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An Interview with Sister Karima Al-Amin (Part 2 of 2)
Sister Karima Al-Amin
By Nadrat Siddique
In the second of this two part interview, Karima Al-Amin, Atlanta-based activist,
attorney, and wife of Imam Jamil Al-Amin (the former H. Rap Brown), speaks about
her and her husband’s conversion to Islam, the effects of Imam Jamil’s incarceration on
their family, and the many legal actions undertaken by the imam since his incarceration.
Some of these he initiated without the aid of an attorney. Others were vigorously pursued
by a legal team at a prominent Atlanta law firm, the imam’s first truly competent and
committed legal representation, which appeared on the scene a few years after his
As I listened to Ms. Al-Amin, I was stunned by the resilience and resolve of the Al-Amins, undaunted by the challenges before them. Against all odds, they’d patiently continued a dignified and peaceful resistance. Most amazingly, they had not restricted themselves to the challenge of wrongs done to Imam Jamil, although this was, in itself, a huge litany. They were tackling the very constitutionality of laws which violated the rights of inmates, political prisoners, and other victims of the prison-industrial complex. In other words, from behind bars, the Imam, his wife at his “side,” was fighting to “free the slave”—while many seemingly free imams and others on the outside cowered in fear and silence.
Q: Tell me about Imam Jamil’s transition from black radical to mainstream Muslim imam. Did you feel you had to influence him to repudiate or reconstruct that image into a more moderate one?
A: My sister’s first husband was a Muslim from the Republic of Guinea. I remember they had a Qur’an on a stand, and they gave us a prayer rug before we were Muslim that we hung on our wall; consequently, that was one of our early exposures to Islam. My husband took his shahada in December 1971, while he was incarcerated in New York City. Brothers from the Dar-ul-Islam in Brooklyn entered the jails as chaplains and volunteers to hold classes on Islam. The transition to Islam was very natural for my husband because it did not compromise any of his positions.
I took my shahada a few months later, in February 1972, when Imam Jamil gave it to me. I still was reading about Islam after he became Muslim because I wanted to make sure I was becoming Muslim based on my belief. It was a natural flow for us to become Muslim. We never felt we had to explain the transition from his past as H. Rap Brown to Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, although the transition was confusing for those who did not understand my husband. After El Hajj Malik Shabazz, my husband was the next public figure in the Movement to become Muslim. We then saw other black liberators in the 1970s and 1980s become Muslims.
Q: What made you decide to attend law school?
A: Law was my third profession. Here in Atlanta, I worked for a 15-year period with two foundations giving money to grassroots organizations and working on desegregating public higher education and enhancing the traditionally black colleges and universities.I did not go to law school until 1992, while I was teaching English. When I was in high school, I considered law as a career. My mother worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when Thurgood Marshall was the Executive Director, and lawyers were dispatched to the South to represent students and local people who were being arrested, brutalized,and killed. This certainly influenced my early thoughts on considering law. Also, once I married my husband, I was constantly with William Kunstler and at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, as he and the organization represented my husband. And lastly, the fact that the government was continuing its efforts, COINTELPRO-style,to incarcerate my husband, was another factor that moved me finally to attend.
Q: What did you see as your role in the Al-Amin household?
A: I saw my role as a stabilizing one. I was not making speeches, and I wasn’t out there in the public with my husband. I saw my role as maintaining peace at home. I was a teacher during our early years of marriage. My concentration was making sure we could eat together and be together as a family. It always amazed me when we heard people gasp and say, “I saw H. Rap Brown, and he was holding a child,” or “I saw the Rap and he was holding a cat.” Ordinary things he did shocked people because the media had dehumanized him. When things are moving wildly, it’s necessary to have normalcy at home, so I would try to maintain a sense of normalcy in an abnormal world.
Q: What attitude or outlook to life did you adapt after you realized that your husband would be locked up for a long time? What has been your biggest challenge since his railroading?
A: Naturally to be stripped of a husband, a companion, is devastating. Because I came up through the struggle with him, I understood the challenges. Many people refer to my husband as the “last man standing.” He was a COINTELPRO target and he has remained one. I understand his innocence, and the governmental efforts to silence him throughout a 43-year period. This gives me the strength to remain strong and by his side.
My biggest challenge was ensuring that I could provide for my family in my husband’s absence. I was doing so many pro bono cases that I realized that I had to begin charging for my legal services. I was faced with raising a 12-year old son, who was very close to his father, and I had to monitor the psychological impact on him. He was a basketball son, and accustomed to seeing his father at all of his games since he was five years old. I had to move quickly to maintain his life as a youngster, and I could not miss a basketball game or school activity. My overarching challenge naturally was—and continues to be—to work to free my husband.
