at the National Constitution Center Forum said Abu-Jamal is “legally not guilty and factually innocent.” West also explained the niggerization of a people -- people we know and love. “People become niggerized when you render them so afraid, scared and intimidated that they don’t want to straighten their backs up out of fear. We see them everyday in the community. But, Mumia represents someone who stood up. He’s stood up for decades – when he was out and he’s done it inside the prison. He’ll do it until the day he dies. He is a symbol of what’s going on within the prison industrial complex. We must continue to organize until he is released!”
Abu-Jamal’s attorney and supporters are asking people to stand for justice by writing, calling and emailing the PA Secretary of Corrections and the superintendant of the prison: 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: email@example.com
John Kerestes, Superintendent
301 Morea Road
Frackville, PA 17932
(570) 773-2158 Fax:(570) 783-2008
One of King’s little known quotes speaks to the heart of our situation in this nation at this most important time in the world’s history. “Cowardice asks the question - is it safe? Expediency asks the question - is it politic? Vanity asks the question - is it popular? But conscience asks the question - is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right.”
Marilyn Kai Jewett is a Philadelphia-area marketing communications consultant and writer.