Protestors stand before an image of Mumia Abu-Jamal outside the US Department of Justice on April 24, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Writer, journalist, and former Black Panther Party member Mumia Abu-Jamal has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania state prisons for the past 40 years. After years of medical neglect and his recent contraction of COVID-19 in February, Abu-Jamal underwent heart surgery on Monday to repair clogged arteries that had been causing him chest pains late last week. Although the surgery was successful, the fact that protesters had to hold a press conference on April 15 to adamantly demand that Abu-Jamal receive urgent medical care underscored both the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ ongoing lack of transparency and its failure to meet the medical needs of those inside. 

The April 15 press conference highlighted key demands including that Abu-Jamal be allowed to call his loved ones before surgery, that he not be shackled to his hospital bed, and that he be immediately be released from prison. Hosted by writer, activist, and professor Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, the conference featured Abu-Jamal’s wife Wadiya Jamal, his personal physician, members of his family, and friends and confidantes like Pam Africa, a member of MOVE, the radical Black political organization that was notoriously bombed by the city of Philadelphia in 1985. Hill acknowledged that “some will say this is an unreasonable set of demands,” but explained that they are matters of basic human rights, medical ethics, and civil rights as Abu-Jamal remains “factually innocent and legally non-guilty.” 

Abu-Jamal’s health condition long preceded his contraction of COVID-19 and the chest pains that prompted his surgery. In 2015, Abu-Jamal was hospitalized with hepatitis C, a condition for which prison authorities failed to give him appropriate medication until he successfully sued the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for access to the lifesaving antiviral treatments. While the lawsuit set a precedent for other incarcerated Pennsylvanians to receive necessary treatment in the future, the illness itself has left Abu-Jamal with an acute skin rash. The rash created open lesions that make him uniquely susceptible to infections and heightens the pain and risks associated with being shackled.

“He needs us to stand with him as he confronts the brutal power of the state and as he tries to grapple with his medical condition which has been produced and exacerbated by prison authorities,” Dr. Angela Davis said during the press conference. “As has been the case many times before during the course of Mumia’s incarceration, his predicament mirrors that of so many other people behind bars.” 

Dr. Johanna Fernandez further emphasized how prison authorities have purposefully neglected Abu-Jamal both in terms of their failure to detect his heart condition earlier, and through their intentional attempts to keep him from contacting family, friends, and advisors in the wake of his most recent diagnosis. 

“At a moment [when] one is ill and pondering questions of mortality [and] questions of the heart, we want to be with our family and our friends,” said Fernandez. “You want to call your loved one or your wife, and Mumia was barred from actually reaching out to and calling his loved ones in the run up to surgery. Think about the barbarism in a system that feels there is no right of a prisoner that the state must respect.” 

Fernandez also identified Abu-Jamal as being a part of a cadre of Black political prisoners like Jalil Muntaqim, who was released just last fall after almost five decades in prison, and Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, who was sentenced to two life sentences and died in a California state prison earlier this month. Fitzgerald said imprisonment functioned as a means of “punishing resistance and making an example for others to see what might happen to you if you dare to fight.” 

Longtime supporters assert that Abu-Jamal’s incarceration is a result of his politics and work as a journalist. He continually highlighted the oppression of Black communities and amplified the work and ideologies of groups like MOVE and the Black Panther Party. Abu-Jamal’s wife has described him as a “teller of truth” who used investigative reporting to debunk racist myths and caricatures of Black revolutionaries. That truth telling was targeted in 1982 when Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the murder of Daniel Faulkner, a Philadelphia police officer. Abu-Jamal’s numerous appeals have been denied despite countless instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including ballistic reports starkly contradicting the prosecution’s story and recently discovered evidence suggesting witness tampering and bribery. It was only after years of supporters’ robust advocacy that Abu-Jamal was removed from death row in 2001. His sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole, which as Abu-Jamal shared in an interview with The Guardian amounts to “death by incarceration.” 

Local police organizations like Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police and Faulkner’s widow remain adamant that Abu-Jamal should not have his case retried. In December 2020 they unsuccessfully attempted to remove Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner from handling future appeals on Abu-Jamal’s case. However, supporters of Abu-Jamal believe that after more than four decades of incarceration, “freedom is the only treatment” and that immediate release can be secured by Krasner. However, Krasner hasn’t yet made any moves to do so and has expressed support for Abu-Jamal’s conviction. 

Even while incarcerated, Abu-Jamal continues to use the power of his pen, writing nine books over his four decades inside. He will celebrate yet another birthday inside prison walls as he turns 67 years old this Saturday, April 24. Supporters have planned a weekend of actions including a virtual fundraiser on April 23 and a rally and march at Philadelphia City Hall on his birthday. Perhaps not coincidentally, these events will take place right before the Oscars on Sunday, in which the critically-acclaimed Judas & The Black Messiah is up for five Academy Awards.

In recent years, the Black Panther Party and its foundational influence on the current movement against police violence has inspired more public interest in their stories, principles, and aesthetics, albeit reinterpreted and churned out by both celebrities and Hollywood. As the country tunes in to the Oscars to see, in part, which Academy Awards Judas & The Black Messiah might take home, Abu-Jamal’s advocates hope that the public interest placed upon Black radical figures portrayed on screen might also extend to current political prisoners like Abu-Jamal. His life’s work and continued incarceration serves as a reminder that the stories lauded on screen are still being written.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.