Written by Noelle Hanrahan
In the winter of 1992, I was looking for a voice from America’s death row. My search took me to lock down units on the largest death rows in the country: California, Texas, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. I was seeking a perspective that would illuminate the harrowing places where men and women wait to be ritually killed at the hands of the government. This voice would bring into focus and breathe life into numbing words and dry statistics – capital punishment, gas chamber, solitary confinement, corrections, and mass incarceration.
Here I was, a young reporter, trying in the best tradition of investigative journalism to cover the story. I was asking a simple question: what does this all mean? Prisons in the United States are an epic story. Mass incarceration and the jailing of one in forty-six people during their lifetime (one in three for Black men) is culturally defining. As a broadcast journalist I needed a voice on the ground, someone who had lived this experience. I needed someone to share with the audience what it means for a country to never quite let go of its slavery.*
Clearly, racism was driving U.S. carceral policies; by the early 90s slavery was back.
Could a country incarcerate the most people per capita on the planet, employ the death penalty with ferocity, and incarcerate a generation of young black men, without experiencing devastating economic and spiritual consequences? Prisons verses preschools is not a slogan: it is a choice.
By bringing Mumia Abu-Jamal’s voice and perspective to the airwaves, Prison Radio was amplifying a critical perspective. It has been an amazing journey, one you can participate in by watching “Long Distance Revolutionary.”
For more than a decade, Mumia’s voice had been silenced. He was a journalist trapped in solitary confinement on death row – his melodic silky baritone, extinguished. Mumia Abu-Jamal began his career in journalism in 1969 as a writer for the Black Panther newspaper. Throughout the 1980s, he was a prominent broadcast journalist in Philadelphia. Like many Black men of his generation, he entered prison, arriving at Graterford in 1981.
In July 1992, I handed Mumia Abu-Jamal a microphone and his broadcast career resumed. These were his first radio broadcasts since he was shot and arrested. For a few hours on that hot summer day in rural Pennsylvania, Mumia was back in a funky old recording studio… even the thick Plexiglas separating talent from engineer was the same. The only difference was the heavily armed guards and his tightly shackled wrists.
For the last two decades we have produced weekly broadcasts. I have found Mumia’s perspectives searing and profoundly illuminating. He tackles the vast implications of incarceration head on. And his delivery is unique and compelling. I often relate that he has the vocal talent of James Earl Jones, though trapped in a concrete box. He is a world class broadcast journalist. But beyond the talent, and brilliant writing, he also infuses each essay with a profound humanity and respect for his subjects.
Such a compelling belief in the poor runs counter to the government’s right wing narrative. It is also a perspective that would not go unnoticed and unpunished. Battling and breaking through the censorship of Mumia’s voice has been a tremendous fight. As Mumia states, “The state would rather give me an Uzi than a microphone.” And as Mumia would say: keep listening, keep rumbling, and take this journey with us. You can start by going to see the film or bringing it to your town.
Noelle Hanrahan, founder of Prison Radio, is a producer on the Street Legal Cinema production “Long Distance Revolutinoary: A Journey With Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
*Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.