Jalil Abdul Muntaqim (295677)
Credit: Contributed

“A system that doesn’t value the humanity of Black people,” said Jose Saldana, the director of the Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP) campaign. “It all boils down to the legacy of racism that the entire legal system is based on.”

Saldana was released from prison nearly three-years ago after serving 38 years. He’s also one of the lucky ones to be out of prison before the COVID-19 epidemic.

Some of his fellow older inmates aren’t so lucky.

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved almost 100 elderly prisoners to the Adirondack Correctional Facility and moved out the younger inmates. The governor said that it was to ensure the safety of aging incarcerated individuals. Serving as a makeshift correctional nursing home, elder prisoners are separated from other inmates. But some have argued that they should’ve been released before this even happened.

According to the Center for Disease Control, people ages 65 and up are labeled as high risk for COVID-19 infection and suffer severe illness as a result of said infection. As a result, in April, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) officials said state prison inmates 55 and over, who are close to or within 90 days of their release could be considered for early release due to COVID-19 spreading in prisons and correctional facilities.

But why not all elder inmates regardless of the nature of their crimes?

“In regards to older prisoners in general, the ‘lock ‘em up’ mentality still prevails in the minds of most of our politicians, so many older prisoners at high risk for COVID are not being released because they are ‘violent’ offenders,” said Anne Lamb, of NYC Jericho (an organization devoted to freeing political prisoners), in an email to the AmNews. “This despite the fact they are the least likely to recidivate. So the elders are held for long sentences and many have received de facto death sentences due to COVID.”

When the AmNews contacted DOCCS officials, we were sent statistics detailing their actions up to that point. According to them, as of Aug. 2, 2,220 people were granted an early release including those with low-level parole violations cancelled, those with non-violent and non-sex offenses and were within 90 days of release and those who were pregnant or postpartum.

Attempts to contact the governor’s office were unsuccessful.

Saldana told the AmNews that parole hearings, in practice, should be a place for inmates to show that they’ve reformed and their good behavior warrants their release. In reality, it’s become a place for authorities to find excuses to keep you in.

“Irrespective of evidence of genuine transformation and all the good that the men and women do after being incarcerated for decade…,” Saldana said as his voice trailed off.

There’ve been plenty of cases of inmates being denied for one reason or another. Then there’s the case of Jalil Abdul Muntaqim, who was affiliated with the Black Panthers and, along with two others, went to prison for the May 21, 1971 murders of police officers Waverly Jones and Joseph Piagentini. The son of one of the police officers, Waverly Jones, Jr.––who is Black––argued in favor of him being paroled almost 15 years ago.

Muntaqim, 68, (formerly known as Anthony Bottom) has been to the parole board 12 times since 2002, the first year he was eligible. Each time, he was denied parole citing various reasons. However, according to Legal Aid Staff Attorney Nora Caroll, the real reason stems from the nature of his crime.

“One thing that’s been a big part of him staying inside has been the PBA and their efforts to deny parole for anyone who has murdered or attempted to murder a police officer,” Caroll said.

The PBA she’s referring to is the Police Benevolent Association (who are currently fighting against local government and reform activists to have databases detailing cases of misconduct made public.)

“The PBA’s power has been outsized and unreasonably exercised,” Caroll said. “They’re in the position of ‘no one who killed a cop should be paroled.’ That’s not what the law says.”

Citing New York State Constitutional Article IV, Sec. 4, Muntaqim filed an application to New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to commute his sentence and have him released immediately from the DOCCS’ custody. The response? Silence.

A source at DOCCS said that Muntaqim didn’t fit the criteria for “early transition” due to his “crime of conviction.”

“For months, public health experts, faith leaders, Congress members, and hundreds of others have warned NYS officials that the prisons are potential death traps in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lamb.

On Apr. 27, Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick ordered Muntaqim’s temporary release from Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, NY due to his age and based on his age and chronic health issues. That was short-lived.

“However, NYS Attorney General Letitia James, acting on behalf of NYS DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci, appealed the ruling, blocking Jalil’s release and forcing him to remain in prison,” said Lamb. “Just as we feared, Jalil, who was ordered released a month ago, eventually contracted COVID-19. Jalil became ill on May 22nd and was taken to Albany Medical Center on May 25th.”

Attorney General James’ office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Obviously, we will have many more political prisoners as people continue to confront the state to demand our human rights,” said Lamb. “So people must remain steadfast in their opposition to this brutal racist capitalist system.

“As Jalil says, ‘We are our own liberators!’” Lamb concluded.

Saldana said he and Muntaqim know each other well and were in several prisons together. He said that he’s seen Muntaqim educate young inmates and put them on positive path.

“He’s an educator, a mentor and a counselor,” said Saldana. “Who in over 40 years has helped an entire generation of younger men transform their entire lives. Who else can make that claim?

“If he’s ever to be released, he would be an immediate asset to the community across the state,” said Saldana. “Our community, the Black and Latino communities, need and want men and women like Jalil home. But there are those who would not want a man like this in our community. Those who want to keep our community marginalized…”