Political Prisoner
Mumia Abu-Jamal's rights as prison journalist were violated, 3 judges agree
September 1998

On August 25th, a three judge federal appeals panel for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously found that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections had twice violated the rights of Mumia Abu Jamal: 1, when they punished him for allegedly violating prison regulations against running a business or profession by publishing essays, books, and articles--and recording commentaries for broadcast with the Prison Radio Project and National Public Radio ; 2, when they then opened privileged mail from his attorneys, claiming it to be a necessary part of their investigation into Jamal's "violations." Mumia is on death row for shooting a police officer, a crime which he and his supporters, as well as some witnesses, say he didn't do. He has been imprisoned since 1983 in what many describe as a politically-motivated frameup against Mumia, a journalist, for his outspoken criticism of the Philadelphia police for their deadly actions against MOVE.

In a 16 page opinion written by Circuit Judge Nygaard, the Court first carefully reviewed Mumia's history as a successful journalist in prison, specifically noting that "approximately forty publications carried articles under Jamal's byline" and that he was even commended by prison authorities for publishing an article in the Yale Law Journal. That was before he gained public notoriety as a contracted commentator for National Public Radio. That public notoriety, the court found, led to an investigation by the Department of Corrections only after "public complaints concerning Jamal's proposed NPR commentaries were made by the Fraternal Order of the Police." The Court reasoned that while the Department has the authority to regulate prisoner conduct, it may not do so if, " ..motivated, at least in part, by the content of his articles and mounting public pressure to do something about them." The Court found that although Jamal had been writing since 1989,--with the knowledge of the authorities--"...the Department did not claim to be burdened by his actions until the Fraternal Order of Police outcry in l994." That claim, and the resulting investigation, violated Mr. Jamal's First Amendment rights as a writer. The case was remanded and the District Court was ordered to grant Jamal's preliminary injunction against the DOC.

The Court also found that the opening of Jamal's legal mail also violated his rights. Specifically noting that not only did the Department wrongfully open privileged letters from his counsel, they also inexplicably forwarded copies of mail to the Office of the General Counsel --"the office charged with advising the Governor of Pennsylvania on, among other things, signing death warrants." Three letters were even found to have been forwarded directly to the Governor's office. In an unusually caustic aside not ordinarily found in federal court opinions, Judge Nygaard reviewed the argument advanced by the Department for such actions and concluded, "This argument is nonsensical." The District Court was also ordered to enjoin further openings of attorney-client mail.

From: Prison Radio (a project of the Quixote Center), which challenges mass incarceration and racism by airing the voices of men and women in prison. In order to be on the mailing list send us a contribution of $25 or more. Prison Radio/Quixote P.O. Box 5206 Hyattsville, MD 20782.

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