Imagine living, eating, sleeping, relieving oneself, day-dreaming, weeping â€“ but mostly waiting, in a room about the size of your bathroom. Now imagine doing all those things â€“ but mostly waiting, for the rest of your life. Imagine waiting â€“ waiting â€“ to die.
â€“ Mumia Abu-Jamal
In 1997, Democracy Now! made a decision that resulted in the program getting thrown off of twelve radio stations in one fell swoop. It knocked us completely off the air in the entire state of
Our crime was airing the commentaries of a death row prisoner named Mumia Abu-Jamal.
A former journalist and activist in
Mumia Abu-Jamal has been an outspoken voice for the thousands of people on death rows around this country. He has written articles for the Yale Law Review. His popular book, Live from Death Row, is a collection of his commentaries.
Abu-Jamalâ€™s essays touch on a broad range of issues. None of them were about his own case. He speaks of capital punishment being punishment for those without capital. And he talks about father hunger â€“ the idea that so many young black men in prisons do not have fathers. Abu-Jamal reflected on the irony of being a father figure to those prisoners, despite the fact that he canâ€™t be a father to his own children or grandchildren. He writes in Death Blossoms:
Here, in this restrictive place of fathers without their children and men who were fatherless, one senses and sees the social costs of that loss. Those unloved find it virtually impossible to love, and those who were fatherless find themselves alienated and at war with their own communities and families.
In October 1996, the San Francisco-based Prison Radio Project taped thirteen essays with Abu-Jamal, and Democracy Now! began airing the pieces in early February 1997. (The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police declined our invitation to comment on air.) But minutes before the first broadcast, the twelve stations in
A tremendous outcry followed. The president of
One reason Abu-Jamalâ€™s commentaries were groundbreaking is because it is rare to hear voices from jail â€“ journalists are increasingly being barred from prisons.
access to jails.
Abu-Jamal has faced multiple obstacles as he has tried to have his voice heard. On August 12, 1999, Mumia Abu-Jamal called in to Democracy Now! to comment on the release of sixteen Puerto Rican political prisoners. As Abu-Jamal began to speak, a prison guard yanked the phone out of the wall. Abu-Jamal called back a month later and recounted that â€œanother guard appeared at the cell door hollering at the top of his lungs, â€˜This call is terminated.â€™ I immediately called to the sergeant standing by and looking on and said â€˜Sergeant, where did this order come from?â€™ He shrugged his shoulders and answered, â€˜I donâ€™t know. We just got a phone call to cut you off.â€™â€
These rules are not typically made by legislatures; they are edicts handed down by various prison authorities. As journalists, we must ensure that prisons are accountable to the public. These are public institutions, not the fiefdom of some prison boss. And as prisons become increasingly privatized, we have to ensure that the civil liberties of prisoners are respected.
The Society of Professional Journalists understood how threatening
The Prison-Industrial Complex
We need to know what is happening inside prisons because the prison population is exploding at an unprecedented rate. In 2002, the number of prisoners in the
Racial disparities in prison are startling. Forty-five percent of prisoners in 2002 were black; 18 percent were Hispanic. According to the Department of Justice, black males have about a one in three chance of landing in prison at some point in their lives. Draconian drug laws have taken a particularly high toll: 57 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug-related offenses; a fifth of state prisoners are there for drug-related charges.
All this has helped the booming prison industry. Corrections is now a $50-billion-a-year business. Due partially to immigrant lockups and harsh drug laws, prisons, like weapons manufacturing, are a growth industry. From 1994 to 2002, the number of people in state prisons increased by 30 percent. During the same period, the number held in federal BCIS (Bureau of Customs and Immigration Services) and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody increased by 275 percent. The explosion in immigrant prisoners follows the special registrations for immigrants from twenty-five countries that started in November 2002 and ran to January 2004. The federal governmentâ€™s 2003 budget for locking up immigrants was $ 672 million.
