A push to free movement elders from prison is taking it up a notch on International Human Rights Day. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement organized a virtual celebration to raise awareness around the case of political prisoner Mutulu Shakur as a part of broader efforts to free movement elders.
Friday’s Fête for Freedom brings together a virtual audience to celebrate Shakur’s life and work and encourages people to join the fight for his release. Initially arrested in 1986, the Intercept reported it is over five years since Shakur was first eligible for release.
At 71 years old, Shakur carries multiple diagnoses, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and multiple myeloma, the same rare cancer Colin Powell battled.
Speaking with NewsOne, Monifa Bandele of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement shared that aging prisoners like Shakur are having their requests for compassionate release blocked despite having multiple health issues in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. She pointed to the work of the Release Aging People In Prison (RAPP) campaign as one example of the broader movement to free elderly incarcerated people. Part of RAPP’s mission is to “dismantle the racist policies of mass incarceration by expanding the use of parole, compassionate release, clemency, and other forms of release in New York State.”
Bandele also noted the recent push by Rep. Ayanna Pressley and House Democrats push to introduce a bill that would fix the clemency process. NPR reported the legislation, known as the FIX Clemency Act, would create a nine-member board to review pardon requests instead of the current system of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Anoa Changa: Can you explain to us how this push on behalf of Mutulu Shakur fits within the context of Human Rights Day?
Monifa Bandele: One of the things that we were taught by Malcolm X is that we are in a fight for human rights. We think about civil rights; those are the rights that basically we are able to get access to by being citizens of the United States. But he really stressed and his teachings that there’s global rights that come out of international bodies. And so, one of the things that’s recognized under international law is our political prisoners. It recognizes that if states either incarcerate people because of their political beliefs or even extend the incarceration of people because of their political beliefs, that is a violation of their human rights.
Changa: What is the purpose of the virtual rally, and how does it fit into the campaign and the work you all have been doing so far?
Bandele: Mutulu Shakur is an elder. He comes out of our parent’s generation. He’s been incarcerated since the early 80s. He was underground since the late 70s. But then captured in the early 80s. And he’s sick, like a lot of our elders who are incarcerated. And so this event and this rally is to amplify our requests for compassionate release for Mutulu…And so, we want to make sure that his sentence doesn’t become a death sentence.
He was not sentenced to life in prison. He was supposed to eventually get out. But the parole board has been denying his release over and over again, even though he’s what they call a model prisoner. He is a role model. He’s somebody who mentors young people. He doesn’t have any disciplinary infractions. And so this is going to be an event to highlight the facts of his case, highlight why we believe he should be released, and really put pressure on the Bureau of Prisons and the Biden administration to grant him compassionate release.
The second piece is that he’s had such an exemplary prison record that he has what people call earned good time. So there’s a system in place that came through the passage of the First Step Act, where you’re supposed to your prison time is decreased if you do good time called earned good time. And so he’s calculated all of this earned good time, which if applied, he will be released today. But it’s being blocked. So we’re demanding that they either release him based on his earned good time or give him compassionate release because of his health condition.
Changa: This isn’t the first case that we’ve seen where compassionate release or parole of a movement elder is being blocked, particularly since we’ve been in the pandemic. Can you talk a little more about the broader issue of compassionate release being denied to other elders?
Bandele: As an organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots movement in coalition with the Black Freedom Project was like “Free em,” release these elders…so that they do not become sick and contract COVID. And that basically whatever sentences, they don’t become death sentences.
That was a big fight in many states across the country. And it was amazing how much it was blocked. And so you have to think about if mass incarceration is supposed to be a tool of public safety, and you have these elders who have underlying conditions, so they’re sick or no harm to anyone. Why do the states and federal government insist on continuing to house and incarcerate them, deny their parole, and deny their compassionate release? There’s an economic factor. Because we know these towns and cities have economies that fuel off of prison populations, and there’s a political reason why this kind of continual punishment of prisoners like Mutulu Shakur and others.
Changa: How can people get more involved not just for him but in some of this other work that you’ve described as well?
Bandele: One of the things we’re asking people to do right away is sign his clemency petition to support his compassionate release. We already have well over 50,000 signers. What people need to understand is that the Mutulu Shakur was not only an activist around racial justice but was also a public health activist.
He spearheaded programs at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx that helped detox people from drug abuse that helped to organize people to get the support services they needed if they had drug addictions. And so, he was well ahead of his time when we talk about drug policy reform. And all the organizations seem to now look at public health interventions to drugs as opposed to a criminal justice intervention with the opioid crisis, but Mutulu was talking this back in the 70s.
Soon we’ll be asking people to have their members of Congress sign a letter to the Bureau of Prisons asking for his compassionate release so that he could spend his final days at home with his family.
As far as other prisoners like him, follow the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. We’re working to free Sundiata Acoli; you can get information on Mumia Abu Jamal. There are so many former Black Panthers and members of the Republic of New Africa who are still in prison. And even though we know COINTELPRO targeted them, we know COINTELPRO assassinated them, as people saw with the Fred Hampton movie “Judas and the Black Messiah,” like this is what was done to our parents. And in some of them, the target was to criminalize them, and they’re still in prison. Mumia sat on death row for decades. But it was because of the will of the people that he wasn’t executed back in 1995. So we have power.
Changa: What else should people understand about freeing Mutulu and other political prisoners?
Bandele: This really connects to the larger conversation that we’re having around abolition. So some people say, ‘Oh, you fighting just for these dozen prisoners?’ It’s like, ‘No,’ this is part and parcel of a larger understanding that prisons are a tool of political repression. And so we’re highlighting this showing you there’s a political prisoner, but also that this is a system that needs to be done away with.
And so we have an amazing federal bill that Cory Bush called the people’s response act, where she’s like ‘Okay, you want to talk about community safety? I’m a nurse. I know what makes communities safe is public health. And I want to establish a grant program that will fund states and cities to implement first responders that are medics that are nurses.’ That’s a lot of times what people need when they pick up and call 911.
And it also links back to the work that Mutulu was doing. He was like; it’s a public health crisis. You look at violence. You don’t meet it with violence and militarization. That’s what happens in our community. You go in with care; you go in with public health. You dig to get to the root cause, and you cure it. So that’s something I really want people to understand about Mutulu Shakur, why we do this work and how it ties to the larger movement for Black lives.
Check out the trailer of the new film “Dope is Death” below: