Political prisoners? The U.S. emperor has no clothes

By Julia Wright
May 11, 2023

Julia Wright

A delegation from the UN Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement (UN EMLER) visited the United States between April 24 and May 5, 2023, to review the status quo of law enforcement and police brutality in advance of the third commemoration of the murder of George Floyd – a murder which led to UN EMLER’s inception.

This visit should be viewed not as an isolated event but as the tip of the iceberg of decades of work by relentless abolitionist spokespersons, NGOs and civil organizations, for the ever-larger segments of our society increasingly subjected to racism, police brutality and mass incarceration. [This article] will focus on April 26, the day the delegation spent in Atlanta, Georgia., listening to testimony on the school-to-prison pipeline from Mothers Against Police Brutality; on forced labor and solitary confinement at Angola Prison; on political prisoners and on access to justice. [It included] the panel where political prisoners or their spokespersons were heard in front of the former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Prof. Juan E. Méndez and Dr. Tracie Keesee, formerly of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a DOJ project. Justice Yvonne Mokgoro was absent, due to ill health.

The political prisoner panel is the fruition of decades of tireless exchange with the United Nations by groups such as the Malcolm X Center for Self Determination, headed by Efia Nwangaza and Kwame Osagyefo Kalimara, the Malcolm X Center for Self-Determination, the UN Anti-Racism Coalition headed by Salimah Hankins, Esq. and Kerry McLean, [and] the Southern Poverty Center. To measure the historical importance of the voices of U.S. political prisoners being heard on an international platform in the context of the United States today, it is helpful to explore seven aspects of the status of U.S. political imprisonment that render it “invisible” in the very country whose culture is marked by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and by Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Lived Underground” and “The Outsider.”


The seven C’s of our political prisoners   

Onewe cannot speak of political prisoners without speaking of J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal secret brainchild: COINTELPRO. Ironically, its existence was discovered just as illegally, thanks to a break-in to the FBI headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania, in 1971 by a group of inspired anti-war resisters.

What was discovered there was no more nor less than Hoover’s motivation for either assassinating Black youth or creating political prisoners: the pure and simple  elimination of Black radical leadership. Paradoxically, as our history shows, the political assassinations that followed – from Martin Luther King Jr. to Fred Hampton Sr. – only served to further galvanize Black leadership. As for the political prisoners caught in the net of COINTELPRO – from Mumia Abu-Jamal to Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin – their courage and uprightness behind bars only increased their aura as radical Black leaders.

Hoover’s “mission” has been discredited not only by the Church Committee but by its historic failure, as we never failed to draw the lessons from his criminal enterprise. We know that COINTELPRO has its heirs – legal ones, this time – but this will not deter us from the same exposure.

Two, a syndrome that I would call for want of better words “a no-clothes syndrome.”

To the extent that the state resembles [Hans Christian] Anderson’s emperor who preferred appearances to the truth as long as it suited his mercantile narcissism and will to power, the U.S. government refuses to admit it has “no clothes,” i.e., political prisoners or indeed prisoners of war. Because that would render the seat of power vulnerable and naked to exposure.

And it would be acknowledging the presence of a liberation movement of the kind it is so used to suppressing, or overthrowing with impunity, in vassal states outside its borders. Also because the recognition of the status of political prisoners or POWs would imply their decarceration and treatment under the special conditions stipulated by the Geneva Convention.

In other words, the de facto existence of U.S. political prisoners must be covered up because they are too close to home, to the head of power. Finally, ahead of arms, cars and Hollywood films, the number one export of the United States to the world is the myth of its perfect “democracy.” However, if the U.S. had to admit that they had their own political prisoners just as the governments they accuse of totalitarianism do, this myth would have “no clothes” to speak of.

Three, what better way to cover up or camouflage the existence of political prisoners than to make them wear a mask – a one-size mask meant to fit all of them – “criminalization.”  They are not political since they are “criminals.” Or rather, protest and dissension are criminalized.