Q: Has Imam Jamil’s incarceration influenced the career choices of your children? Do you think they will go to law school?
A: We have two children: Kairi and Ali. Kairi is 22 and Ali is 31. Kairi is in law school. He is in his second year, but wants to practice, perhaps, entertainment/sport or international contractual law. He graduated from high school when he was 16, and went to three universities before graduating, still on time. Kairi was in the eighth grade when his father was arrested, and during the trial he would come to court carrying his backpack. He was a trooper.
Q: Have the children visited their father in Florence, CO? Tell me about that visit.
A: Kairi and I visit Imam Jamil in Florence, Colorado. He is being held in the Supermax prison, 1400 miles away, which makes traveling very costly. It essentially takes a full da to travel there and another day to return home. It’s really been a struggle, and we haven’t been able to visit as often as we’d like. Florence is seen by many as a concentration camp for Muslim inmates. Imam Jamil is handcuffed at the waist behind a glass when we see him in one of the legal rooms. On the days we are with him, we are able to visit for approximately six hours. If he receives food during the visit, he has to hold his hands chained in front of him in order to eat. It is a very difficult position, and his wrists begin to swell.
The law firm now representing Imam Jamil pro bono also worked on suits for Guantanamo prisoners. One of their lead attorneys said that if he had to choose between Gitmo and Florence, he would choose Gitmo. Imam Jamil is held in solitary confinement, and Florence is a “no contact” institution, so the conditions are punitive and deplorable.
Q: Imam Jamil’s projects to rid the West End community of drugs are well known, as was his mentoring of the youth. Have these projects continued, and what is the extent of your involvement with them?
A: I’m still involved with the community. It’s a community I helped start with Imam Jamil and it is dear to me. Many of our children now are active in the community, and taking leadership roles, and it’s wonderful to see and feel their energy. We have continued with classes, youth activities, and the Riyaadah that we started in 1982.
Our community under the leadership of my husband always included the youth in our family-oriented activities; therefore, mentoring the youth continues to be a focus.
Q: Do you feel that things have gotten worse in the city since Imam Jamil was locked up?
A: When he was around, there was some vibrancy in the neighborhood. We all miss his presence and his hard work to keep the ills from consuming our community. We can all agree these are drastic times for people, and this is reflected throughout the inner cities. My husband always reminded people that Islam is the medicine for the sick; it is the cure for all society’s ailments.
Q: Unfortunately, the number of political prisoners has increased exponentially since your husband went to prison. What is your advice to the current generation of Muslim law students, as to how they should operate within the U.S. justice system? What should be their contribution to the Muslim community?
A: Imam Jamil was instrumental in getting a Muslim lawyer’s group started. This was similar to what SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee –editor] had,where attorneys represented civil rights workers on a pro bono basis. We have to get more attorneys who would be able to take on cases. Many Muslims who are arrested now have not committed criminal activities, but are arrested for “thought crimes.” We need a band of attorneys to be able to represent Muslims who are being entrapped by informants. Family members of those arrested are draining their resources and are receiving minimal assistance from the Muslim community. We need to recognize that the divide-and-conquer strategy is working very well within the Muslim community, with the result that dissent is crushed and support for political prisoners is diminishing. We need activist attorneys to challenge constitutional violations and the unjust arrests so that families will not have to go to court with attorneys who are concerned only with billable hours.
Q: What is the current state of Imam Jamil’s case?
A: Imam Jamil was convicted in 2002 on Georgia state charges. He immediately was transferred to the maximum state prison in Reidsville, Georgia, where he was held in administrative lockdown. Despite his physical isolation, his presence in the prison for other inmates had an electrical charge. While visiting him, we would see other inmates, passing by on their visits, raising their fists or giving salaams, and—their visitors would do the same.
In 2006, the FBI released a report called “The Radicalization of Muslim Inmates in the Georgia Prison System.” The report focused on the effort by Muslim inmates in the Georgia prison system to have Imam Jamil serve as imam over all Muslim Georgia inmates. Georgia officials realized that Imam Jamil did not initiate the effort, and although he agreed to stop the effort, the FBI launched its own investigation. We believe the report by the FBI was the final step in getting him moved out of Georgia, to the federal supermax prison where so many high profile Muslims are being held.
The Georgia conviction is still being challenged through a habeas corpus action to prove my husband’s innocence. [A writ of habeas corpus is a request for a reversal of a conviction. Imam Jamil’s habeas lists fourteen very compelling reasons why his conviction should be reversed.–editor]. That was filed in 2005. We are at the end of that state process, and attempting to move forward, and hopefully will have a ruling next year.
