By Kit Aastrup
Visiting a prisoner is not easy, for either a family member or a political activist. Often the only way is to take a special bus round trip to one of the many prisons located, like Auburn, in a rural setting. A prison bus from New York City to Auburn takes six hours each way and leaves in the middle of the night from Lexington Avenue and 125th Street for a 9 a.m. visit.
After corresponding with Jalil Muntaqim for more than four years, it was exciting to finally meet him this fall. Happily, he turned out to be exactly the same person as he is in his letters.
Muntaqim, aka Anthony Bottom, is one of the longest-held political prisoners. He has been incarcerated for 38 years. He was only 19 years old and a member of the Black Panther Party when he was sent to prison in 1971 on conspiracy charges following the killing of a police officer, allegedly in retaliation for the murder of Black political prisoner George Jackson.
Muntaqim was targeted by COINTELPRO, an unconstitutional and clandestine FBI operation that was set up to destroy political organizations, especially those from the oppressed communities. In 1975 Muntaqim was wrongly convicted of killing two police officers in New York City, although there was no physical evidence against him and two juries failed to convict him before the State found one that did.
Muntaqim, who received a sentence of 25 years to life, has always maintained his innocence. While in prison he has managed to obtain two bachelor degrees, one in sociology and one in psychology. He was refused permission to pursue a master’s degree in public health.
Throughout his many years in prison he has taught a poetry class, participated in a sit-down strike, and was one of the co-founders of the Jericho Amnesty Movement, an organization for political prisoners in the United States, initiated by the Jericho March in 1998.
The San Francisco 8
In 2007 Muntaqim was charged in a cold case from 1971 known as the San Francisco 8 case, and he was transferred from Auburn Correctional Facility in New York to San Francisco County Jail. This case was originally dropped in 1975 because it was based on confessions extracted by torture.
At the end of July, two of the SF8, Herman Bell and Muntaqim, were sentenced to probation and time served, after Bell agreed to plead to voluntary manslaughter and Muntaqim reluctantly pleaded no contest to conspiracy to voluntary manslaughter. All charges were then dropped against Richard Brown, Hank Jones, Harold Taylor and Ray Boudreaux, with the prosecution admitting it had “insufficient evidence.”
Charges were dropped against Richard O’Neal last year. Only Francisco Torres still faces charges; he maintains his innocence.
Now Muntaqim is back in Auburn. He had been denied parole four times before, the last time in 2006. He failed to see the parole board in 2008 due to his transfer to the state of California in the SF8 case. He was denied parole for the fifth time in November and won’t be up for parole again until June 2010.
Punishment not limited to incarceration
How can a prisoner keep sane with nonstop daily humiliations? The penalty of prison is not limited to incarceration. It takes away your whole life. It penalizes your family, your spouse or partner, and your children. The routine is aimed to break down your self-esteem and your self-confidence. Solitary confinement can break nearly anyone.
When first incarcerated, Muntaqim was a 19-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend. He now has a 37-year-old daughter, grandchildren and even a great-grandchild. He has educated himself. He wants a life—with a job, with family and friends—a modest ambition but something he has not achieved so far.
He is relaxed and humorous, a little too serious maybe until you get to know him, but when a smile finally lights up his face, he is so likable. That may explain why he has received marriage proposals-which he has declined.
The United States has by far the largest number of prisoners in the world. African-American males are one-tenth of the world’s prison population. Targeted by COINTELPRO and most likely convicted with fabricated evidence, hundreds of political activists have been punished for their political activity with a lifetime of imprisonment. In the deepest dungeons of the United States they spend their lives in small prison cells, unnoticed by and anonymous to the young generation and not often enough remembered as comrades in the struggle by those still active in the progressive movement.
Muntaqim is one of those hundreds. He deserves to be remembered and honored. Free all U.S. political prisoners!
For more information on Muntaqim’s case, visit www.freedomarchives.org and www.freethesf8.org.
Aastrup, a Danish political activist and writer for the newspaper Arbejderen (The Worker), follows closely the issues of political prisoners.
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