The Resounding Right of Mutulu Shakur to Die in Freedom: Where Compassion Fails

Mutulu Shakur and his codefendant Marilyn Buck  at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan, 1987. Photo: Trella Laughlin.
by Susie Day

Anyone with a loved one in prison carries around the silent, ceaseless terror that the person so loved will die alone, behind bars. Currently, 71-year-old Mutulu Shakur, a Black man imprisoned 36 years, lies in a hospital bed in a federal prison medical facility in Lexington, Kentucky. Ravaged by bone marrow cancer, fed by tubes, having lost 25% of his body weight, Shakur has been given weeks – at best, months – to live. His loved ones – family, friends, hundreds of supporters – are trying any and all legal means to get him out. Time and again, the US government and the courts refuse.

Mutulu Shakur, born Jeral Williams in 1950, grew up in New York City. His mother was blind, and so he learned as a child to navigate, not just run-of-the-mill racism, but also the welfare system’s byzantine bigotry. When he joined the radical Black movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, he became Mutulu Shakur. He also became an activist, a community leader, and holistic healer credited with cofounding the Lincoln Detox People’s Program, which brought game-changing acupuncture treatment for drug addiction to the impoverished South Bronx. In 1988, with his codefendant Marilyn Buck, Shakur was convicted of conspiracy in several armed robberies, one of which resulted in the deaths of three people, and for the 1979 prison escape of the revolutionary, Assata Shakur. As a revolutionary himself, and as the stepfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, Mutulu Shakur is both famous and infamous.

But neither Shakur’s notoriety, nor his community work, nor the crimes for which he was convicted should matter now. Mutulu Shakur is dying in prison. He is one of thousands of people – predominantly Black and Brown – who are seriously ill behind bars and asking for release. These are people – regardless of their alleged crimes – whose human right is to lie unshackled in a bed outside prison walls, to say goodbye to those they have loved in this life. Most of them are repeatedly denied compassionate release, or release on any terms.

According to the Marshall Project, working with the New York Times, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), from 2013 to 2017, approved just 6 percent of the 5,400 applications it received for compassionate release, leaving 266 applicants to die in custody. Applications are often rejected on grounds that prisoners still pose a “risk to public safety” or that the nature of their crime remains too serious to justify release. These rejections, the report continues, “often override the opinions of those closest to the prisoners, like their doctors and wardens.”

It’s no coincidence that both current and former staff at Shakur’s prison have spoken out for his release. In fact, the Marshall Project, using statistics to represent thousands of prisoners, describes exactly what is happening to Mutulu Shakur. So, when you read Shakur’s story here, know that, even with his extraordinary history and politics, Shakur is not exceptional. The essence of his fight to get out is true in prisons across the country.

Dr. Barbara Zeller is one of Shakur’s medical advocates. She’s a New York internist with over 50 years of practice who, because of her medical work in the Bronx, has known Shakur since the mid-1970s. She now interprets Shakur’s prison medical records for his family and legal team. According to Zeller, Shakur’s medical care has been fairly competent – except: “his diagnosis came two years after he developed symptoms that could have been followed. Because of that delay, the cancer was far advanced.”
Although Shakur’s multiple myeloma was diagnosed in 2019, Shakur had already begun suffering years before from diseases that often accompany life inside prison: type 2 diabetes, hypertension, glaucoma, hyperlipidemia, and the aftereffects of a stroke in 2013. Since his cancer diagnosis, he has gone through exhausting rounds of chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, a relapse, more rounds of chemo, pneumonia, and at least two bouts of Covid. By spring of this year, the cancer had spread throughout Shakur’s skeletal system.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” says Zeller, “extremely debilitated and too weak to take more chemotherapy. He’s facing the end of his life. Medical people feel that his staying in prison is elder abuse.”

According to the terms of his sentence, Shakur was actually eligible for “mandatory parole” on February 10, 2016. But the US Parole Commission denied his release. Since 2016, Shakur has survived, not only catastrophically poor health, but also eight more parole denials and three rejections of compassionate release. During his parole hearings, Shakur has taken responsibility for his part in the loss of lives, and voiced deep and unmistakably sincere remorse.

His legal team has also made attempts at federal clemency and release through the “good time” accredited to people like Shakur who were convicted under federal “old law” before 1987. Given this option, Shakur is eligible for 976 “good days,” which would – in theory – have let him out years ago. Nothing has worked.

