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Mumia Abu-Jamal May Be Off Death Row, But His Torture Continues In the 'Hole'

Bret Grote of the Human Rights Coalition discusses Mumia Abu-Jamal and the crime of solitary confinement.
 
 
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In this interview we speak with Bret Grote of Human Rights Coalition. HRC, according to its Web site, is “a group of predominately prisoners’ families, ex-prisoners and some supporters,” whose “ultimate goal is to abolish prisons.” Learn more at www.hrcoalition.org.

Prison Radio: Supporters of Mumia Abu-Jamal argue that his current time in the hole is a form of retaliation for his being a longtime political activist. In his recent article, “ Sadism in the Cell: Thanks to a Vindictive Prison System, Abu-Jamal is Still in ‘The Hole,’” Linn Washington Jr. contextualizes recent events by documenting a long history of repression, ultimately arguing that “while Abu-Jamal detractors indignantly dismiss all claims of his being a political prisoner, his post-arrest ordeals provide a compelling case of a person specifically targeted by authorities for who he is politically more than for the crime he is supposedly serving time for.” 

Why do you think it is that Mumia is currently being held in administrative custody?

Bret Grote: In regard to Mumia, the inference should always be that the government is targeting him because of his politics due to the more than forty years that federal agents, Philadelphia police and prosecutors, governors of Pennsylvania, and prison officials have been conspiring to silence him. The current rationales offered by prison officials for his placement in solitary confinement do not withstand scrutiny, which lends further support to the inference that he is continuing to be targeted.

First, they asserted that they were waiting for the filing of paperwork by the district attorney’s office of Philadelphia so that his sentence would be formally changed from death to life without the possibility of parole. According to information available on the DOC’s Web site, however, all death-sentenced prisoners are held on death row at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene or SCI Graterford. Abu-Jamal was removed from death row virtually as soon as Philadelphia DA Seth Williams announced he would not seek to re-impose the death penalty. If the prison were in fact waiting for a formal re-sentencing prior to placement in general population, Mumia would still be on death row.

Second, they have recently decided that his hair exceeds the regulatory length and that he needs this cut. It took them five weeks to notify him of this. Obviously, the length of Mumia’s hair was not unknown to prison officials. In fact, he was held on disciplinary status while on death row earlier during his confinement for eight years, although he was removed from that status -- without cutting his hair -- in the early '90s at some point.

The shifting rationales indicate that they are digging their heels in and seem prepared to try to continue subjecting Mumia to solitary confinement torture, which has been his fate for thirty years.

It is important to note that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has  recently declared that, in his opinion, prolonged solitary confinement of more than fifteen days violates article 1 (prohibiting torture) or 16 (prohibiting other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. He further stated that the Convention is violated when solitary confinement is imposed as punishment. These standards applied to U.S. prisons renders the overwhelming majority of solitary confinement practices criminal.

PR: Can you please tell us more about how PA Prisons use solitary confinement and what are called “Restrictive Housing Units.” How is it used? Against whom? Are there other examples of solitary confinement punishment being used to retaliate against political activists?

BG: While the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA DOC) operates in a seemingly arbitrary nature, there are some factors that place prisoners at high risk for being kept in long-term solitary confinement: 1) political activism and jailhouse lawyering; 2) race; and 3) mental illness.