Nobody is cashing in on the immigrant lockdown like the private for-profit corporations that run prisons. The $3-billion-a-year private prison industry profits handsomely when immigrants end up in their cells. The federal government pays county jails $ 35 a day for murderers, rapists, and white-collar thieves, but the jails get from $ 75 to $ 100 a day for immigrant detainees.And itâ€™s certainly not because the immigrant prisoners are getting more services.
â€It is clear that since September 11, thereâ€™s a heightened focus on detention, [and] more people are gonna get caught,â€ Steve Logan, the chairman of Cornell Corrections, a private corrections company, cheerfully informed his shareholders. â€œSo I would say thatâ€™s positive. The federal business is the best business for us, and September 11 is increasing that business.â€
Death row is a monument to racial injustice. As a U.S. General Accounting Office study confirms, â€œThe single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.â€Over 80 percent of people executed were convicted of killing whites, even though half the homicide victims in this country are people of color. And a Justice Department study revealed that â€œ80 percent of the cases submitted by federal prosecutors for death penalty review in the past five years have involved racial minorities as defendants. In more than half of those cases, the defendant was African-American.â€
The most disturbing fact may be this: Since 1977, 140 death row prisoners (as of January 2004) have been exonerated.Were it not for the relentless work of families, activists, attorneys, and reporters who cared, these innocent people would have been executed.
Condemned to Silence
â€We read his material and evaluated its content,â€ said Ellen Weiss, executive producer of NPRâ€™s All Things Considered. â€œHe is a good writer and brings a unique perspective to the air.â€She added that the commentaries were a way for public radio to broaden its coverage of crime and punishment.
NPR knew these segments might be controversial, and they were. The day before the commentaries were to begin on NPR, leaders of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police were attending a national event in
NPR could not take the heat. Within a couple of days, it pulled the commentaries, abruptly changing its tune about them. â€œThere is a different standard for a convicted murderer,â€ said Bruce Drake, NPRâ€™s managing editor. â€œIn the end, I didnâ€™t feel that what he had to say was compelling enough to overcome our misgivings.â€
NPR then put the tapes in a vault and refused to return them to Mumia Abu-Jamal â€“ even now, a decade later. But the commentaries finally did appear â€“ in Abu-Jamalâ€™s book Live from Death Row.
NPRâ€™s cowardice had a ripple effect. They set a precedent by caving to pressure from the police, and then they dressed it up as principle. Then smaller networks such as Temple University Public Radio cited NPR as the example of why they wouldnâ€™t air a controversial voice.
In April 1997, NPR called poet Martin Espada and asked him to write a poem to commemorate National Poetry Month. The poem would air on All Things Considered. Espada, an acclaimed poet and a professor of English at the
Suddenly Espada was poet non grata. NPR would not return his calls.
Espada could not understand what happened. He had read poems on All Things Considered before. NPR had pursued him to get this poem and he felt he had sent them a very good one. It was done the way NPR wanted it: as poetry, but also addressing news of the day. Finally he
reached an NPR editor and asked what was going on.
We wonâ€™t be airing it, came the reply.
â€But you asked me for a poem,â€ Espada protested.
Yes, but we canâ€™t do this poem, the editor replied, because it deals with Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Espada quickly figured out what was happening. â€œNPR is refusing to air this poem because of its political content?â€
Yes, was the reply from All Things Considered producer Diantha Parker. According to Dennis Bernstein of
Kathy Scott, NPRâ€™s communications director, told The Boston Globe, â€œNPR has already been criticized for not running the commentaries. Obviously, Mr. Espada thinks Mumia is innocent. In our way of thinking, this was a way to throw that back in our face.â€
NPR was now attempting to muzzle both Mumia Abu-Jamal and Martin Espada. Both refused to be silenced. Espada came on Democracy Now! to talk about his case. The Progressive magazine published his poem, and it circulated widely on the Internet.
