Will black elder Mutulu Shakur die in prison because of ideological intransigence?

Dr. Mutulu Shakur in 2012.

Photo: courtesy of Dr. Shakur’s friends and family

When Mutulu Shakur filed for compassionate release in 2020, the presiding judge told a black liberation elder that he was not close enough to death. At the time, Shakur was 70 years old and had spent almost half of his life in federal prison, where a moribund parole system created endless obstacles to his release.

In 2020, he was ill with hypertension, type 2 diabetes, glaucoma, and the effects of a 2013 stroke while in solitary confinement. He also faced a high risk of severe complications from Covid-19. However, bone marrow cancer was not yet killing him fast enough. The disease was thought to be incurable, but chemotherapy treatment successfully contained it.

Thus, according to then-90-year-old Judge Charles Haight Jr. — the same judge who sentenced Shakur to prison more than three decades ago — a respected and beloved elder who posed no risk to society and had impeccable institutional protections. records, had no right to sympathy.

“If it turns out that Shakur’s condition will worsen further, to the point of approaching death, he may again apply to the court for release, which in the circumstances can be justified as “compassionate,” the judge wrote in his decision.

The referee is still alive and, amazingly, is on the bench. Meanwhile, Shakur is on the verge of death.

Two years later, Haight is still alive and, amazingly, is on the bench. Meanwhile, Shakur is on the verge of death, cancer deprives him of all physical abilities.

Doctors under contract to the Bureau of Prisons gave him less than six months. The prison chaplain advised his family members to come “very soon” to say goodbye. Shakur might not even recognize them.

According to prison staff, he has “hallucinations”, “confusion”, at times “promiscuous”, needs help with all so-called “everyday activities” and “often incontinent”. Details of his condition were revealed by medical professionals and Shakur’s family members in an emergency petition for release on compassionate grounds, which was filed by his lawyers on Sunday.

Shakur weighs 125 pounds and can’t get out of bed. His support team told me that he is currently in the federal prison hospital at FMC Lexington, where “he is too ill to see visitors because his white blood cell count is too low and he is completely immune.” (In response to my request for comment on Shakur’s condition, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons wrote: “For privacy and security reasons, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not discuss information about the conditions of individual prisoners, including medical care. .”)

The time for true compassion – or anything close to justice – is long past for Shakur, known as the stepfather of rapper Tupac and celebrated for providing comprehensive health care and self-determination to the black community in the Bronx in the 1970s. Like most elders of the black liberation movement, the circumstances of Shakur’s conviction were colored by years of all-out government war on the movement. This should not be forgotten, but it is also irrelevant to the current grounds for Shakur’s long overdue release.

Now the question is simply whether the federal penal system, contrary to its own supposed standards, will force a dying person to die behind bars because of ideological intransigence.

Shakur was a member of the Black Nationalist Republic of New Africa, which worked closely with members of the Black Panther Party and New Left activists. He was convicted on racketeering charges along with several black liberators and leftist allies for their part in a 1981 armored truck robbery during which a security guard and two police officers were killed. He was also convicted for helping to escape from Assata Shakur’s prison. He took responsibility for his crimes and repeatedly expressed remorse for the lives lost and pain caused. All of his co-defendants are either freed or dead.

Co-defendant Marilyn Buck, convicted on the same charges as Shakur, was released on compassionate grounds by the Department of Prisons on July 15, 2010. She died of uterine cancer on August 3 of that year.

The brutal standard applied in Buck’s case was the same one the judge used when he denied Shakur’s release two years ago: only return when, like Buck, your only activity outside the prison walls is dying. Shakur has arrived at this tragic place. Anything but immediate release is an abundance of cruelty.

Release of Shakur was blocked by layer upon layer of institutional intransigence and procedural secrets. Even while amount former Black Panthers and other elders of the liberation movement – all of whom have been imprisoned in state prisons for too many decades – have finally been released. grant of parole in recent years, strange quirks of outdated federal regulations, abuse of power, and administrative miscalculations have robbed Shakur of that relief.

Shakur’s legal team has looked at every avenue to get him released, including the federal seniority parole system, the Bureau of Prisons’ compassionate release process, Shakur’s “good time” count in prison, and even the unlikely path of a presidential pardon, all to no avail. .

As a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons wrote in response to my request for comment on its compassionate release petition process: “.

In the federal system, compassionate release decisions are determined by the very court—the very judge—that sentenced the defendant in the first place. The fate of Shakur is once again in the hands of the sentencing judge. Nevertheless, there is hope that Hayt himself had previously written that in the circumstances of “imminent” death, compassionate release “may be justified”. As Shakur’s lawyers note in their motion, “it’s inevitable now.”

Both before and during his imprisonment, Shakur was respected as a mentor and healer. The emergency petition for his release mentions numerous men imprisoned with Shakur, indicating his profound positive impact on their lives.

“I acknowledge Dr. Muthulu Shakur not only as my father, but as the person who changed my way of thinking and saved my life,” wrote Ra Seku Ptah, who was serving a double life sentence plus 30 years of probation. non-violent drug-related crime when he met Shakur. President Barack Obama commuted Ptah’s sentence after he served 20 years. While reporting on the Shakur case last year, I heard several similar stories of mentorship and care from men who were previously imprisoned with a black liberation elder.

The time has passed when Shakur could continue his healing work as a free man. He will not live to see his mandatory 2024 release date. He, as his lawyers note in their petition, “is on a downward trajectory towards the end of his life.”

The least — and this is the least — that Judge Haight can now do in the name of decency is to allow Shakur to die in his son and daughter-in-law’s California home, in the presence of loved ones. , without cell.

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