Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia Interview on Ralph Nader Radio Hour

This is Mumia Abu-Jamal. You’re listening to the Ralph Nader Radio Hour. Enjoy.

Ralph Nader: Hello everybody. Today we have the controversial case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, what it says about our criminal justice system, and what it says about how he used his life for over 40 years to communicate week by week, to people all over the world. 

Host Steve Screvan: Yes, today we pay tribute to Mumia Abu-Jamal as he approaches his seventieth birthday. Forty-two of those years have been spent in a Pennsylvania state prison. And twenty-nine and a half of those in solitary confinement on death row. Abu-Jamal was a journalist and one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Black Panther Party. As a journalist throughout the 1970s, he had been extremely critical of the infamous Mayor Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia Police Department. On a fateful evening in 1981, Abu-Jamal was found at the scene of a shooting in downtown Philadelphia. Despite a plethora of conflicting and recanted testimony, dubious assertions of a confession, racial bias, and shaky forensic evidence, he  was convicted of the killing of a police officer and sentenced to death. That death sentence was overturned 30 years later when a judge determined that there were too many inconsistencies in the original sentencing process. 

He remains a prisoner for life without the possibility of parole, yet has maintained his innocence and his journalistic career behind bars, penning numerous books, including Live from Death RowDeath Blossoms: Reflections from a Prisoner of Conscience, and Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on Black Life in America, while also doing regular commentary on Prison Radio. Due to the conditions of his incarceration, we will not be able to speak to Mumia directly, although we did record some questions for him, for which he was able to record some answers for us.

Ralph Nader: I’d like to ask Mumia his comments on the commercialization of state and federal prisons, as well as the spread of corporate owned prisons. I mention the former because the telephone companies, for example, have made a horrendous profit on charging prisoners to make phone calls to their family, and there are a lot of aspects of publicly owned prisons that have been commercialized.

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Ralph, I remember, fondly actually, Elliot Spitzer, who was the Governor of New York several years ago. When he got elected, one of the first things he did was order that all phone charges be localized across New York State. So for a guy calling from a prison in the far North of New York State, making a call to Brooklyn, Bronx, or Harlem, it’d be a local call. So, you know, the phone company didn’t like it, but this was the law. He was the Governor. And no matter, you know, the little problems he had, and his removal, I always thought that was pretty cool what he did, and I’m sure that guys up in New York felt the same thing. 

But you know, if you look at profiteering in prison, phones are a small matter, and the real issue I think we should think about is the cost of prisons in terms of the dollars that people pay through their taxes. And one thing, get a grip on it, billions of dollars are paid in prisons and most of that money goes to wages for rural people, you know, due to the Crime Bill years ago, and to subsidize the building of prisons across the country. 

I thought about it and I said, it’s a white rural employment program, and I think that’s just the truth of the matter. And I thought he (Bill Clinton) was using this as a political ploy to try to get rural people to think of democrats in a new way. It didn’t work out. When I heard it and thought about it, it just made the issue of prison abolition more clear. There’s the real dollars and the real profiteering. The average guard makes about $60,000, and I knew a guard here at this jail. She’s now retired. She made almost $100,000 a year. I mean, you know, come on. It’s crazy.    

Ralph Nader: ¿To what extent have you been able, Mumia,  to connect with fellow prisoners where you’re incarcerated and other prisoners, often called political prisoners, in other prisons and penitentiaries around the country?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Well, I talk to them and walk with them in the yard if they want to walk fast. I sometimes teach the brothers around me. As for other brothers who are like political prisoners in other jails, it’s real difficult to communicate with them because the mail is really censored. And, you know, guys will write here and I don’t get it, and they’re not going to get that mail.  

Host Steve Screvan: I hope this is not too obvious, but when you see and read about the trials of Donald Trump, and see how the courts and the legal system treat him, and in particular his plea for absolute immunity to commit crimes, for a man who said he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and get away with it, what do you have to say about that, and how does that make you feel? 

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Steve, you know, I love it when I hear so-called conservatives talking about two tiers of justice. Justice, if anything, is at least three tiers – one tier for white people, another tier for black folks, and a third tier for the very rich. Now guess who gets the sweetest deals? I mean look, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, right? If you’re rich in this country, you can get every break that you can afford. You can get the best justice, the best lawyers, and they will fight wars.

Co-host David Feldman: Mumia, prisoners in America are not allowed to vote. Could you tell us how civic-minded prisoners actually are? And why giving them the vote would be a net positive for both Democrats and Republicans?

Mumia Abu-Jamal: David, you asked about the right of prisoners to vote. Now I think all prisoners should at least be given the opportunity to vote. If you think about it, if prisoners could have voted back during the 2000 Bush war election,   Gore would have won, for Bush certainly would have lost.   For in that state of Florida, which was very very close by several hundred votes, if prisoners had been able to vote, I think there would have been a different result. But there are some states, by the way, that I believe allow prisoners to vote—Idaho, Vermont, I believe. And think about South Africa post-apartheid. Prisoners can vote in South Africa. But why of all the 50 states, would Idaho or Vermont allow prisoners to vote? If you look at who’s in those states, I think that answers the question. 

Think about this. One of the issues and demands and protests sparking the American Revolution was “taxation without representation.”  Right? Well guess what? When prisoners use the phone or go to the commissary, every item you buy, every call you make, is taxed. So what about taxation without representation in this so-called democracy, where every voice should be heard and every person should be allowed the opportunity to vote? 

Guest: Mumia, what are your thoughts on the latest developments in Gaza, and specifically South Africa’s genocide case at the International Court of Justice? 

Mumia Abu-Jamal:  Francesco (That’s a great name by the way. I look South.) but you asked about Gaza. And I think it’s just and fair that the country formerly known as the apartheid state objects to the newer apartheid state. The late Desmond Tutu visited Israel and recognized apartheid when he saw it. You know, he had spent most of his life under apartheid. He knew it very well. He said, “If the Palestinians had a little more color, if they were black people instead of light brown people, it would be very very clear to see what was happening. 

In South Africa, they know something about apartheid. They also know something about genocide. At least that’s true in Southern Africa where there was a tribe called the Herreros in the early 1900s. 1904 is the exact year, I believe, in what was considered then Southwest Africa. It’s now Namibia. Out of 85,000 Herreros, when the Germans got there, they opened concentration camps and they eradicated a lot of these people. When they left, there were something like 15,000 people out of 85,000. Call it by its name. Every colonized nation has dealt with genocide when the invaders brought conquest, colonialism, or imperialism, and they’re well-placed to make the charge. 

I think Israel knows exactly what it’s doing. In an Op-Ed article of June 24, 2019, placed in the New York Times, an Israeli diplomat, Danny Denon, the Ambassador to the UN, had two suggestions for Palestinian peace: One. They should commit “national suicide.”  Two: They should surrender. Those are the terms of peace announced by Israel in a published article in the Times.  

Guest: Mumia, what were some of your most audacious, petty, ridiculous experiences of censorship producing radio from prison? 

Mumia Abu-Jamal: Anna, I was doing a live report for Democracy Now when I was on Death Row, and I was in the middle of my commentary, when I saw a young blond guard run down the hallway. He yanked the phone cord out of the socket, and immediately the phone went dead. I’m sitting there “Hello, hello, hello!” because I couldn’t believe it! And he just strutted away like he’d fought in a war and done something very heroic.  

Ralph Nader: What would you urge the citizenry to be doing about the whole criminal injustice system in terms of your priorities for change? 

Mumia Abu-Jamal: An important thing. The one thing that stops guys from coming back is education. The most important thing is education, and I would say a deep colonial education, especially in prison.