Aging and incarcerated: U.S. political prisoners face ‘execution by medical neglect’

8 mins read

Elderly political prisoners show how gross neglect in healthcare for those in jail and prisons has been exacerbated during COVID-19.

Before the coronavirus global pandemic, US prisons faced two dilemmas; a growing population in an overcrowded detention system and an increasing aging demographic. Consequently, at the height of the health crisis, prisons and jails became both superspreaders across the world, and death traps for geriatric detainees. 

For activists and families who have been working for decades to free political prisoners who are now mostly septuagenarians and octogenarians, COVID-19 is another life-threatening impediment.

A three-day forum in Washington, D.C. about the plight of U.S. political prisoners, “A Community Under Siege,” was recently held to increase public awareness about their situation, and generate a national call for the prisoners’ release on parole, and in some cases, complete exoneration.   Due to the continuing pandemic, the forum was also live-streamed on Facebook Live, YouTube and Muslim Matters’ website, from the Ar Rashidun Community Center.

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Pam Africa at Free Mumia Abu-Jamal rally on Feb. 26, 2021, after it was discovered that the jailed political-journalist contracted COVID-19. Photo credit: Joe Piette

While the U.S. denies the existence of political prisoners, families, friends, and advocates for many of the mostly Black male detainees insist that they were jailed to stop them from effectively organizing their communities and leading mass campaigns for the exact same issues that today’s organizations such as Black Lives Matter hold protests and boycotts. 

Many of those incarcerated are in prison due to their political activities. Often framed by local police and intelligence organizations, the elder political prisoners were members in 1960s groups like The Black Panther Party for Self Defense and its Black Liberation Army. During their activism, they challenged systemic racism, police brutality, deteriorating urban housing, and little or no access to quality food and health care.

Addedly, supporters say these men are serving extraordinarily long sentences without  parole, so that they can’t return to their communities and lead them.  As they advance in years, they are more vulnerable to catching COVID-19 and other illnesses. Some of the prisoners say they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and that they should be released.

Maroon Shoatz

“My dad is coming out of COVID-19 and colorectal cancer,” said Russell Shoatz, III, whose father is Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, 77, who had been a member of the Black Panther Party and its Black Liberation Army.  He was nicknamed “Maroon” after enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, Latin America, and parts of the U.S.,  who escaped the plantations, established communities, and sheltered others who had fled. Shoatz had escaped imprisonment twice.

In 1970, the elder Shoatz and four others were accused of attacking a police station in Philadelphia. The shoot-out ended in the death of a police officer, and injuring of another. The attack was allegedly in retaliation for the police killing of a Black youth.  Shoatz was arrested in 1972 and imprisoned for a crime he and his son say he didn’t commit.

Since, Shoatz has been in the Pennsylvania prison system for 49 years, serving 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement. He was released back to the general prison population in February 2014.

Last November as he was preparing for the cancerous tumor to be removed from his colon, Shoatz was tested for COVID-19. His test was positive.  

Shoatz III said that “freedom fighters” like his father and Imam Jamil Abdul Al-Amin (formerly the activist H. Rap Brown) are “standing up in the face of injustice,” even while incarcerated. He urged everyone at the forum to follow the example of courage they set.

Mumia Abu-Jamal

Pam Africa, a member of International MOVE and an activist on behalf of another political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal,  said the former Philadelphia radio journalist is a recent victim of COVID-19, having caught it earlier this month. Abu-Jamal, 66, has also been diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Abu-Jamal, was convicted  in 1981 for murdering a police officer and sentenced to death in 1982. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole in 2011, after a federal court overturned his sentence. Abu-Jamal had been a member of The Black Panther Party from 1968, when he was 14, to 1970.

Africa said Abdul-Jamal had a skin condition he contracted in prison and “he is itching 24 hours a day.” The prison provided him with a salve, but Abu-Jamal rejected it because it contained steroids. He requested petroleum jelly to apply to his skin. It relieved the itching but did not eliminate it. Additionally, said Africa, Abu-Jamal developed cirrhosis of the liver, and caught Hepatitis C. “We found out that there were 7,000 cases of Hepatitis C in the prison, and 46,000 cases in Philadelphia,” said Africa.

Iman Jamil Al-Amin

Kairi Al-Amin, in front his father, political prisoner, Iman Jamil Al-Amin. Kairi is his father’s attorney. The Al-Amin family now demand that Imam Al-Amin be completely exonerated.

Shafeah M’Balia of IJAN (Imam Jamil Action Network) discussed the Imam’s case. A voting rights activist in the 1960s, particularly in Alabama, Imam Al-Amin registered Black people to vote. Conducting his work under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or “Snick,” he became its national chair. Briefly, he served as an officer in The Black Panther Party. “Imam Jamil believed in the right of our communities to self-defense, and self- determination,” M’Balia said.

