A national faith coalition wants federal officials to release incarcerated Black liberation movement elder Dr. Mutulu Shakur. The move comes as Shakur has been given less than six months to live as he battles a terminal cancer diagnosis and other ailments, including two bouts of COVID-19.
Hundreds of faith leaders signed an open letter to officials with the Department of Justice, Bureau of Prison and United States Parole Commission urging the dying elder’s release. Calling for government officials to recognize the values of redemption and salvation, the faith coalition said that keeping Shakur locked up serves no valid public purpose.
“Our request is in no way meant to denigrate the victims’ families or ignore the loss of life,” read the letter. “It is our belief that Mr. Shakur has been more than adequately punished for those acts. The continued incarceration of this terminally ill senior citizen serves no useful purpose as Mr. Shakur represents absolutely no threat to public safety.”
The coalition also noted that per the Bureau of Prison’s PATTERN risk assessment tool, Shakur was in the lowest possible risk category.
Faith leaders rally in Washington, D.C., to demand Shakur’s release
Lack of federal action could convert Shakur’s sentence to a death sentence, given the advanced nature of his disease. Faith leaders, legal advocates and supporters will rally Wednesday morning at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C., calling for the 71-year-olds release.
Planned speakers include the founder of the Ladies of Hope Ministries, Dr. Topeka Sam, Plymouth United Church of Christ Senior Pastor Rev. Graylan Scott and professor Karanja Kieta Carroll of First Pilgrim Baptist Church in Deleware. Faith leaders will join friends and family of Shakur and leaders from the legal community, including human rights attorney Nkechi Taifa and Ben Crump.
“Dr. Mutulu Shakur should be granted immediate compassionate release so that he can be home with his family and loved ones and NOT DIE in prison,” Sam told NewsOne.
The faith coalition’s letter highlights Shakur’s contributions to public health, creating an acupuncture detoxication program in the South Bronx. As NewsOne reported earlier this month, Shakur worked alongside the Young Lords and other groups to transform the Lincoln Detox program into a space of healing and positivity, not the usual stigma and disdain attached to treating those with substance use issues.
Refusing to release Shakur is about politics, not justice
Speaking with NewsOne, Maria Fernandez of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement recounted the many times the Free Mutulu Now campaign has tried to secure the aging healer’s release.
“It’s important to know that he has served his time,” she said. “It’s the same judge who first sent him to prison that continues to deny his release. “We know that this is political.”
Fernandez said there is no legitimate reason to keep a dying elder locked away from his family. Scholar-activist Dr. Akinyele Umoja previously told NewsOne that the reasons given for denying Shakur parole, despite his eligibility, have been his continued advocacy for human rights in the U.S. and aboard. Umoja and Fernandez both pointed to his record of model behavior while incarcerated.
According to Umoja, the only infraction Shakur has in his file relates to a discussion he was a part of with a California University class and actor Danny Glover in which the elder organizer discussed the need for a Truth and Reconciliation process similar to South Africa.
Fernandez said this is also about politics and not justice because of the continued detention of elders in federal prisons despite their eligibility for release.
“For elders like Baba Mutulu, for other political prisoners, who are caught in this old law/sentencing guidelines, we have to do something,” she said.” We have to intervene because we’re losing our elders behind the walls. Again, this is political.”
“Old law” offenders are vulnerable and often without recourse in the federal system
Brad Thomson, an attorney with the People’s Law Office in Chicago, has represented Shakur since 2020. He told NewsOne that Shakur’s status as someone incarcerated under “old law” had complicated the requests for release.
“At the time of his sentence, there was mandatory parole,” Thomson explained. “So that means that at 30 years, he should have been granted parole, and the U.S. Parole Commission denied him in spite of that.”
Many have long been eligible for parole, but the agency that oversees their release refuses to let them go in most cases. Despite various reforms of the criminal legal system, including the First Step Act, people sentenced in the federal system before November 1987 are in a limbo status.
“According to the U.S. government’s attorneys, that does not apply to people like Dr. Shakur and other old law prisoners who have been in prison since 1987 or before,” Thomson said. “We oppose that position.”
Thomson and his colleagues first filed a request for compassionate relief at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, citing Shakur’s diminished health and cancer diagnosis as well as his risk of COVID. The Bureau of Prison denied the request, as did the original sentencing judge in Shakur’s case.
The judge denied Shakur’s first request for compassionate relief in November 2020. Despite having a cancer diagnosis, other illnesses, and the risk of COVID-19, the judge determined that the need to release Shakur wasn’t imminent at that time. The denial of compassionate release came four years after Shakur first became eligible for parole.
“Individuals who have been in prison since 1987, or before are necessarily going to be some of the oldest prisoners, and some of the people that are facing the greatest risk of serious health issues, and who are most likely to be facing death like Dr. Shakur is right now,” Thomson said.
Given the progression of Shakur’s cancer and updated prognosis of less than six months to live, Thomson and his colleagues again filed for compassionate release. Compassionate release requests are rarely approved, even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thomson said they are not asking for an extraordinary remedy or favor from the government or the courts. This is about simply applying existing law.
“The issue before them is there’s a 71-year-old man who faces no threat, should he be released, and he is dying of terminal cancer,” Thomson said. “We’re not asking for anything outside the realm of what the law designs and is structured. And while we recognize that Dr. Shakur was convicted of very serious crimes, and he received a significant sentence. He did not receive a death sentence.”