An interview? Not really. My true purpose for crossing the continent and entering this squeaky clean, state-of-the-art, maximum security public housing facility was to record Mumia reading his own commentaries. But if I had told prison officials that was my intention, they would never have allowed me to come in.
Just ask my pal Noelle Hanrahan, the founder and director of the Prison Radio Project. Noelle is a lifelong activist. About ten years ago it occurred to her that if the American people, who continue to tell pollsters we need to execute more inmates, were able to hear about the realities of Death Row, about prison conditions and the psychological effects of living each day with the threat of execution hanging over one's head, more people would come to believe, as she did, that the death penalty was inhuman and wrong.
It was a great notion. The next question was, who could tell this story effectively? That was a major problem, considering that most prisoners are not exactly highly literate. Many inmates also don't have much of a voice for radio and wouldn't be likely to generate much sympathy in the listener. Noelle pondered these problems until someone suggested she go to Pennsylvania and meet this guy named Mumia Abu-Jamal.
"I was amazed -- I was floored," Noelle says of the first time she heard his voice. "Here was a man who could write beautifully and read beautifully." Mumia had been president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and had done a lot of radio reporting. He was, in short, exactly what Noelle was looking for.
In the years that followed, Noelle crossed the country often to record Mumia's commentaries, after which she would work diligently to get Mumia's voice on as many radio stations as possible.
Authorities in the State of Pennsylvania were not thrilled with Noelle's efforts -- especially when the commentaries provoked a wide and growing crusade to persuade state officials to give Mumia a new trial, maybe even a fair one this time around. They did not like Noelle's work, her dedication, or the attention Mumia was getting all over the world. They did what they could to discourage her. She was caught taking a photograph -- unauthorized, tsk tsk -- of barbed wire outside the prison, and subsequently they revoked her right to enter the prison and record Mumia's voice.
That was supposed to be that. No more of Mumia's commentaries would be polluting the airwaves with truth and embarrassment to prison officials.
But they hadn't counted on an important sequence of factors: Noelle was smart and tenacious and Noelle had friends, and one of them was me. Officials at SCI Greene didn't care for Noelle, but they'd never heard of me before. (Hard to imagine, but it's true.) A magazine in London, ironically called Index on Censorship, agreed to give me the "assignment" of "interviewing" Mumia for their magazine. I guess the folks at SCI Greene figured there'd be little harm in granting media access to a foreign publication.
So on that morning last October, there I was, still in my nightshirt, calmly chatting up the prison's public relations honcho who had agreed to let me in for just over an hour the following Thursday, Oct. 31. By the time I set the phone down, I was shaking with suppressed glee and amazement. I did a little dance, then stabbed out the Prison Radio Project number on my phone and yelled into Noelle's machine that "I GOT OFFICIAL CLEARANCE TO VISIT MUMIA!!!"
I had to be briefed big-time on prison procedures. Noelle wanted to make sure I wasn't fazed by the super security and petty rules involved. We rented two sets of wireless microphones (one for just-in-case), and I packed one wired microphone, a digital tape recorder and the most non-revolutionary outfit I could find in my closet: a denim jumper with copper snaps on it.
I didn't realize until I confronted the prison's metal detector that I'd made a fashion faux pas. I'd taken off earrings, glasses, watch, shoes -- and still I was setting off the metal detector. When I finally noticed the metal snaps on my jumper, I yanked it off with flare and exasperation. There I stood in my slip, in the lobby of the prison, trying not to smirk at the astonished expressions of other visitors. Once again I forged through the metal detector, and once again I heard that familiar and annoying beep. I did a mental inventory of everything I was still wearing and remembered one piece of metal still on my body: the hooks on my bra. A new guard was just coming on duty and assured me that my brassiere could indeed set off the metal detector. "Do I have to strip naked to get in here?" I asked, making it clear I was ready to do it if I had to. "Nonono," the guard said quickly, shuddering at the prospect. "You can come in," he said, waving me in.
(This incident led to a rumor that I was strip-searched as a condition of entry, which is untrue -- but for a minute there it did seem like a possibility.)
Next, it was time to wait. The prison sparkled with institutional cleanliness. Every surface was pristine, even the softball trophies the guards had won in community competitions over the past few years. The team photos showed smiling, everyday people, the type of guys who drove nice cars, had 2.4 children, attended church regularly and never gave a moment's thought to the implications of this country's exploding prison system. They had more important things to think about; how proud they looked over their softball triumphs!