Q: So even though Imam Jamil was not convicted on any federal charges, he was moved from state to federal custody?
A: Yes, Imam Jamil was moved out of Reidsville without notification to his family or attorneys. The move was based on an agreement between the State of Georgia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take on state prisoners. Georgia pays the Federal Bureau of Prisons every month to house him. They whisked him away in a hot van, and had him sit
for hours in 90-degree temperature until he developed chest pains, and had to be taken to an Atlanta hospital. We knew nothing about this. They kept him overnight, and then returned him to the airport for a flight to the Oklahoma City Federal Penitentiary. From there, he was taken to Florence, CO. The move alone violates the Bureau of Prisons’ rule that an inmate must be housed within 500 miles of his home.
Q: Tell me about some of the lawsuits initiated by Imam Jamil.
A: Imam Jamil filed numerous grievances while in Reidsville and Florence, Colorado, that ultimately ended in his filing a lawsuit:
Legal Mail Lawsuit
This lawsuit was filed because the Reidsville prison staff continued to open legal mail from me to my husband. The Department of Corrections in Atlanta was notified that opening his legal mail in his absence was a violation of the department’s standard operating procedure, and a First Amendment violation. The Southern District Court, in which the lawsuit was filed, ruled in his favor, and Georgia appealed. The case then went to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals for argument. At that point, the 11th Circuit appointed a prominent Atlanta-based attorney and his firm to represent my husband on a pro bono basis. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the action of the staff in opening legal mail from me to my husband was a First Amendment violation. Georgia appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court; that Court refused to hear Georgia’s appeal.
From the day he entered the Reidsville Georgia prison, he was held in administrative 23- hour lockdown. He’s never done a juma’a since he was incarcerated—from 2002 until now. So, we do have fundamental constitutional issues. We will continue to challenge the inhumane and punitive actions of the Georgia Prison system to prevent Imam Jamil’s contact with other prisoners and the right to practice his religion during his incarceration. Additionally, we will challenge the retaliatory transfer from Georgia to a supermax “no contact” prison without his having a federal charge, conviction or sentence. We are very concerned about the impact solitary confinement has on the physical and mental condition of an inmate. [So, specific factors being challenged in the retaliation lawsuit include the imam’s 23-hour per day lockdown in Reidsville, the violation of his religion rights within the Georgia prison system, and the gratuitous transfer to the Florence Supermax. –editor]
Challenge to the Prison Litigation Reform Act
The State has refused to settle our legal mail case; therefore, we are preparing for trial. In doing so, we first are challenging the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Our position is that a constitutional violation is sufficient to win punitive damages, just as a physical injury entitles one to punitive damages. Courts are divided on this issue. [The PLRA, as it stands, prevents Imam Jamil—and others in his position—from receiving punitive damages for violations such as the opening of his legal mail in his absence, on the grounds that the damage inflicted was not physical. –editor]. Our case will give the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals an opportunity to rule on this issue.
Q: What is the situation with Otis Jackson, the self-confessed shooter in the crime for which Imam Jamil was convicted?
A: Our attorneys have deposed Otis Jackson. His testimony, that he committed the actions for which Imam Jamil was convicted, has been consistent. So, we’ve made some headway, but it’s taken a long time. One of the reasons the State said Otis couldn’t have done it, is that he was wearing an electronic monitor. We talked to the maker of the monitor and learned that it is possible to beat the monitor. And in fact, he had a faulty electronic monitor.
Part of the habeas has been that Otis was not investigated. The prosecutor told our attorneys “Oh, he’s crazy, like the other ones,” and the attorneys froze and did nothing to investigate the confession or the monitoring device.
Q: Any final words for New Trend readers?
A: Imam Jamil was previously incarcerated [under the COINTELPRO era prosecutions of Black, Native American, and other leaders and activists –editor] for five years. He got out in 1976. Right after the 2002 conviction, the prosecuting attorney for the State said, “After 24 years, we finally got him.” This confirmed Imam Jamil’s position that it was a government conspiracy. Our immediate short-term goal is to have the Imam transferred back to Georgia, or to a federal prison within a 500-mile radius of his home. Our ultimate goal, naturally, is to exonerate Imam Jamil. We thank you for supporting Imam Jamil and our efforts to exonerate him.
Donations for Imam Jamil’s defense may be sent to:
The Justice Fund
P.O. Box 115363
Atlanta, GA 30310
Write to Imam Jamil Al-Amin:
Reg. No. 99974-555
USP Florence ADMAX
P.O. Box 8500
Florence, CO 81226
For more information, contact:
thejusticefund [at] aol [dot] com
Our most sincere thanks goes to our brothers and sister at New Trend Magazine