Incarceration Nation

Pardon Political Prisoner Sundiata Acoli

By Steven Katsineris

The deplorable situation of former Black Panther Party member Sundiata Acoli, who has been imprisoned since 1973, that’s 42 years, is very distressing and exceptionally unjust. He is now 79 years of age and it’s surely well and truly time to free him. 

Sundiata Acoli is a mathematician and computer analyst who was born on January 14, 1937, in Decatur, Texas and raised in Vernon Texas. He graduated from Prairie View and A and M University of Texas in 1956 with a degree in mathematics and for the next 13 years worked for various computer-oriented firms, mostly in the New York area.

During the summer of 1964 he participated in civil rights work and voter registration in Mississippi. In 1968 he joined the Harlem Black Panther Party and did community work around issues of education, housing, jobs, childcare, drugs and police brutality. Sundiata later became the Harlem Black Panther Party’s finance minister. 

On April 2, 1969, he and other members were arrested in New York in the Panther 21 conspiracy case. He was held in jail without bail and on trial for two years before being acquitted, along with all other defendants, by a jury deliberating less than two hours. 

Upon release, FBI intimidation of potential employers shut off all employment possibilities in the computer profession and the stepped-up COINTELPRO campaign of harassment, surveillance and provocations soon drove him underground.

On May 2, 1973, three former members of the New York City chapter of the Black Panther Party, Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur and Zayd Malik Shakur were stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike for a purportedly “faulty tail-light.” A shoot-out ensued during which a state trooper, Werner Foster and Zayd Shakur were killed and Assata and Sundiata wounded. Although there was no evidence that Sundiata or Assata shot the state trooper, both were subsequently convicted of the murder of the trooper and related charges and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. 

At that turbulent time the Black Panther Party (and other Black organizations) was being targeted by various security and armed groups intent on repressing and destroying the BPP and killing its leaders and rank and file members in the process. BPP members felt like they were under a state of siege and at risk of being arrested, shot or wounded for campaigning for their civil and human rights. Scores of BPP members were murdered or badly injured or jailed (some framed) in the operations to suppress the organization. Numerous Black militants fled overseas or underground to escape persecution. The context of the era is very important in looking at Sundiata’s case. And many of these glaring social and racial problems still exist in the U.S. today. As President Obama himself said not long ago, “a simmering distrust...exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” 

Since then Sundiata has been denied parole several times. Over forty-two years later Sundiata remains in prison despite maintaining a “charge free” record and having outstanding educational and work reports. 

A New Jersey Appellate Court in September 2014 ordered the release of Sundiata, resting its decision on the eligibility requirements under the New Jersey Parole Act of 1979. But the State announced it would appeal the decision and request a “Stay” of the release until the appeal was heard.  The “Stay” was granted which resulted in Sundiata remaining incarcerated while awaiting a decision from a New Jersey Supreme Court.

Arguments were heard on October 13, 2015; and on February 23, 2016, the Supreme court of New Jersey reversed the Appellate Court’s order. The court did not rule on the merits of the Appellate case ordering release, but focused rather, on procedure. The Supreme Court held that the Appellate Court exceeded its authority in ordering release because a procedural process had not been followed, as in New Jersey, the full parole board has to make a decision in cases involving murder convictions. Sundiata appeared before the full board in June 2016 and again was denied parole. An appeal will again be taken to the same Appellate Division that ordered his release. His supporters have asked for people to do their utmost to assist Sundiata, but to exercise discretion and restraint in not making what could be interpreted as inflammatory remarks on social media or elsewhere.

The purpose of prison sentences is supposed to be rehabilitation, not just punishment. Sundiata has already served much more time in prison than others convicted of similar offences. Sundiata should not have to spend the rest of his life in prison because of his political beliefs or his former membership in the Black Panther Party.

What Sundiata did and is in prison for, is not much different than what Nelson Mandela did; the actions they took were in reaction to what they saw as a brutal system of racism, discrimination and abuse. In racially divided societies they were both motivated by the quest for justice and fought to change things for the better. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail for struggling for equality, civil and human rights. Sundiata Acoli has now spent 42 years in jail fighting for the same aspirations.

Surely forty-two years is long enough! After so many long years of imprisonment in the nation’s harshest penitentiaries and with an exemplary prison record, it’s time to free Sundiata. Even at his elderly age Sundiata has valuable contributions to make to his community and society. And his release will not only have a positive impact on his life and that of his family and friends, but will have a much wider constructive effect of healing and repairing still painful wounds of the past. 

Sundiata is now the longest held prisoner in New Jersey’s history for similar convictions. He has an outstanding record in prison and has had no disciplinary reports during the last 16 years. He’s also maintained an excellent work and scholastic record and has always been a positive influence in prison, particularly in mentoring prisoners toward becoming benefactors to the community upon return to society. Sundiata has long ago been rehabilitated and has satisfied all requirements for parole. He is an elderly man, a grandfather, in declining health, who wishes to live out the rest of his days in peace tending his grandchildren. Sundiata Acoli is a decent man, who has stuck to his principles and will be an exceptional asset to society.

Please join in the campaign to seek the release of long-term U.S. political prisoner Sundiata Acoli. Publicize his situation by talking to friends, posting on Facebook and by whatever other means you can to support this campaign. Write a polite letter or email to the U.S. President, Barak Obama, respectfully requesting he pardon Sundiata. He will be 80 years old in January 2017. It’s time to show Sundiata compassion and set him free.

—July 2016

What to do to help Sundiata:

Write to:

President Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

Write to Sundiata Acoli: 

Sundiata Acoli #39794-066 (Squire)

FCI Cumberland,

Federal Correctional Institution,

P.O. BOX 1000,

Cumberland, MD. USA. 2150. 

Contact the Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign:


P.O. Box 766

Harlem Station

New York, NY 10027