We get an update on political prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Sundiata Acoli, who contracted COVID-19 but have yet to be released. Acoli is a former member of the Black Panther Party who is now 84 years old and has been in prison in New Jersey for nearly half a century, even though he has been eligible for parole for almost three decades. He was denied parole again in February. His crime involved the killing of a state trooper. Last year, he contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized, and he reportedly has early-stage dementia. We speak with his longtime advocate, Soffiyah Elijah with Alliance of Families for Justice, about whether he will live long enough to appear before the parole board again, and what could happen when his case is reviewed later this year by New Jersey’s Supreme Court.
AMY GOODMAN: Soffiyah Elijah, I wanted to ask you about two people still in prison: Mumia Abu-Jamal and the former member of the Black Panther Party, Sundiata Acoli, who’s now 84 years old, has been in prison in New Jersey for nearly half a century, even though he’s been eligible for parole for almost three decades. He was denied parole again in February. In fact, an appeals court said he should be freed. You’ve supported Acoli for decades. Last year, he contracted COVID-19 and was hospitalized. He reportedly has early-stage dementia. Do you think he’ll live long enough to appear before the parole board again? And describe what could happen when his case is reviewed later this year by New Jersey’s Supreme Court. And then talk about Mumia Abu-Jamal. And he also contracted COVID-19, in a Pennsylvania prison.
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Yes, thank you. Sundiata has been denied parole six times by the New Jersey Parole Board. Each time, they claim that he’s a risk to public safety. He’s 84 years old. And since 1979, he’s been held in federal facilities. And his last job in the federal facility where he’s held now, before the pandemic, was to teach a course called “Avoiding Criminal Thinking,” which he was tapped to teach by the Bureau of Prisons to incarcerated men so that they could avoid recidivism when they return to society. So, clearly, he presents no risk. And at 84 years old with dementia, it’s just unfounded that they should continue to deny him.
His current hit before the parole board, which means how old he would have to be before he could return, is 93. And he is waiting now to see how much more time the parole board is going to tack onto that before he should be eligible to return to the parole board. So, basically, they are hoping and trying to make sure that he dies in prison.
It’s important to understand that in New Jersey there is a presumption of a right to parole. So, when someone serves their minimum sentence, then they should be eligible for parole, unless their disciplinary record indicates otherwise. Sundiata has had a completely discipline-free record for the past 27 years, so he’s been more than eligible for release. This fall, the New Jersey Supreme Court will hear the appeal of his denial of his fourth appearance before the parole board. And we are hopeful that at least we’ll be successful in the courts in New Jersey. Clearly —
AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 20 seconds, Soffiyah, but the latest on Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had COVID.
SOFFIYAH ELIJAH: Yes, Mumia also contracted COVID-19 inside the prison. And it’s a clear indication, as we talked about earlier, about the lack of social distancing and the lack of adequate healthcare for incarcerated people. And I hope and pray that Mumia survives.
AMY GOODMAN: Soffiyah Elijah, I want to thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice.
That does it for our show. A very Happy Birthday to Mike Burke!
And a fond farewell to Libby Rainey, our producer who — well, we have traveled all over, from the firefighting prisoner prison camps in Northern California to the border to those long train rides between Washington, D.C., at the last minute, and New York, and wherever U.N. climate summit is in the world. Your compassion, your humor and your intelligence will be missed. And fond farewell and best of luck in law school.
I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.