It was all too surreal -- and I was only in the waiting room of the Twilight Zone. At the appointed time, a guard motioned for me to pass through a heavy gate. It made an intimidating clank as it opened, then closed, behind me. Part of me wanted to call the whole thing off. More heavy doors yielded to the guard's presence as we walked down a seemingly endless gleaming corridor. Windows on either side revealed vibrant green grass billowing in the wind outside. I thought, how cruel to flaunt the beauty of nature just beyond the prisoners' sphere of existence.
At long last we came to a lobby surrounding a guard's station. I was instructed to wait for "that lady," who apparently had no name. One guard seemed more outgoing than the rest. He motioned toward a corner room and suggested I set up my recording equipment while I was waiting.
I went into the room the guard had pointed to, and stopped short. There, on the other side of an inch-thick wall of reinforced plexiglass, sat Mumia Abu-Jamal. He looked small and tired; otherwise it was undoubtedly the same guy I'd seen so many pictures of in the last few years.
I knew what kind of man he was. I knew his intellectual curiosity never rested; I knew he had a powerful command of the English language; I knew he cared deeply about this country, and about poor people of color in particular. It shocked and saddened me that this respectable man was in an institutional jumpsuit, and that -- even for this non-contact visit -- he was in shackles, and had been forced to undergo the indignity of a body cavity search before being allowed to see me. I hoped fervently that it would all be worth it for him. I vowed to do the very best job of which I was capable.
The guard instructed me in no uncertain terms that I was not to converse with "the prisoner" until "that lady" arrived. Still, I grabbed the unguarded opportunity to lean up to the glass and mouth to him, "It's an honor to meet you." Mumia smiled graciously and said nothing -- followed the rules.
"That lady" finally arrived, dragging a chair behind her. She introduced herself as Joyce, and just as I was about to thank her for bringing me a chair, she sat herself down, making it obvious she was there for the duration. Mumia and I would not be left alone together for another second. That was unnerving, since I was ostensibly there to do an "interview," not a series of readings. So I chatted with Mumia for a couple of minutes, relaxing into my role as "interviewer." Then, almost as an afterthought, I said, "Why don't you read one of your essays for me?"
"All rightie," he replied obligingly.
Mumia isn't allowed to keep papers in his cell. He's allowed one piece of paper and when that's used up they give him a new one. And a ball-point pen could be fashioned into a weapon, so that's out. They let him have a pen refill only. Others on the outside compiled his commentaries sheet by sheet, fact-checked them, typed and printed them out. I had the neatly-printed commentaries with me, and I took one out and held it up to the plexiglass so Mumia could read it for me. But that wouldn't do -- and Joyce insisted I move the paper so she could see both myself and "the inmate" at all times.
So there we sat, Mumia on one side of an impenetrable real and symbolic wall, me and Joyce on the other, ripping through as many commentaries as we could as the clock ticked our precious minutes away. As the time got shorter Mumia read faster and I was less inclined to ask him to read any portions a second time.
At the instant our time was up Joyce announced that we were finished, clearly not willing to let us go a second longer. But Mumia continued to read, and the tape continued to roll. A guard lurked behind the door on Mumia's side of the plexiglass -- but he saw Mumia was not finished with the essay he was reading, and he hesitated to disturb him. Only when the reading was done did the guard enter to take the wireless mike from Mumia.
I thought about that for a long time. Joyce made it clear in word and deed that every prisoner at SCI Greene, every single one of them, was lowlife scum, barely human. She seemed to think there was something twisted about me too, considering I had come to this place to visit one of ... them. But that guard, he was different. He knew who was who inside that prison, and he clearly respected Mumia. He didn't want to disturb him while he was reading.
Joyce! Honey! While you were tediously sitting there with us, did you bother to listen to what that "lowlife scum" was saying? Did you hear his words, how artfully they were phrased and how expertly delivered? Couldn't you tell that at least one prisoner at SCI Greene was smarter than yourself? Can anything alter your neat, ordered little world view? On the way out I asked Joyce about her job. Did she mind being around so many criminals? Oh no, she chirped happily, she had long ago become accustomed to THAT. It was a great job.
I had my doubts.
I was still in a daze as I left the prison. The air was crisp, the grass almost too green to be real -- and row upon row of razor wire gleamed in the autumn sun. The spectre of SCI Greene didn't belong in this pastoral setting (ironically located on "Progress Drive"). This was a place for farmhouses, churches and grange halls, not a warehouse for humans trapped in the "justice" system.
