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Angela Davis. Photo courtesy of Columbia GSAPP. Creative Commons license.

“How does hope emanate from a prison cell?”

Angela Davis posed this question to a packed audience recently at the First International Church of Oakland during a benefit for Marcus Books and radio station KPFA. Both Angela Davis and Johanna Fernandez discussed the implications of legal and spiritual liberation in the face of  statewide oppression created by the U.S. prison system.

Davis, author of Are Prisons Obsolete?, is a well-known activist, scholar and writer, best known for her work with the Black Panthers and the Communist Party. Fernandez is a history professor at Baruch College who coordinates the “Bring Mumia Home” campaign and is the editor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s new book, Writings on the Wall. Publicizing the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal and advocating for his emancipation were the focus of the lecture. Mumia’s story is publicized not to individualize, but to serve as a symbol for the millions of men and women currently being held captive by the state.

“Very few people in prison have voices that go beyond the wall. It’s my job to do the work for them, because they have no one.” –Mumia Abu-Jamal

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Mumia has a long history of fighting for the liberation of black people. He served as a member of the Black Panther Party and a reporter for a black-owned radio station that advocated for black liberation. In 1981, he was convicted for murdering a Philadelphia police officer, although his guilt has been contested by several human rights organizations. They believe that he didn’t receive a fair trial, and that much of the evidence in his case was tampered with. Although Mumia remains behind bars, his activism continues. He’s written several books and has connected with leaders and activists from around the world to expose a racially biased legal system, fueled by what we now refer to as the Prison Industrial Complex.

“Prisons are nothing but steel-and-brick slave ships.” –Mumia Abu-Jamal

Our country has reached an ethical crossroads. Although the United States only makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. These numbers bring to light the grim ubiquity of criminalization in this country. The prison system is a for-profit industry in which human bodies serve as the main source of revenue. Prison companies are invested in not only maintaining but extending their reach, bankrolling lobbyists to advocate for longer prison sentences — not to rehabilitate, but to profit. This vicious system affects America’s black communities the most; it has become an unsavory fact of life for black families nationwide.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” he describes just how deeply black families are entrenched in this institution of oppression: “Among all black males born since the late 1970s, one in four went to prison by their mid-‘30s; among those who dropped out of high school, seven in 10 did.” Yet this epidemic goes beyond race. Angela Davis spoke of connecting oppression across borders and culture, stating, “In order to understand racism, we need to understand other forms of oppression.” America’s prison system is racist, and yet it goes beyond civil rights, raising questions about basic human rights.

Mumia Abu-Jamal. Photo courtesy 4WardEver Campaign UK. Creative Commons license.

Mumia Abu-Jamal. Photo courtesy 4WardEver Campaign UK. Creative Commons license.

For example, Abu-Jamal is currently suffering from Hepatitis C. The prison system is refusing to provide him with the medical treatment he needs. Abu-Jamal’s year-long health crisis almost became fatal at the end of March, when he lost consciousness due to life-threatening blood-sugar levels and renal failure. Although prison medical staff were aware of his poor condition for several weeks, they refused to provide care, keeping Abu-Jamal in the dark about the source of his ailment. Abu-Jamal and his lawyers are now filing a lawsuit to address this negligence.

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Fernandez explained that such abuse at the hands of the state is commonplace for many prisoners. There are approximately 2 million prison inmates throughout the U.S. and, according to the Bureau of Justice, “40 percent of prisoners and inmates reported chronic medical conditions such as asthma, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure — and diabetes.”

This brings us back to Angela Davis’s original question: “How does hope emanate from a prison cell?” Hope from the inside is contingent upon how hard we fight on the outside. Hope comes from resistance and advocacy for all human lives. Hope comes from viewing the U.S. prison system not as a fact of life, but as one of many injustices that must be transformed.

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