by Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project
As poor communities and communities of color continue to wade through a gauntlet of crises, it is encouraging to see movements and organizations building and seeking solidarity to wage a concerted rescue. It is for this reason that we must now, at this moment in our people’s historical arch of resistance and struggle, extend a last ditch lifeline to our movement’s political prisoners who are on their last legs and in many cases literally their last breath; and who as seniors constitute the most vulnerable among us. Our movement’s political prisoners, who, despite surviving countless hostile encounters with the state’s security forces, are on the verge of succumbing to old age and infirmities behind the walls and gun towers of the empire’s Prison Industrial Complex.
It is also encouraging to see one of the main issues of these communities — mass incarceration — come front and center in public consciousness. To see it be recognized as the continuation of slavery, and more folks be proud to bear the mantle of abolitionist, is heartening. We are witnessing a rising tidal wave of consciousness that has the potential of lifting society to a higher level of humanity. The need to reform or outright abolish the current legal system has never been as mainstream as it is today. Just as the abolitionist movement, the suffragist movement, the civil rights movement, and the Black Liberation/Black Power movement, were all thrusts to humanize this society, today’s criminal legal reform and prison abolition movements also have the potential to make this society more humane. This “mainstreaming” of criminal justice reform is the result of the tireless efforts of activists, families, and advocates not abandoning their loved ones and communities to the beast of mass incarceration.
However, today’s prison abolitionist and prison reform movement will fall woefully short of fully humanizing American society if it allows the issue of political prisoners to be perceived as a radioactive idea. Because of this reactionary and unfortunate perception among certain sectors of the reform movement, some of these political prisoners themselves have opted to be excluded from any reform or abolition campaign. They perceive themselves as radioactive to the fight. This is a sad resignation on the part of our greatest living champions of justice. This thinking has as much to do with the graciousness and self-sacrifice of our warriors behind bars as it does to the way the movement itself has allowed the idea of radioactivity, futility, and “lost cause,” to influence and infect its direction and sense of justice.
In Pennsylvania, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Fred Muhammad Burton, Joseph JoJo Bowen and Mumia Abu-Jamalhave languished in prisons for decades. They are now seniors and in poor health. Nationally, Ruchell Cinque Magee, Ramaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, Sundiata Acoli, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Jalil Muntaquin, Ed Poindexter, Kamau Sadiki, Kojo Bomani Sababu, Leonard Peltier, Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, Veronza Bowers, and Rev. Joy Powellare among the longest interned human political prisoners in the world. These are our Nelson Mandelas. They are all not just our elders, but now our elderly. They resist the passage of time, and the effects of long term solitary confinement, unconscionable abuses, and prison machinations, that have led to terminal illness in many of them. Not just every day that they make it through, but every breath that they take, is an act of defiance and preservation of dignity.
We believe that not seeing the movement to free political prisoners as part of the movement for criminal legal reform is partly the cause of the increased distancing and alienation of political prisoners from the criminal legal reform movement. This all has helped to increase the isolation of the movement to free political prisoners and have led to a costly loss of steam in that movement. There are also many within the mainstream criminal justice reform movement who don’t want it to be associated with the radical politics that define political prisoners. This distancing and alienation of political prisoners from the criminal legal reform and abolitionist movements, which they helped birth and gave thrust and vision to, is unacceptable.
As part of the movement for prison abolition and criminal justice reform the Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project rejects the idea, whether strategic or tactical, that political prisoners are radioactive to the fight for social and criminal justice. We are committed to a strong thrust to revive the campaign to free US political prisoners. However, we believe that this thrust and campaign must also incorporate a critical collective examination of the previous struggles of the Political Prisoner movement. This would fortify an analysis of contemporary conditions for the purpose of projecting a new vision for the political prisoner movement that is integral to the abolitionist and reform movement at large. This collective examination revolves around a recommitment to Restorative and Transformative Justice centered on healing, accountability, compassion and restoration. It would also recognize the harm suffered and the enduring harm that retribution causes to the families of political prisoners, the injured family’s parties, and our communities. This cycle must be broken.
The Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project are committed to supporting and helping to lead the fight for the release of Pennsylvania’s political prisoners through whatever legal means available and necessary, be it compassionate release, clemency, or pardons. We encourage prison abolitionists and prison reform movements to prioritize the cases of political prisoners. We will devote resources to the rebuilding of a Jericho Pennsylvania Chapter. Our support for Political Prisoners will not be conditioned upon guilt or innocence, nor will we prioritize or lift claims of innocence.
We believe that prioritizing the innocence of our political prisoners runs the risk of continually miring our efforts to get them released in the never ending retrying and relitigation of their cases. Our position is that our political prisoners have served enough time and it is time to bring them home. They have served over 40 years and are in their 70’s and 80’s. Many are among the longest held political prisoners in the world. Statistically, they are in the age group that poses no threat to the community or society at large. In fact, their continued incarceration serves absolutely no more purpose other than endless retribution. We believe that with over 40 years served we can firmly say retribution has run its course.
We call on the prison abolition and criminal justice reform movements, and supporters of Political Prisoners, to join with us in committing to the following points:
1.) Organize and support efforts for compassionate release of Political Prisoners through executive clemency and/or other means available.
2.) Provide letters supporting clemency for political prisoners from criminal justice reform groups and restorative justice advocacy groups.
3.) Obtain letters supporting compassionate release from state representatives and politicians representing our communities.
4.) Advocate for a reconciliation and restorative justice process between Political Prisoners and the victims in the cases for which they were convicted.
5.) Creation of space for political prisoners in the criminal legal reform campaigns, such as the campaigns to end life without parole/death by incarceration, to release aging prisoners, to include violent cases in the equation of criminal justice reform, and to release those human beings who are most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. This would include providing space for political prisoner cases to be represented on every movement organization’s agenda, including rallies and other actions.
6.) Establishment of a Pennsylvania chapter of Jericho to help consolidate and assist all campaigns to free the state’s political prisoners.