The Torture of Mumia Abu-Jamal Continues off Death Row
--Supporters Demand Transfer to General Population
An interview with Bret Grote of Human Rights Coalition
By Hans Bennett of Prison Radio
On December 7, following the US Supreme Court's refusal to consider the Philadelphia District Attorney's final avenue of appeal, current DA Seth Williams announced that he would no longer be seeking a death sentence for the world-renowned death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal--on death row following his conviction at a 1982 trial deemed unfair by Amnesty International, the European Parliament, the Japanese Diet, Nelson Mandela, and many others. Abu-Jamal's sentence of execution was first "overturned" by a federal court in December, 2001, and during the next ten years, he was never transferred from death row at the level five supermax prison, SCI Greene, in rural western Pennsylvania.
Shortly after the DA's announcement in early December, Mumia Abu-Jamal, now 57 years old, was transferred to SCI Mahanoy in Frackville, PA, 100 miles from Philadelphia. Once there, it was expected that he would be released from solitary confinement and transferred into general population where he would finally have contact visits and generally less onerous conditions. However, he was immediately placed in "Administrative Custody," in SCI Mahanoy's "Restrictive Housing Unit" where his conditions of isolation and repression are now in many ways more extreme than they were on death row.
Presently at SCI Mahanoy, Mumia Abu-Jamal is shackled around his ankles and wrists whenever he is outside his cell, even to the shower and during already restricted visits--where he is already behind Plexiglas; Before going to the yard he is subject to strip searches before and after the visit; He is only allowed bits of paper to write notes on, with a rubber flex pen, and four books (no shelves); No access to news reports; Letters delayed; Glaring lights on 24 hours a day; Only one brief phone call to his wife and one to an attorney; No access to adequate food or commissary, and more.
In the first week of January, at Abu-Jamal's request, supporters began a campaign directed at the PA Secretary of Corrections, SCI Mahanoy, and DA Seth Williams, demanding that Abu-Jamal be immediately transferred to the general population. The National Lawyers Guild (for whom Abu-Jamal serves as the Vice President) has released a statement and created an online petition demanding his transfer to general population.
Furthermore, Abu-Jamal has asked for supporters to not just call for his release from the hole, but to challenge the very practice of solitary confinement and what are called in Pennsylvania "Restricted Housing Units." Supporting Abu-Jamal's call to action, the Pennsylvania-based prison-activist organization called Human Rights Coalition explains that "Mumia may be in solitary, but he is not alone. The PA Department of Corrections holds approximately 2,500 people in solitary confinement on any given day, many of them for years at a time."
Ten Extra Years Spent On Death Row
In 2001, US District Court Judge William Yohn first "overturned" Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence, ruling that for a death sentence to be reinstated, the Philadelphia District Attorney must first hold a sentencing-phase jury trial, where the jury could only decide between execution or life without parole. The DA immediately appealed this ruling, in an effort to execute Abu-Jamal without bringing him to court before a jury in Philadelphia.
Following Yohn's 2001 ruling, Abu-Jamal could have been transferred from solitary confinement on death row at SCI Greene, and into general population. If transferred, he would have had more freedom, including contact visits with family and friends. However, Judge Yohn granted the motion by the DA to keep Abu-Jamal in punitive conditions on death row while the DA appealed Yohn's ruling. As a result, Abu-Jamal stayed on death row during an appeals process that lasted almost ten years, a process that has now upheld the sentence's removal.
In March 2008, the US Third Circuit Court affirmed Yohn's 2001 ruling, but in January 2010, the US Supreme Court vacated the 2008 ruling and remanded it back to the Third Circuit. In April 2011, the Third Circuit affirmed the 2001 ruling for the second time. Finally, in October 2011, the DA's final attempt to challenge the decision was rejected by the US Supreme Court, and in December the DA officially accepted the life sentence.
Fighting for Mumia's Release
While Abu-Jamal and his international network of supporters celebrated the final overturning of the death sentence, it was a bittersweet victory for a movement that has long fought for his release. In 2008 when the Third Circuit first affirmed Yohn's 2001 ruling, the Court also ruled against a new guilt-phase trial, effectively ended that avenue of appeal for Abu-Jamal to be released from prison.