The Resounding Right of Mutulu Shakur to Die in Freedom

by Susie Day

Anyone with a loved one in prison carries around the silent, ceaseless terror that the person so loved will die alone, behind bars. Currently, 71-year-old Mutulu Shakur, a Black man imprisoned 36 years, lies in a hospital bed in a federal prison medical facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Ravaged by bone marrow cancer, fed by tubes, having lost 25% of his body weight, Shakur has been given weeks – at best, months – to live. His loved ones – family, friends, hundreds of supporters – are trying any and all legal means to get him out. Time and again, the US government and the courts refuse.

Mutulu Shakur, born Jeral Williams in 1950, grew up in New York City. His mother was blind, and so he learned as a child to navigate, not just run-of-the-mill racism, but also the welfare system’s byzantine bigotry. When he joined the radical Black movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, he became Mutulu Shakur. He also became an activist, a community leader, and holistic healer credited with cofounding the Lincoln Detox People’s Program, which brought game-changing acupuncture treatment for drug addiction to the impoverished South Bronx. In 1988, with his codefendant Marilyn Buck, Shakur was convicted of conspiracy in several armed robberies, one of which resulted in the deaths of three people, and for the 1979 prison escape of the revolutionary, Assata Shakur. As a revolutionary himself, and as the stepfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, Mutulu Shakur is both famous and infamous.

But neither Shakur’s notoriety, nor his community work, nor the crimes for which he was convicted should matter now. Mutulu Shakur is dying in prison. He is one of thousands of people – predominantly Black and Brown – who are seriously ill behind bars and asking for release. These are people – regardless of their alleged crimes – whose human right is to lie unshackled in a bed outside prison walls, to say goodbye to those they have loved in this life. Most of them are repeatedly denied compassionate release, or release on any terms.

According to the Marshall Project, working with the New York Times, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), from 2013 to 2017, approved just 6 percent of the 5,400 applications it received for compassionate release, leaving 266 applicants to die in custody. Applications are often rejected on grounds that prisoners still pose a “risk to public safety” or that the nature of their crime remains too serious to justify release. These rejections, the report continues, “often override the opinions of those closest to the prisoners, like their doctors and wardens.”

It’s no coincidence that both current and former staff at Shakur’s prison have spoken out for his release. In fact, the Marshall Project, using statistics to represent thousands of prisoners, describes exactly what is happening to Mutulu Shakur. So, when you read Shakur’s story here, know that, even with his extraordinary history and politics, Shakur is not exceptional. The essence of his fight to get out is true in prisons across the country.

Dr. Barbara Zeller is one of Shakur’s medical advocates. She’s a New York internist with over 50 years of practice who, because of her medical work in the Bronx, has known Shakur since the mid-1970s. She now interprets Shakur’s prison medical records for his family and legal team. According to Zeller, Shakur’s medical care has been fairly competent – except: “his diagnosis came two years after he developed symptoms that could have been followed. Because of that delay, the cancer was far advanced.”

Although Shakur’s multiple myeloma was diagnosed in 2019, Shakur had already begun suffering years before from diseases that often accompany life inside prison: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, glaucoma, hyperlipidemia, and the aftereffects of a stroke in 2013. Since his cancer diagnosis, he has gone through exhausting rounds of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, a relapse, more rounds of chemo, pneumonia, and at least two bouts of Covid. By spring of this year, the cancer had spread throughout Shakur’s skeletal system.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” says Zeller, “extremely debilitated and too weak to take more chemotherapy. He’s facing the end of his life. Medical people feel that his staying in prison is elder abuse.”

According to the terms of his sentence, Shakur was actually eligible for “mandatory parole” on February 10, 2016. But the US Parole Commission denied his release. Since 2016, Shakur has survived, not only catastrophically poor health, but also eight more parole denials and three rejections of compassionate release. During his parole hearings, Shakur has taken responsibility for his part in the loss of lives, and voiced deep and unmistakably sincere remorse….

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