Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Journalism in hell
by Staff on June 10th, 2009 at 10:45 AM
By Mumia Abu-Jamal

While a young reporter for a local NPR affiliate, housing was my beat.

In a city which was the oldest in the United States, there were no 
shortages of housing issues, for Philadelphia’s housing stock seemed in 
a permanent state of disrepair, especially in those sections of the city 
where Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and poor ethnic whites lived.

But which stories shimmer in the rear-view mirror of memory, brighter 
than the rest?

Although I reported in several sections of the city, many of those have 
sunk below the ocean of time. An exception was the rent protest by 
residents of a dwelling in Southwest Philadelphia, a place I drove by 
for years, but never entered, until it became my job.

The exterior was attractive and distinctive, and set apart from its 
neighbors by the decorative mouldings and mortar-work which told of 
another age of its construction, when builders were artisans, who took 
time not merely to build, but to make the building beautiful.

When I got a call from a contact of the impending strike, I rushed out 
there and finally entered the building.

The conditions therein made me gasp. Ceilings were dangerously drooping 
over children’s living quarters, plumbing was backed up, and the general 
conditions of lack of repair made the building a threat to all of its 

As I met with the leaders of the strike, their fury was evident.

When I think back on the story years later, it dawned on me that 
housing, per se, wasn’t the issue.

Resistance was. That’s what gave the story the meaning, for it 
represented everyday, working-class people standing up to the injustice 
of unfair and improper living conditions.

Years later, while in the churning swells of the American House of Pain 
(prison), this would be my beat.

There are tens of thousands of people in these places, and therefore, 
tens of thousands of stories.

I have never had a shortage of them.

Sometimes, it’s the cases which brought a man to this place, and more 
often than not, the procedures by which this occurred.

Like the making of sausages, the American legal process is a messy and 
ugly thing when one inspects closely.

I’ve written of unjust and improper prosecutions, harrowing brutality, 
stunning institutional boneheadedness, and cruelty that would curdle milk.

In 1995, I was institutionally sanctioned for “engaging in the business 
of journalism.” It took years of legal wrangling, including sitting in a 
courtroom for several weeks, in shackles so tight that one’s ankles were 
swollen and bleeding, to finally prevail on the principle that the U.S. 
constitution’s 1st Amendment protected such activity, but it was well 
worth the battle (the case was: Abu-Jamal v. Price).

For years, writing a story meant, quite literally, writing a story. With 
an ink pen. On a legal pad. Sometimes with a 4-inch long flex-pen (this 
is a pen which has in inner tube of an ink pen, but the shaft is 
composed of see-through rubber, with a rubber cap at both ends, one 
allowing the 1/2–centimeter tip to protrude). It has been likened to 
writing with a wet noodle. Two of my books were written with these 
instruments, and then sent out to be typed by friends or editors.

The computer age has not yet dawned on the prison system (at least in 
Pennsylvania). I am often amused when I receive letters from people, who 
include, quite innocently and helpfully, their e-mail addresses, or 
their websites. For it tells me that they actually think I have a 
computer—here—in the cell, or perhaps computer (or web) access.


Not only are there no PCs in here; there are no Ipods, no CDs, no 
cassette tapes! (even though cassette-ready tape players are for sale in 
the prison commissary!).

We are, for all intents and purposes, dinosaurs, who live in another 
age, at another warp and woof of time, from the millions who dwell without.

Recently, a man named Amin (Harold Wilson) who won a retrial and 
acquittal from several unjust murder convictions, was ordered released 
after almost 2 decades on death row. He left the county prison in 
Philadelphia, with all his earthly possessions in a trash bag, and a bus 
token. A local country prisoner, a Puerto Rican brother, released at the 
same time, saw the look of loss on his face, and offered him his cell 
phone. Amin squinted at the machine, tiny in his fist, and asked, “What 
do I do with this?” He had absolutely no idea how to operate this 
strange thing, for he had never seen nor held one before.

He later told me “My it looked like something straight outta Star Trek!”

Sometimes, stories come, unbidden, and unwanted.

Several months ago, a funny and well-liked jailhouse lawyer on the Row, 
named Bill Tilley, tired from his years of butting his head against the 
grey, judicial walls, and fearful that his emergent health problems were 
a prelude to cancer, got up early in the morning, used his laces from 
his sneakers, and fashioned a noose, by threading them through the steel 
grate mesh of the air-vents into the cell.

He hung himself.

After his passing, the scuttlebutt was that he did indeed have cancer, 
but medical staff did not disclose this fact, for, as a death row 
prisoner, the state wouldn’t waste money on such a patient who was going 
to die anyway.

Several weeks before his death, Tilley confided to a few friends that he 
suspected it was cancer, given the severity of his symptoms, but whether 
it was, or not, it was so painful that he remarked, “I don’t 
ever—ever—wanna go through that again!”

What we didn’t know was that he was telling us, in the only way he 
could, of his suicide plans, back then. Perhaps he was saying, in so 
many words, that he didn’t fear death, but did fear pain.

His death took place less than 35 feet from the cell door in which these 
words are written. I broke the story. But it gave me no pleasure.

There are tens of thousands of stories in this House of Pain, and I have 
written hundreds of them.

This is my hidden beat, one that even the most intrepid of journalists 
cannot enter.

Yet, it is my beat.

And I intend to do this job with the same thoroughness, the same 
professionalism, as I did in days of yon.

For, though this is a hidden world, one not seen by millions, it is, 
too, a public world, for it is bought and paid for with the tax dollars 
of the citizenry.

Shouldn’t they know what their investments have purchased?

Several times a month, in written form, or otherwise (as in books of 
commentaries) I offer this service, to the best of my ability.

I fight against being here, but I am here. And while here, the beat goes on.


Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote this article for Reporters Without Borders on May 
23 from his prison cell on death row in Pennsylvania.