In 2000, in Atlanta’s West End community, Imam Al-Amin was accused of shooting and killing a Fulton County, Georgia sheriff’s deputy and wounding another officer who was with the deputy. Although the wounded officer’s physical description of the assailant did not match Imam Al-Amin’s appearance, Imam Jamil was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison without parole. During Imam Jamil’s trial and last year, Otis Jackson, a Black man, and a self-described gang leader, confessed to the shootings, but the confession was not included in the Imam’s trial. His case has been sent to the Fulton County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit to determine if he was wrongfully convicted.

M’Balia said  for most of his life, Imam Al-Amin was under surveillance and harassed constantly by the FBI. “After a long Freedom of Information Act battle, the FBI (submitted) to Sister Karima (Imam Al-Amin’s wife), more than 40,000 pages documenting surveillance and harassment. Later on, another 13,000 pages was added to that.”

| Read: Freezing cells, lack of food and other deplorable conditions in a Brooklyn detention center

All the activists who became political prisoners were victims of the FBI COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), said M’Balia. Following the 9-11 terrorists’ attack in the U.S., Congress passed The Patriot Act, a version of COINTELPRO, which gave federal agencies like Homeland Security the authority to gather intelligence on activists whether they were doing anything illegal or not. 

 “COINTELPRO was about ‘decapitating’ the leadership of The Black Liberation Movement. Some of the folks who were most engaged in strategy and organizational development were no longer [available].  As (political analyst) Van Jones put it in the documentary film ‘13,’ it left the community defenseless. Another COINTELPRO objective was to separate the youths from the Movement.” 

COINTELPRO also made African Americans think that their struggle was different and separate from other struggles for freedom and self-determination globally, M’Balia explained. Regarding his health, Imam Al-Amin has not contracted COVID-19, but has developed cancer, and cataracts, and had swollen jaws and ankles.

Sundiata Acoli

Other aging, high profile political prisoners are attempting to manage potentially debilitating illnesses in addition to COVID-19. Sundiata Acoli, 84, was a member of The Black Panther Party and The Black Liberation Army. In 1974 he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of a New Jersey state trooper. 

The shooting occurred in 1973 on May 2 after midnight when Acoli, who had two passengers in his car, was stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike by a state trooper, James Harper, who claimed the car Acoli was driving had a defective tail light. Harper found a magazine for an automatic pistol on Acoli. A shootout ensued. In the exchange of fire, state trooper Werner Foerster was killed, as was one of Acoli’s passengers, Zayd Malik Shakur. The other passenger, Assata Shakur, was wounded along with Harper.

In separate trials, Acoli and Shakur were convicted of killing Foerster. Shakur escaped prison and traveled to Cuba, where she was granted asylum. Acoli was eligible for parole after serving 25 years. Despite being a model prisoner who earned degrees in the computer field, Acoli has been denied parole each time he was eligible. Last year, he caught COVID-19. Acoli is also reportedly in early stage dementia and has developed problems with his hearing. His attorney plans to go before the New Jersey Supreme Court and argue for Acoli’s parole.

Mutulu Shakur

Dr. Mutulu Shakur

Dr. Mutulu Shakur, 70, had been active in the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), the Black Liberation Army, and the Republic of New Afrika. Dr. Shakur is a doctor of acupuncture who pioneered using it in treating drug addicts. He was also the stepfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur.  

Dr. Shakur has been in prison serving a 60-year sentence in connection with a 1981 Brinks armored truck robbery, which resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a guard. Last year, he developed bone marrow cancer and contracted COVID-19. But, last November he was denied early release. The U.S. District Judge who rejected Dr. Shakur’s petition said his crimes outweighed any sympathetic consideration of the doctor’s dire medical condition.

Jalil Abdul Muntaqim

Jalil Abdul Muntaqim spent 49 years in prison as a political detainee. He is said to be targeted in a politically motivated campaign to re-jail him for voter fraud. Photo credit: Jalil Abdul Muntaqim.

Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, 69, was released from prison last October after he had contracted COVID-19. A member of the Black Liberation Army, Muntaqim had been incarcerated since he was 19. He was charged with participating in the 1971 shooting deaths of two New York City police officers. But last November, he was slapped with a “voter fraud” charge for illegally registering to vote. 

In New York, parolees are only permitted to vote if their parole has ended or they have been pardoned by the governor. Muntaqim registered to vote as a member of the Green Party under his given name, Anthony L. Bottom. Supporters and Muntaqim’s mother said he filled out the form by mistake. Authorities have not revoked Muntaqim’s parole status. Muntaqim, who participated in the political prisoners forum through Zoom, said “The District Attorney still has me under two felonies and a misdemeanor for registering to vote. I hope those charges will be reduced.”

Asked why imprisoned elderly former activists in poor health are still perceived by the U.S. as a threat, Pam Africa said:  

“Because they (the U.S.) haven’t been able to break them.  These brothers are suffering from cancers and some can barely talk, but they’re still putting out information. They’re still teaching. They’re (perceived as) a threat because they’re not afraid to speak out.”

An effort to publicize the issue of U.S. political prisoners internationally will occur on October 22, 2021 with the launch of the virtual campaign “In the spirit of Mandela: International Tribunal on U.S. Human Rights Violations.” More information will be available at

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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