â€If I didnâ€™t speak out, then I would be governed by the same fear that governs NPR, and that would be wrong,â€ said Espada. â€œAll a writer wants is to be judged on the merit of his work. They censored my piece for political reasons.â€
Journalists are not entertainers. We are reporters. We go to places that are unpopular. We broadcast voices that are controversial. We are not here to win popularity contests. We are here to cover the issues critical to a democratic society. We have to pressure the media, to shame the media into going into these forgotten places where so many are sent to waste away in silence.
Here is the poem that NPR didnâ€™t want you to hear:
Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent
â€“ for Mumia Abu-Jamal,
By Martin Espada
The board-blinded windows knew what happened;
the pavement sleepers of
in their ghost-infested sleep, knew what happened;
every black man blessed
with the gashed eyebrow of nightsticks
knew what happened;
even Walt Whitman knew what happened,
poet a century dead, keeping vigil
from the tomb on the other side of the bridge.
More than fifteen years ago,
The cataract stare of the cruiserâ€™s headlights,
the impossible angle of the bullet,
the tributaries and lakes of blood,
Officer Faulkner dead, suspect Mumia shot in the chest,
the witnesses who saw a gunman
running away, his heart and feet thudding.
The nameless prostitutes know,
hunched at the curb, their bare legs chilled,
Their faces squinted to see that night,
rouged with fading bruises. Now the faces fade.
Perhaps an eyewitness putrefies eyes open in a bed of soil,
or floats in the warm gulf stream of her addiction,
or hides from the fanged whispers of the police
in the tomb of Walt Whitman,
where the granite door is open
and fugitive slaves may rest.
Mumia: the Panther beret, the thinking dreadlocks,
dissident words that swarmed the microphone like a hive,
sharing meals with people named Africa,
calling out their names even after the police bombardment
that charred their black bodies.
So the governor has signed the death warrant.
The executionerâ€™s needle would flush the poison
down into Mumiaâ€™s writing hand
so the fingers curl like a burned spider;
his calm questioning mouth would grow numb,
and everywhere radios sputter to silence, in his memory.
The veiled prostitutes are gone, gone to the segregated balcony of whores.
But the newspaper reports that another nameless prostitute
says the man is innocent, that she will testify at the next hearing.
Beyond the courthouse, a multitude of witnesses chants, prays,
shouts for his prison to collapse, a shack in a hurricane.
Mumia, if the last nameless prostitute
becomes an unraveling turban of steam,
if the judgesâ€™ robes become clouds of ink
swirling like octopus deception,
if the shroud becomes your Amish quilt,
if your dreadlocks are snipped during autopsy,
then drift above the ruined RCA factory
that once birthed radios
to the tomb of Walt Whitman,
where the granite door is open
and fugitive slaves may rest.
 Mumia Abu-Jamal, edited by Noelle Hanrahan, All Things Censored, New York, Seven Stories Press 2000, p. 55.
 â€œAnother One Bites the Dustâ€¦,â€ Society of Professional Journalists, FOI Alert, January 10, 1997.
 Democracy Now!, September 21, 1999.
 Marc Fisher, â€œPacifica Stations Bolt Over Convicted Killerâ€™s Commentary,â€ Washington Post, February 25, 1997.
 Facts About Prisons and Prisoners, The Sentencing Project, October 2003.
 â€œHow Do Prisons Profit from Immigrant Detainees?â€ Democracy Now!, September 12, 2003.
 Cited in â€œDeath Penalty Facts: Racial Disparity,â€ Amnesty International, 2003, http://www.amnestyusa.org/abolish/racialprejudices.html.
 David Hinkley, â€œ
 Interview with Noelle Hanrahan, director of the Prison Radio Project.
 Associated Press, â€œPublic Radio Hires Officerâ€™s Killer as a Death Row Commentator,â€
 Lois Romano, â€œCancel That Call,â€
 Jenifer B. McKim, â€œA Case of Poetic Injustice?â€
 Martin Espada, Zapataâ€™s Disciple,