Instances abound: Fred Hampton? They did it to themselves, as all those Black gangs do. Mumia Abu-Jamal? COINTELPRO could not find a criminal record for him (they admit as much), so words Mumia said after returning from Fred Hampton’s crime scene were taken out of context to carry a criminal intent.

Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt? The typical invisible man – he was made out to be on the scene of a crime where he was not. Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin? Another man confessed, but that messed up the prosecution’s scenario. The young eco-defenders in Weelaunee Forest? They are charged with “domestic terrorism” because, let’s see, their clothes were muddy.

My father, Richard Wright, had a maternal grandfather who was a runaway slave. I am in an ongoing conversation with Sister Dr. Janine Jones about political prisoners and slavery. We both agree that the first political prisoners in the United States were the runaway slaves who dared think outside the box of the plantation and who acted on it: if they were caught, they were criminalized for robbing their masters of the property their bodies represented.

Four, once captured and placed behind bars for the rest of their life, which means death by incarceration without rehabilitation time or space, these state-manufactured “criminals” continue to turn the tables on the prison system by showing a phenomenal and exemplary power of resilience and ability to make contributions to their prison and the community at large.

The April 26 testimony given in front of the UN EMLER delegation was a moving moment of tribute to these creative and selfless contributions.

We know of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s jail lawyering and 14 books, often curriculum prescribed, as he prepares a PhD. His intent upon release is to open a school “and teach freedom.”  But we have heard, perhaps less, that Dr. Mutulu Shakur, who has already given so much of himself in the domain of acupuncture, wrote a treaty on Truth and Reconciliation as applied to U.S. freedom fighters based on the original Mandela and Tutu concept — a document remitted once again this April 26 by the indefatigable Efia Nwangaza to the panel.

The psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik recalls that what kept him alive in his death camp during World War II was to be able to touch the manuscript he had just finished and pinned into the lining of his jacket.

As for Major Tillery – who alerted the prison he shared with Mumia Abu-Jamal when Mumia lay in a [diabetic] coma and was near death – he was switched in retaliation to SCI Chester, Pennsylvania, where he presented a plan for a Life Enhanced Elder Center. This plan was approved (!) by John Wetzel, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and is now implemented in Major’s prison and in other facilities.

Veronza Bowers’ wind instrument playing is hauntingly beautiful.

As for Ruchell Magee, Angela Davis testified in front of the UN EMLER for him, stating: “In my memory, Ruchell is the very first person to identify the historical connection between prison and slavery and thus has occasioned much research on this topic.”

Meanwhile, in the wings of the UN panel, we heard on the Youtube channel RSTV the testimony of released Pennsylvania prisoner Sam Randolph, whose persistent refusal to plead guilty – because he knew he was innocent – as well as his generous jailhouse lawyering led to the breaking of his spine by guards while he was shackled. (tinyurl.com/2p93rhuc) Often, political prisoners pay a heavy, torturous price for what they offer to the collectivity.

Five, these so-called criminals, for the very reason that they are often jailhouse lawyers and because of their political or politicized thinking, become doubly dangerous once behind bars because they can bear witness to what goes on there: they are the carriers of forbidden knowledge.

They have seen the underbelly of the American Dream, and if they have the courage to write about it or, once released, reveal the anecdotes of how they resisted and pass these anecdotes on – they are in double jeopardy. Their prison narrative – our contemporary slave narrative – is the most banned book of all.

Six, because the captivity imposed on these human beings is unjust and creates both creative contributions but also resistance, these prisoners are considered as rebels and are subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. In this connection, it is significant that in her testimony for Magee, Angela Davis said: “He has spent his entire late teenage life behind bars. He has been subjected to a virtual death sentence or what is now referred to as death by incarceration. A number of groups have suggested that this is tantamount to torture and it is clear that the sentence of life without the possibility of parole is one of the numerous ways in which human rights have been systematically violated.” You can read the complete text of the letter sent by RAPP, ALC, ACLU and other NGOs to the United Nations in September 2022 at tinyurl.com/2waywdpj.