Legal connections between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and district courts are infinitely murky. On one hand, says the Marshall Project, the US Sentencing Commission deems release considerations best left to the courts, but: “judges can rule on compassionate release requests only if the Bureau of Prisons approves them first.” On the other hand, The Intercept quotes a BOP spokesperson who asserts: “At all times, the decision on whether to grant [release] … lies with the sentencing court.” [Italics, mine]

In late 2020, the Honorable Charles S. Haight, Jr., who sentenced Shakur to 60 years in prison in 1988, ruled on Shakur’s latest request for compassionate release. Acknowledging the incurable cancer that had, at that point, reached Shakur’s “skull, his jaw, and his shoulders,” and the fact that Shakur’s life expectancy was then estimated at about two years, Haight concluded that release was impossible, given Shakur’s “criminal conduct, indefensibly undertaken for political reasons.” However, Haight allowed – straining every remaining quality of mercy – that if Shakur’s cancer were to take him “to the point of approaching death, he may apply again to the Court, for a release that … could be justified as ‘compassionate.’”

This has inspired some of Shakur’s friends to interpret Haight’s ruling basically as, “Come back when you’re dead.”

More motions have been filed on Shakur’s behalf, including a habeas corpus, which met with limited success until the DOJ shot it down in May of this year. Addressing Shakur personally, the DOJ cited “your commendable prison programming record” and “terminal cancer,” but denied release on the stupefying grounds of “the reasonable probability” that, if released, “you … still have the means and opportunity to influence others” and “could commit a Federal, State, or local crime.”

Shakur’s codefendant Marilyn Buck also faced terminal cancer. In 2010, Buck was flown from a BOP medical facility in Carswell, TX to a New York City airport, where, weak and in pain, she greeted friends in a wheelchair. Unlike Shakur’s case, the BOP had given Buck a parole release date. With the understanding that her cancer would kill her before her designated release, Buck’s date was moved up, allowing her to die in the home of friends three weeks after getting out.

If, at this point, you were to notice a racial bias in the carceral system, Marilyn Buck – a staunch antiracist – would be the first to agree with you. Attorney Nkechi Taifa, who knew and loved Buck, is on Shakur’s defense team. “Even though we’re all together in this struggle,” Taifa said, “there’s still vast disparities of race. All the white people in Shakur’s cases have been released on parole or clemency. But Mutulu Shakur, a Black man, languishes in prison.”

Shakur’s case now returns to Judge Haight, who is currently reading last-minute motions from the DOJ and Shakur’s defense team. He will likely rule again in early August. Meanwhile, Shakur’s “Appeal and Request for Reconsideration” is at the U.S. Parole Commission, which has already denied an earlier appeal. One member of Shakur’s legal team conjectures that, even if Haight were to decide for  Shakur’s release, the Parole Commission could well overrule his decision.

What does any of this mean for justice in the United States? Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Adolf Eichmann, the petty bureaucratic condemned for mass murder, comes close:
His conscience was indeed set at rest when he saw the zeal and eagerness with which “good society” everywhere reacted as he did. He did not need to “close his ears to the voice of conscience,” as the judgment has it, not because he had none, but because his conscience spoke with a “respectable voice,” with the voice of respectable society around him.

Arendt’s portrait is relevant now, not in condemning Charles Haight or any particular person at the DOJ, but for the ease with which racially maneuvered death sentences like Shakur’s weave themselves into the bureaucracy of “respectable” American culture, quietly and unnoticed.
Actually, some people have noticed. On July 20, a delegation of supporters appeared at the Department of Justice building in Washington, DC to deliver an open letter, signed by nearly 200 clergy people. Titled “Faith Leaders for Mutulu Shakur,” the letter calls “unconditionally” for Shakur’s immediate release. Noting the DOJ’s own “PATTERN risk assessment tool,” which puts Shakur in the lowest possible recidivism risk category, the letter begins, “As faith leaders, we believe in redemption and salvation – tenets that could not be more appropriately understood than in [this] case ….”
A press conference outside the Justice building was attended by a range of people: clergy; healers and organizers who worked with Shakur back in the day; young Movement 4 Black Lives activists who were newborns when Shakur went to prison… I’m there, too. I want to witness the open expression of the right of any human being to die outside prison – even as hope, hour by hour, seems to fade.

But back in the Bronx, Barbara Zeller has other thoughts. “Mutulu, he’s such a fighter,” says Zeller. “He tells his health providers to do anything they can to keep him alive because he is absolutely, deep-down convinced he will see freedom.”

Maybe you could say that, hour by hour, at the end of his life, Mutulu Shakur is living out his last work of activism.
Susie Day has written about prison issues since 1988, when she began reporting on the cases of people charged with political protest acts, one of them, Marilyn Buck. Her book, The Brother You Choose: Paul Coates and Eddie Conway Talk About Life, Politics, and The Revolution, was published by Haymarket Books in 2020.