The commentaries began airing on "Democracy Now," a Pacifica Radio program, earlier this year. Pennsylvania's state universities were carrying "Democracy Now" until the show began to air Mumia's new commentaries -- then they pulled it off the great Pennsylvanian airwaves. Free speech, yeah right.
A few years back, National Public Radio agreed to air commentaries by Mumia Abu-Jamal. But at the twelfth hour (with Senate-floor prodding from the likes of Bob Dole), NPR's acting director, Bruce Drake, overruled the decision and kept Mumia's voice purged from NPR airwaves. This year, NPR's "All Things Considered" decided to celebrate National Poetry Month by commissioning a poem by their poet laureate, Martin Espada. They told him to write about anything that moved him. After traveling through many states, looking, listening and thinking, Martin finally chose to write a poem about Mumia.
Did you hear it? Didn't think so. NPR didn't approve of the subject matter.
Progressive Magazine ran a cover story on the controversy, entitled "All Things Censored." They published Martin's poem -- and I could barely stand to read it. Martin Espada's words made clear to me, really clear for the first time, the enormity of what Noelle and I had been able to accomplish:
Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent
by Martin Espada
for Mumia Abu-Jamal, Philadelphia, PA/Camden, NJ, April 1997
The board-blinded windows knew what happened; the pavement sleepers of Philadelphia, groaning in their ghost-infested sleep, knew what happened; every black man blessed with the gashed eyebrow of nightsticks knew what happened; even Walt Whitman knew what happened, poet a century dead, keeping vigil from the tomb on the other side of the bridge.
More than fifteen years ago, the cataract stare of the cruiser's headlights, the impossible angle of the bullet, the tributaries and lakes of blood, Officer Faulkner dead, suspect Mumia shot in the chest, the witnesses who saw a gunman running away, his heart and feet thudding.
The nameless prostitutes know, hunched at the curb, their bare legs chilled. Their faces squinted to see that night, rouged with fading bruises. Now the faces fade. Perhaps an eyewitness putrefies eyes open in a bed of soil, or floats in the warm gulf stream of her addiction, or hides from the fanged whispers of the police in the tomb of Walt Whitman, where the granite door is open and fugitive slaves may rest.
Mumia: the Panther beret, the thinking dreadlocks, dissident words that swarmed the microphone like a hive, sharing meals with people named Africa, calling out their names even after the police bombardment that charred their black bodies.
So the governor has signed the death warrant. The executioner's needle would flush the poison down into Mumia's writing hand so the fingers curl like a burned spider; his calm questioning mouth would grow numb, and everywhere radios sputter to silence, in his memory.
The veiled prostitutes are gone, gone to the segregated balcony of whores. But the newspaper reports that another nameless prostitute says the man is innocent, that she will testify at the next hearing.
Beyond the courthouse, a multitude of witnesses chants, prays, shouts for his prison to collapse, a shack in a hurricane.
Mumia, if the last nameless prostitute becomes an unraveling turban of steam, if the judges' robes become clouds of ink swirling like octopus deception, if the shroud becomes your Amish quilt, if your dreadlocks are snipped during autopsy, then drift above the ruined RCA factory that once birthed radios to the tomb of Walt Whitman, where the granite door is open and fugitive slaves may rest.
-- by Martin Espada (reprinted with author's permission)
by Janice Leber
The phone rang before 9 a.m., so I knew it had to be someone from the east coast. Still, I was surprised when the voice on the line identified herself as someone from State Correctional Institute, Greene in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania.
Figuring it would never come to pass, I had volunteered for this assignment and now, the official word was YES! I would be going to SCI Greene. I would be able to "interview" Mumia Abu-Jamal, famed journalist/Death Row inmate/innocent man.
Contemplating Mumia's situation is beyond frustrating. What must it be like to be unable to watch your children grow to adulthood without your touch and influence? How can you maintain your sanity when you know you're innocent and every cell in your body cries out for JUSTICE? And yet he continues to write movingly about situations all over the world -- and in his little corner of hell.
At least I was able to help smuggle Mumia's voice out of that miserable cage.
The Prison Radio Project can be reached at (415) 648-4505. Browse Progressive Magazine at progressive.org.
Mumia and me face to face on Death Row, Oct. 31 1996