It is a bittersweet victory for those who have fought for Mutulu Shakur’s release. While they are happy the freedom fighter will finally be able to spend his last days in peace and surrounded by loved ones, they cannot help but feel anger and frustration at the fact that it took a terminal illness for the parole commission to grant him compassion release.
In its decision, the parole commission acknowledged that Mr. Shakur has “a low risk of recidivating.” It noted that he has “maintained strong family and community ties” despite being incarcerated for over three decades.
However, the only reason Mr. Shakur is being granted release now is that he is facing imminent death—something that could have been avoided if he had been given compassionate release sooner, his supporters argue. On November 10, the United States Parole Commission granted his release on parole, effective December 16.
“Gaining his release has been an absolute struggle. His compassionate release attorneys and I have been working closely to garner support from various influential people. Some people refused to acquiesce to the oppression Black people have faced—those who confronted the state. The process of gaining their release has been very challenging.
I love Mutulu because he speaks about truth and reconciliation and how this government must face up to what it has done to Black people and those who have fought for our freedom,” said Dr. Karin Stanford, professor of political science in African Studies at Cal State University.
“Self-defense is a right. We must fight for our rights; we must fight for our freedom,” added Dr. Stanford.
Mr. Shakur was politically active and was a member of the Republic of New Afrika, a Black nationalist organization founded in the late 1960s. He participated in civil rights, Black liberation, and acupuncture healthcare, all as part of movements of the late 1960s through 1980. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison for his involvement in a 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored truck in which a guard and two police officers were killed. He was the stepfather of slain hip hop legend and actor Tupac Shakur. Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, was also a political activist and member of the Black Panther Party.
Mutulu Shakur is dying of bone marrow cancer. His body and mind have deteriorated. In May, a Bureau of Prisons doctor said he had less than six months to live. It was not until after an October hearing, however, that the federal parole commission agreed to parole the 72 year old’s release. The outdated institution which had denied his release 10 previous times—admitted the obvious—that the dying man, who has long posed zero risk to society and holds an impeccable institutional record and is considered a mentor to many—will likely not commit another offense and should be released.
While the parole board’s decision may be a victory for common sense, it also exposes the callousness and dysfunction of a system that too often values retribution over rehabilitation and ignores the reality of aging prisoners.
Mr. Shakur’s case is a stark reminder of the viciousness of America’s criminal punishment system. He spent nearly three decades in prison. His case also highlights the political nature of mass incarceration in America—those with power can extend or shorten prisoners’ sentences at will, regardless of the facts of their case or whether they pose a threat to society.
The parole commission’s decision to release Mr. Shakur is not based on compassion. Instead, it appears founded on that he is now too sick to pose a threat to society. This is in line with the commission’s guidelines, which state that prisoners should only be released if they are no longer dangerous to the community. However, some observers criticized the timing of the decision, arguing that Mr. Shakur should have been released earlier when his health was first declining. Nonetheless, the parole commission finally followed its guidelines, and Mr. Shakur will now be able to spend his final days outside of prison with his family in southern California.
Ultimately this is a victory for social justice advocates and for Mutulu’s family, who have been fighting for his release for many years.
Gregory Muhammad, coordinator of the Nation of Islam Delaware Valley Prison Reform Ministry, stated that the rights of many political prisoners are violated under the Eighth Amendment when they do not receive timely medical treatment. “Many are released with new aliments likely as a result of not receiving proper medical care while incarcerated which is the case with Mutulu Shakur,” he noted. The constitutional amendment states in part that excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
“Many of them come home and pass away,” explained Mr. Muhammad. “The goal is to advocate for parole boards to move faster with compassionate release requests. It is critical to address the issue of political prisoners who are incarcerated for decades and not given proper medical treatment, he added.
Mike Africa Sr. of MOVE, a Black revolutionary group based in Philadelphia, knows all too well the emotional toll that is facing the family of Mr. Shakur.
“As part of the MOVE 9, my father, Mike Africa Sr., served 40 years behind bars. That’s right. The day I called him about his release, it was overwhelming, joyous beyond words. It was a trepidation, however, because I wasn’t sure if he was really going to be released until he was in my car,” he said.
“Mutulu’s sons, Talib and Mopreme, had similar reactions when I spoke with them. Talib’s response was also similar to mine. The reaction of Talib was reserved. Mopreme’s reaction was outwardly joyful. When my father was released, I had both of those reactions,” explained Mr. Africa. “It is unfortunate that Mutulu Shakur will have to return home while he is still ill. He has already been through so much, and it is unfair that he will not be able to enjoy his final years of freedom.”
Mr. Africa described it as a bittersweet victory, but it is still a victory nonetheless. “There are so many people who never make it home, and I am glad that Mutulu Shakur will at least have the chance to be with his family one last time. When I think about the MOVE 9, Phil Africa and Merle, their loss is a tremendous injustice. They didn’t make it home, neither of them did, but Mutulu will be coming back! That’s special,” he said.
“Mutulu Shakur was a man who made a difference in the lives of others,” Dr. Stanford pointed out. “He was a model citizen during his incarceration, serving as a mentor for other inmates and helping them to turn their lives around. As a result of his tutelage, many young people could leave the prison environment and lead productive lives, support their families, and love their communities. Mutulu was responsible for it. Many people can confirm those stories. The word doesn’t get out mainly because stories like his are kept quiet,” she added.
“As a people, we have not fought for their release in the way they deserve. Our fight for them must be as fierce as theirs for us.”