By Richard Muhammad

Prison Reform Ministry focuses on need to end death penalty

DETROIT ( – The Nation of Islam Prison Reform Ministry’s workshop held at the Cobo Convention Center on Feb. 24 focused on the life and legacy of Stanley Tookie Williams, his life journey from co-founder of the Crips gang to a redeemed man dedicated to steering youth from gangs and violence, and the need to end the death penalty.

On Feb. 22, as a prelude to the much-anticipated workshop, NOI National Prison Reform Minister Abdullah Muhammad and staff traveled to two local correctional facilities–Ryan and Mound–to address hundreds of inmates that took part in Saviours’ Day celebration ceremonies. Nearly one thousand inmates signed up to hear Min. Abdullah and guest speakers Broderick Muhammad, Leonard E. Muhammad, Lionel Muhammad, Abdul Rahman Muhammad and Victor Muhammad address them, however, only 250 inmates in each institution were allowed to participate.


At the Cobo Center, Min. Abdullah Muhammad opened the workshop by talking about historic freedom fighters in the Black struggle and how they were targeted and killed.

The same is true in the 2005 execution of Mr. Williams by the state of California, Min. Muhammad said. He also reminded the audience that the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said, “Stan Tookie Williams is The Patron Saint of all those struggling in gang life. If we lift him up, then his wisdom, his spirit, his words will draw these young people out of where they are to where he is. … Stan Tookie Williams is a free man, free from the demons of himself.”

The system that killed Mr. Williams is guilty of murder and took the life of a redeemed man, he said. But there are lessons to be learned from his life and his death, said Min. Muhammad. He then introduced keynote speaker Barbara Becnel, calling her a “warrior queen,” and shared his excitement at hearing her commitment to participate in the workshop.

Ms. Becnel was a longtime friend, confidante and defender of Mr. Williams. She advocated for him, helped him produce anti-gang children’s books and witnessed his execution.

The 56-year-old executive director of a non-profit social services agency in Richmond, Calif., Ms. Becnel worked with Mr. Williams for 13 years and organized an international campaign for clemency until his execution. She also co-produced the award-winning TV film Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.

Ms. Becnel started by thanking Min. Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam for their support of Mr. Williams.

When Min. Farrakhan met with Mr. Williams on death row, he made promises and kept all of them, she said.

The Minister actively supported Mr. Williams’ cause and used The Final Call newspaper as a vehicle to tell his story and to spread the word about the unjust decision to put him to death, she said.

“I don’t know how many human beings get to see the spiritual ascendancy of a human being,” said Ms. Becnel, referring to witnessing the Nobel Peace Prize nominee’s death.

Mr. Williams was a redeemed and good man, she said. Ms. Becnel also played the rough cut of a DVD devoted to the impact of Mr. Williams’ work with youth and its positive impact on their lives.

But the way Mr. Williams died was torture, Ms. Becnel said. She described how Mr. Williams suffered when what should have been an execution that took several minutes lasted for 35 minutes.

The problems started with a nurse that couldn’t find a vein to insert needles carrying the deadly poisons, to the failure to use the proper three drug cocktail to ensure a quick and painless death, she said.

Instead of dying instantly, Mr. Williams suffered six and a half minutes of unbelievable pain, she said. One drug literally made his body feel as though it was on fire, she said. The prison also gave insufficient amounts of the drugs to Mr. Williams, Ms. Becnel said.

She described watching her friend die and how she and two other witnesses shouted the state had executed an innocent man and performed the Black Power salute as a final act of defiance.

State officials set executions up like theater, with curtains, low lights and silence, Ms. Becnel said. They want you to watch the execution and not say anything, she said.

San Quentin, the prison where Mr. Williams was executed, had no licensed medical personnel involved in the execution and a judge that looked into the execution found many things were done wrong, she said.

But even Mr. Williams’ death is having an impact, said Ms. Becnel.

In an opinion issued a year after Mr. Williams died, the judge found the botched execution rose to the level of “cruel and unusual punishment,” said Ms. Becnel.

The judge has declared a moratorium on state executions until the state fixes the problem, she said.

An investigation and hearings by the judge on the Mr. Williams execution showed a flawed state protocol that a veterinarian, who was an expert witness, said was not fit for animals.

According to Ms. Becnel, the veterinarian said the only way to administer the death penalty properly is to have trained medical staff monitoring the condemned person and making adjustments.

That creates a problem for the state and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because medical associations don’t want doctors and nurses taking part in executions, Ms. Becnel said.

Ms. Becnel expressed excitement about the judges’ order. Fixing the system will be impossible because of the cowardice of those involved, she said.

“They don’t want to be held accountable or culpable for being the murderers that they are,” she said.

Ms. Becnel said her strength comes from Mr. Williams’ telling her that she had to represent him. Mr. Williams was so brave, in particular, in the face of death that his example feeds her strength.

The death penalty is imposed based on race and class and needs to be abolished, she said.

Blacks get the death penalty for killing whites, but rarely for killing one another, she said. Those with money get off, if they are ever prosecuted at all, Ms. Becnel added.

“Lynching laws still stand, we just call it capital punishment,” she said.

Victor Muhammad, prison minister for Mosque No. 1 in Detroit, made a brief presentation. He talked about how federal authorities were seeking to enact the death penalty for federal crimes in states that did not have capital punishment.

Michigan doesn’t have capital punishment, but the federal government wants to pre-empt the state law. The same is happening in other places across the country, he warned.

“We have to stop the death penalty,” said Min. Abdullah Muhammad, who thanked Ms. Becnel for her work and strength.

He called Mr. Williams an inspiration, an example of how the body can be locked down, but the spirit and will still be free, he said.

Mr. Williams’ “mind transcended the walls” of the prison and impacted youth for good, Min. Abdullah Muhammad said.

There needs to be a forum with Ms. Becnel in every region of the country, he said.

For those who believe Mr. Williams, who was convicted of four murders and served over 20 years in prison, it should be understood that a society produced such behavior, Min. Abdullah Muhammad said.

Though Mr. Williams denied killing the victims, such crimes sprout from the seeds planted by a wicked society, he added. Black leaders that could have guided wayward youth were targeted by the government and killed, the National Prison Reform minister noted.

(Richard Muhammad also moderated the Prison Reform Ministry workshop.)