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Sadism in the Cell
Those intent on tormenting now ex-death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal have done it again, this time perhaps even exceeding their past efforts to painfully harass this man widely perceived as a political prisoner.
The latest punitive slap involves Pennsylvania prison authorities throwing Abu-Jamal into “Administrative Custody,” more commonly known as ‘The Hole.’
The draconian constraints of AC placement surpass the harsh restrictions of the death row isolation Abu-Jamal has endured for over a quarter century.
No surprise that this latest punitive assault against Abu-Jamal has his worldwide support movement in an uproar. Supporters see AC placement as retaliation by those incensed that Abu-Jamal is no longer facing execution.
Energizing supporters is the opposite of what Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams said he desired when he announced last month that his office would not seek reinstitution of Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. At the time, DA Williams said he hoped avoiding a rehearing on the death sentence would consign Abu-Jamal to obscurity.
Pennsylvania’s governor and the president of Philadelphia’s police union also used the word obscurity when voicing their hopes that the life sentence for Abu-Jamal would decimate his cause célèbre status among death penalty abolitions worldwide.
Prison authorities removed Abu-Jamal from death row mere hours after the Philadelphia DA’s December announcement, transferring him to an Administrative Custody cell block inside the same super-max Greene prison located more than 300-miles from Philadelphia in southwest Pennsylvania.
Prison officials rejected the standard procedure of placing Abu-Jamal in general population, the status for all inmates not sentenced to death.
Significantly, inmates in general population have full privileges to visitation (contact, not conjugal contact), telephone and commissary, along with access to all prison programs and services.
Administrative Custody restrictions, on the other hand, are punitive in nature, including a limited number of visits, no telephone calls (except legal or emergency) and limitations on access to legal materials needed for appeals.
Sue Bensinger, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, declined comment on Abu-Jamal’s case citing the Department’s “security and privacy” regulations.
Bensinger did confirm that authorities now hold Abu-Jamal in Mahanoy, a medium security prison about 100 miles from Philadelphia in central Pennsylvania. Mahanoy, by Department regulation, cannot hold death row prisoners.
DoC personnel moved Abu-Jamal to Mahanoy from Greene prison during an unannounced pre-dawn transfer on December 14, 2011.
Abu-Jamal’s December removal from death row was in belated compliance with federal court rulings voiding Abu-Jamal’s death sentence. That sentence launched Abu-Jamal’s decade’s long grind on Pennsylvania’s death row – an ordeal that a string of federal court rulings since 2001 have declared to have been reached illegally and unconstitutionally.
When a federal District Court judge voided Abu-Jamal’s death sentence in December 2001, converting it to a life sentence, Pennsylvania prison authorities refused to remove him from death row. Authorities justified their refusal to transfer Abu-Jamal into general population from death row in 2001 as extending a “courtesy” to Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office, to that city’s police union (the Fraternal Order of Police) and to the widow of the slain officer.
The FOP, the widow and the DA’s Office, including Williams and his predecessor Lynne Abraham, actively lobbied year after year for Abu-Jamal’s continuance on death row during their unsuccessful appeals of that 2001 ruling ending his capital sentence.
Those malicious demands for Abu-Jamal’s continued death row confinement sought to inflict increased suffering through keeping Abu-Jamal mired in the deprivations of death row isolation.
That “courtesy” also cost taxpayers at least $100,000, because it costs Pennsylvania’s prison system an extra ten thousand dollars per year to handle each death row inmate, according to prison system spokespersons.
That “courtesy” cost adds to the enormous expenditures Philadelphia prosecutors have made fighting in courts to block Abu-Jamal’s efforts to win a retrial where a jury could hear what that 1982 jury did not: evidence of innocence withheld by police and prosecutors.
As an example of the addional restrictions administrative custody imposes on Abu-Jamal, the acclaimed prison author/journalist now has no access to books, a radio and a typewriter – all items he utilized on death row for his writings.
A federal appeals court in 1998 stated Abu-Jamal had a First Amendment right to write while imprisoned. That ruling derailed efforts by detractors to bar Abu-Jamal’s writing.
Legal experts familiar with Abu-Jamal’s plight say some of those current Administrative Custody restrictions – particularly those blocking his ability to write – arguably violate that 1998 appeals court ruling.
