Political Prisoners

Journalist on Death Row

IPS (Inter Press Service) Interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and black activist who exposed corruption in the Philadelphia police department, is among the best known of America’s 3,500 death row inmates. For years, lawyers have been fighting to overturn his 1982 murder conviction. They argue that Abu-Jamal was condemned due to his skin color and undue influence from the powerful Fraternal Order of Police.

Abu-Jamal and his chief lawyer, Robert Bryan, are currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia on their request for a new trial. If a re-trial is ordered, many believe it will be one of the most sensational in U.S. legal history.

In this rare interview from Pennsylvania’s death row, Abu-Jamal talks about being a journalist on death row with IPS correspondent Adrianne Appel and radio journalist John Grebe. “Writing from a radical and populist, black liberation point of view, never left me,” he says, “We do truly live in amazing times, times that are challenging, times that are dangerous—but also times that are inspiring.”

Adrianne Appel (IPS): Through your radio broadcasts and columns about politics, race, black liberation and the death penalty, you have continued to be a leader for those on the left, and I suspect an inspiration to those in prison and on death row. Do you hear from others on death row?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: I do actually receive letters from guys literally all around the country and—truth be told—around the world. Some express solidarity, many request to correspond, some just ask questions on history because they’ve heard of my history with the black liberation movement.

I know that many people on death row are projected as monsters and really evil people. The fact of the matter is, most of the people I’ve met, I’ve heard about, or know about on death row are on death row because of their poverty. If they were men or women of means and could have afforded a decent defense at their trials, many wouldn’t be in jail. And if they were not in jail, they wouldn’t be on death row.

Adrianne Appel (IPS): You have great support in Europe but not here in the U.S. What accounts for this difference?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: The [U.S.] media has really been an adversary and not an aide. The struggle waxes and wanes, ebbs and flows.

Adrianne Appel (IPS): Public sentiment here seems to be shifting away from the death penalty, especially in light of the 126 people who have so far been exonerated—six in Pennsylvania. Have you and your legal team sensed any change in attitude towards your case—more openness to the idea that you did not receive a fair trial?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: I can’t say that I have. How do you gauge such a thing? There are many people who—because of what they read in the paper—firmly believe I am no longer on death row. I have read articles to that effect. Unfortunately, those articles are misleading. I have never left death row for one day. I am on death row.

Adrianne Appel (IPS): Are you confident you will receive a fair trial this time?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: I’ve learned not to be in the business of prediction. That’s a risky business. We’re certainly working toward that end and I’m certainly hopeful. But I’m not in the prediction game.

Adrianne Appel (IPS): Of the 35 states with a death penalty, conditions on Pennsylvania’s death row are among the most inhumane. The 228 death row inmates are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in small cells. You are kept shackled when not in your cell, even in the shower. You are not allowed physical contact with visitors, with no one at all. How does this affect you?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: It affects how you interact with family and friends, staff people, females. It affects everything.

Years ago in Huntington [another prison], I was taken to a dentist. As I was coming back and crossing the central portion of the prison, there were several hundred men walking toward their dining area. Because it had been so many years that I had been away from a large mass of people I froze, I just froze. The guard with me pushed my back and said, “C’mon Jamal”, but I couldn’t move. I was so stunned to be in the presence of hundreds of guys. I hadn’t been around a group for so many years. I didn’t know how to interact with that situation. For years I had lived in a cell or in a cage by myself.

John Grebe: As a young, working reporter what inspired you?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: My life as a writer on the staff of the Black Panther newspaper. Just learning from people in the ministry of information of the [Black Panther] Party, that really did inspire me—even when I left the party, when it fell apart in disarray—that part of my life, writing from a radical and populist, black liberation point of view. It never left me. I learned some important lessons. When I talk to people in the biz I say I’m glad I never went to journalism school.

Adrianne Appel (IPS): You’ve written five books from death row and produce weekly radio commentaries. Why do you still speak out?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: It’s still interesting. We do truly live in amazing times, times that are challenging, times that are dangerous—but also times that are inspiring. We have a government that for all intents and purposes now says that torture is cool. We have secret prisons, so-called black sites, where people from all around the world are held in the name of the United States of America—whose names you cannot know. People who are tortured.

I feel compelled to write because they move me. I’m still a writer, an author, a journalist. They touch me. I would be remiss if I did not write about those things. If you recall, after 9/11 quite a few of the journalistic mainstays in this country did not write about those things. They endorsed the war, they supported the war. They came with what some people would call a mimeograph service for the state. I chose not to take that role.

Adrianne Appel (IPS): Pennsylvania death row has twice as many black people on it as white people, something that does not reflect the makeup of the population in Pennsylvania. What does this say about the courts in Pennsylvania?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: It says much about the courts in Philadelphia as opposed to Pennsylvania. Philly [Philadelphia] is a national leader in the death penalty business.

Many cases that would be considered third degree or even volunteer manslaughter, or not guilty in other counties, become first degree [murder] or death [penalty] cases in Philly. That’s because the political system in Philly has been formed around the death penalty.

Anyone who doesn’t believe in the death penalty is automatically excluded from the jury. Well that’s a different kind of jury. It’s profoundly unfair at its very foundation. If you pick a jury that is fundamentally unfair, you can only get a fundamentally unfair result.

John Grebe: Do you currently have communication with people in the black liberation movement?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: There are many elders who I do hear from. They’re wonderful brothers and sisters. Many are no longer with us. But some of them are. I delight in having contact with many of those people.

—IPS (Inter Press Service), February 14, 2008