Another aspect of torture is the forceful invasion of physical integrity. Physical integrity is compromised, for instance, when a prisoner chooses to go on a hunger strike and their body is invaded by force feeding, including by rectal passage or deliberately, through the nose. Solitary confinement, of the kind used against the mentally challenged Black young man, Lashawn Thompson, who died devoured by insects and bugs the very week of the UN EMLER’s visit to the U.S., is torture.

Strip searches also compromise bodily integrity when they are made with intent to humiliate, degrade and deliberately wound. Giving birth in shackles is documented throughout the prisons of our country. Gladiator fights –  guard-provoked fights between rival prisoner groupings during which the guards shoot to kill – have been recently documented in California prisons: (workers.org/2023/05/70710/)  Impacted families suffer from anxiety, depression and PTSD. There is an impacted family-to-prison pipeline.

Seven, and yet in spite of a state-imposed will to divide the prisoners from their families and to Balkanize the prisoners’ support committees among themselves, the April 26, 2023, panel of testimony only reminded us of the connectivity between the political prisoners’ campaigns. I recall my visit to Mumia on death row when he, of his own volition, terminated our visit fifteen minutes early: “Now go visit Russell Maroon Shoatz. He will tell you his story.”

Just as I was finishing this piece I received the link of Mumia’s latest commentary

in support of Mutulu Shakur, who is on medical release and hospitalized because his chemotherapy has been failing: (tinyurl.com/2p9ctvht)

This is the spirit of Mumia, which leads the abolitionists in the Mumia coalition to take prisoners other than him under their wing. A victory for the Mumia coalition, on April 26, was the collaboration between longtime Mumia and Major Tillery supporter Cindy Lou Miller, Efia Nwangaza and me to include testimony on the panel from Major Tillery, thanks to Brother Masai of the National Jericho Movement.

Similarly, the UN Mumia Liaison group that I initiated after Judge [Lucretia] Clemons signified her pre-written intent to dismiss Mumia’s claims on Oct. 26, 2022 – intent she made good on March 31, 2023 – decided to offer a submission to the UN EMLER not only on behalf of Mumia but also in defense of Ruchell Magee, and we invited Angela Davis to speak on his behalf. We have Dr. Michael Schiffmann to thank for the research in the only book written on Ruchell, which is by a German historian and remains untranslated. We submitted on behalf of Ruchell because, as Dr. Schiffmann says, “He is on the other end of the spectrum of international attention.”

Similarly, a direct collaboration from cell to cell between iconic prisoners – Jalil Muntaqim, Ruchell Magee and the late Geronimo Pratt – is described by Dr. Joy James and Kalonji Changa in their recent article, “Slave Rebel or Citizen,” in Inquest. (inquest.org)  In a recent message I sent to Mumia, I wrote: “To paraphrase the late poet and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, political prisoners inter-be.”

In closing, it is interesting to note that Prof. Mendez, who listened to testimony throughout the day, was a lawyer who defended political prisoners under Argentina’s dictatorship, and was himself tortured before he became the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. In that capacity, after visiting a number of U.S. prisons, he found that, past the 15th day, solitary confinement is torture. (tinyurl.com/4yprb9dy)

The delegation will present its findings in a final report to the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council, September through October 2023.

The context of the April 26 visit of the UN EMLER delegation – a stone’s throw away from the unbuilt foundations of cop city, in a divided Atlanta reeling from the report that [environmental activist] Tortuguita was shot 57 times and that Carolyn Bryant Donham transitioned surrounded by loved ones after 32,120 days of a free privileged life while an arrest warrant against her for the kidnapping of Emmett Till had remained unserved since 1955 – only added to essential testimony for elderly political prisoners kidnaped from their loved ones and sentenced to die alone.

(C) Julia Wright. May 4, 2023

The Richard Wright Civil Rights Center, Elaine, Arkansas

The UN Mumia Liaison Group