Under current AC status, authorities force Abu-Jamal to wear shackles during the limited visits he’s permitted. Under administrative custody restrictions, his visits are actually less frequent and of shorter duration than were his highly restrictive death row visitations.
Prison authorities had stopped shackling Abu-Jamal during death row visits a few years ago, following complaints from Noble Peace Prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Tutu, during a visit to the famous inmate, refused to see him until the shackles, which Tutu declared were a gratuitous torture, were removed.
In an interesting twist, Maureen Faulkner, the slain officer’s widow, expressed her desire in December for having Abu-Jamal placed in general population where, she said, he would live among the “criminals that infest” Pennsylvania’s prisons. Faulkner has been at the forefront of past punitive efforts against Abu-Jamal, including the legal rights-robbing onslaught that led to the 1998 federal appeals court ruling.
That 1995 onslaught was retaliation for the publication of Abu-Jamal’s book Live From Death Row, and it substantially sabotaged his pivotal hearing that year appealing his conviction. The book features essays on prison life Abu-Jamal had prepared for an NPR program that detractors successfully intimidated NPR into cancelling before it could air.
This perverse Administrative Custody confinement, the latest link in the chain of injustices lashing Abu-Jamal since his 1981 arrest, is just the latest violation by the Department of Corrections of the Pennsylvania prison system’s own written regulations for placing inmates into that harsh disciplinary status.
Abu-Jamal does not meet any of the 11 specific circumstances listed in Pennsylvania Department of Corrections regulations for justifying administrative custody placement.
A model prisoner, Abu-Jamal does not constitute “a threat” to life, property, himself, staff, other inmates, the public or orderly prison operations as the policy declaration for AC placement states.
Indeed, prison staff evaluations of Abu-Jamal since his December death row removal list him as “polite [and] respectful.” Those positive evaluations hardly offer evidence of incorrigibility or other serious misbehavior which usually triggers AC placement.
Among the ever-changing rationales prison authorities advance for keeping Abu-Jamal in AC is their curious and Kafkaesque claim that they are awaiting legal clarification that the courts have formally replaced Abu-Jamal’s death sentence with life in prison.
That claim contradicts the Department of Corrections’ own documents specifically acknowledging that federal courts have vacated the death sentence (requiring a life sentence) and that the Philadelphia’s DA has dropped appeals to reinstate the death sentence and is accepting the life imprisonment.
Since DoC documents clearly reference a vacated death sentence, how can prison officials also claim they need clarification for what is objectively obvious, unless they are using that need-for-clarification explanation to cover-up continued punitive harassment?
The mammoth legal battles raging around Abu-Jamal’s conviction obscure the smaller little-known skirmishes Abu-Jamal constantly has to fight over mundane matters like the types of food he can eat, what newspapers he can read and the permissible length of his dreadlock hair style.
In 2003 Abu-Jamal and other inmates at Greene prison asked authorities for healthier diets, prompting hundreds of activists from Germany and other countries to send letters to prison authorities supporting that dietary request which arrived containing garlic cloves in the envelopes. Activists used garlic because it is widely recognized for its medicinal properties and it makes a pungent statement.
Abu-Jamal’s current AC status once again limits his ability to obtain food from the prison commissary which he needs for his vegetarian diet.
In the late 1980s Abu-Jamal mounted an unsuccessful lawsuit against prison authorities for barring his death row receipt of a newspaper published by a socialist organization.
Prison authorities barred that newspaper by speciously deeming it a “danger” to prison security, despite their allowing non-isolation-cell inmates to receive white racist hate literature and pornography.
Those racist and pornographic publications approved for general population inmates clearly threatened security by spurring interracial tensions and homosexual rapes – unlike a leftist newspaper sent to one inmate in death row isolation.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, prison authorities disciplined Abu-Jamal for refusing to cut his dreadlocks (citing religious reasons). Authorities ultimately relented, allowing him to leave his locks uncut.
Authorities now cite Abu-Jamal’s hair length as a reason for keeping him in punitive isolation, though suspiciously, they only first offered that excuse five long weeks after his December AC placement.
While Abu-Jamal’s detractors indignantly dismiss all claims of his being a political prisoner, his post-arrest ordeals provide a compelling case of a person specifically targeted by authorities for being who he is politically more than for the crime he is supposedly serving time for.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He lives in Philadelphia.