communication through bars is revolutionary

Today I was reading about Mutulu Shakur, who has spent over 30 years in prison, when I came across the following piece of information: Dr. Shakur was denied parole in one hearing solely because he participated in a phone call on speakerphone with a professor and their students. In essence, the act of speaking to people in an educational context became the reason that he was seen as a danger to society.

photograph of Dr. Mutulu Shakur in the sun against a concrete wall

Dr. Mutulu Shakur, August 2016

Dr. Shakur is the stepfather of Tupac Shakur and has served 32 years in federal prison for his involvement in a bank robbery which resulted in the deaths of 3 people and involvement in the escape of Assata Shakur. Shakur was denied mandatory parole in 2016 (after serving 30 years as a peaceful prisoner) and has currently initiated a lawsuit against the federal government.

For the last 3 years I have met with other local people twice a month to write letters to people in prison. This work has many critical aspects, some of which are immediately obvious, and others which are less so. Perhaps another day I can write more about the importance of writing a letter in the spirit of solidarity to a person who is literally living in a cage, and about the important and meaningful friendships that have grown from those letters. What I’m thinking about this afternoon is the way this work keeps me connected to the many shocking injustices of the prison system, and how much I continue to learn from it.

It’s worth reading the whole list of horrifying reasons Dr. Shakur was denied parole put together by his support committee. Apparently a prisoner cannot refer to themselves as a victim of COINTELPRO, although it is indisputably factually correct, if they want to ever be considered for parole, because referring to their victimization by the FBI makes them likely to reoffend.

Regarding the public phone call, no one disagrees that Mutulu called a professor who placed the call on speaker phone so that other faculty and students could listen to his comments. The problem is that the prison and parole board have not ever cited a rule that was violated by such a phone call, nor was anyone ever informed of such a rule (and how heinous is the idea of such a rule?). From the support committee summary:

“The February 2013 brief phone call, fully monitored, was the sole basis for rejecting the Parole Commission’s Hearing Examiner’s recommendation that Dr. Shakur be paroled in early 2015. No one has ever explained why any rule was violated or shown that Dr. Shakur or any other inmate has been informed that allowing someone to place his or her phone on a speaker is a rule violation.”

In this case, the mere act of speaking to others outside the prison walls becomes reason enough for continued loss of civil rights. Even the apparent involvement of Danny Glover at the event was not enough public pressure to turn the tide (or perhaps that’s exactly what irritated the parole board enough to cause the retaliation). The message is that prisoners can and will be punished for communicating with people outside of prison in public ways. But even so, it’s shocking to see that the prison has so much control that it does not need to provide any justification for this, even in such a high profile case.

This case and details are not only a good lesson on how the prison works, but they touch close to the local work we do, too. I sent Mutulu a birthday card last year, and received a nice note back. I’ve participated in similar phone calls myself at public talks given on campus, as an audience member, and have considered organizing these kinds of events as well. And another reason for Dr. Shakur’s parole denial is one that we deal with regularly: how to close a letter.

“Mutulu often signs off his letters with the words ‘Stiff Resistance’ and this indicates he may once again engage in violent crimes if released.”

The Hearing Examiner stated:

“The Commission not only finds these statements incompatible with the goals and conditions of parole supervision, but also concludes they are evidence that you have not disavowed yourself from the same set of beliefs you had when you were convicted …”

What is noticeable here is that the Commission looked past literally volumes of public statements and writing made by someone that would clarify and provide clear context on what they are thinking, in this case an explicit disavowal of violence as a means toward social change, and instead focused on a two word salutation and decided to interpret it in a vacuum. They will, it seems from their own statement, accept nothing less than a disavowal of all the political beliefs Dr. Shakur had when he was convicted. In other words, they are not looking for him (or other prisoners) to disavow violence or certain actions, but rather to disavow political resistance entirely. They are looking for complete submission, even in letter salutations.

But prisoners also demonstrate their refusal to submit and their continued meaningful political resistance precisely through communicating with us. It’s a way of maintaining their selves, their dignity, and their humanity inside of an institution that is specifically designed to strip them of all of that. Mutulu uses “stiff resistance;” another friend of our group, Sean Swain uses “stay dangerous” and has mounted three campaigns for governor while on the inside. Communication beyond bars is a radical tool or it would not be punished so radically. And if this is the punishment that occurs in a high profile case like Mutulu Shakur’s, with a website, support committee, and some connection to Danny Glover, one should imagine much more arbitrary denials and worse repression that occurs among the rest of the prison population.

Prisoners take enormous risks in simply communicating with us. As people who walk freely on the outside, it’s essential not to forget, underestimate, or waste these risks, and to understand that they are precisely how we know our work is revolutionary and meaningful.

prison_birds_hearts

 

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