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A Voice for the Voiceless
His voice had power. His booming delivery was infused with rousing socio-political rhetoric. With a rhythmic cadence, tone, and inflection, his voice kept a beat. It emboldened a generation of black youth, and frightened the white establishment. His voice organized black voters in rural southern towns. It later pushed drug dealers and prostitutes out of his Atlanta community. As he aged, the provocative rhetoric gave way to a mellow, measured and direct recital of religious discipline. He traded his iconic black beret and black sunglasses for a knitted kufi and wire-rimmed glasses. Despite his garb, at a lean 6’5”, he always cut an imposing figure – a revolutionary unafraid to speak truth to power.
But now, that voice has been muted; muzzled underneath the wailing screams of the mentally ill as they bang on the walls of their prison cells – walls on to which they spread their feces. Men who mutilate their bodies with and swallow razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones and writing utensils howl and weep at all hours of the day and night. It is within these hellish confines that a Civil Rights icon sits shackled in an underground cell. Silenced.
Let me declare before the families of these men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent...
For over 10 years now, Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin has been under perpetual solitary confinement, for usually 23 hours a day with almost no human contact. Al-Amin, once known as H. Rap Brown during his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, is now referred to as 99974-555 - his inmate register number at the federally run Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) Penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. He is serving a life sentence for a crime many people believe he never committed.
Al-Amin was convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff and wounding another during a gun fight in March of 2000 and was sentenced to life in prison two years later. Then, on July 30 into August 1 of 2007, Al-Amin was secretly transferred overnight to the super-maximum security ADX prison, without the knowledge of his family or legal counsel. It is there where he now resides, 1,400 miles away from home, shackled in that underground cell. Although housed in a federal facility, Al-Amin is imprisoned on state charges and is still being paid for by Georgia state tax payers.
Al-Amin has always maintained his innocence. In a statement released after his arrest, he wrote:
Let me declare before the families of these men, before the state, and any who would dare to know the truth, that I neither shot nor killed anyone. I am innocent…I am one with the grief of this mother and father at the loss of their son. I am joined at the heart with this widow and her children at the loss of a husband and a father. I drink from the same bitter cup of sorrow as the siblings at the loss of a beloved brother. I am powerless to do anything to ease your pain and suffering except pray that Allah comforts you in your hour of need and grants you peace for the remainder of your days.
Later, prior to his trial, a gag order was imposed on Al-Amin, preventing him from professing his innocence outside of the trial. Even now, a request sent to the ADX prison to interview Al-Amin has gone unanswered.
To give a voice back to the man who once vociferously spoke for the voiceless, over 200 supporters of Al-Amin gathered under the dome of the Georgia State Capital building in Atlanta for a national day of action on March 19, 2012. The rally, which featured many speakers including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Imam Zaid Shakir, was coordinated to demand that Al-Amin be released from federal detainment and transferred back to the Georgia State Prison in Reidsville, Georgia.
“We’re certain the F.B.I. has a role in (his transfer to the federal prison)” said Heather Gray, host of the Just Peace radio program on WRFG in Atlanta and an organizer of the rally. The F.B.I.'s presence in the conviction of Al-Amin has been visible since the beginning, where “the F.B.I. met with the judge in her chambers during the trial,” said Gray. Gray, who also serves on the board of directors for WRFG and Pacifica National Radio, has been involved in the Civil Rights Movement and started publicizing Al-Amin’s case at the request of his late brother, Ed Brown. Brown and Gray worked together during the anti-apartheid movement and then again soon after Al-Amin was arrested over a decade ago. “[His transfer] seems to be a punitive thing, not based on anything he’s done in prison,” said Gray.
Indeed, Al-Amin has been the focus of federal surveillance since the 1960’s. In an August, 1967, letter to all F.B.I. offices focusing the infamous Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) against “Black Nationalist Hate Groups,” J. Edgar Hoover specifically called out H. Rap Brown and three other men – Stokely Carmichael, Elijah Muhammad, and Maxwell Stanford – as targets of the program. The surveillance continued throughout the 1990’s, as the F.B.I. placed informants in Al-Amin’s Atlanta community to try and connect him with criminal activity. Despite developing a 44,000-page file on Al-Amin, the F.B.I. was unable to pin a single charge on him – until his murder conviction and subsequent move to the federal ADX prison.
Throughout his incarceration in solitary confinement, which according to Mauri’ Salaakhan, a human rights activist and Director of The Peace and Justice Foundation in Washington, D.C., “violates Al-Amin’s constitutional rights of (being subjected) to cruel and unusual punishment,” Al-Amin maintains his innocence and mental clarity. “Despite the brutal conditions, he’s holding up well. He’s a man of deep faith. He has a strong constitution,” said Salaakhan, who has been closely following the case since he released a booklet in 2002, “The Case of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin: Is it a Government Conspiracy?” The brutal conditions Salaakhan mentions are now the subject of a June 2012 class-action lawsuit brought against the ADX prison for its inhumane treatment of mentally ill inmates.
The organizers of and speakers at the rally aim to petition the state of Georgia to stop spending state tax-payer dollars to incarcerate Al-Amin in the federal ADX prison in Colorado. According to Bethany Whetzel, assistant counsel for the Georgia Department of Corrections, the current per diem rate to house Al-Amin at the federal ADX prison is $80.04 – over $140,000 to date. The office of Georgia Governor Nathan Deal refused to comment on the situation. “It’s a two-prong approach” Salaakhan said. The first step is to bring Al-Amin back to Georgia; the second step is to petition the state courts for a retrial in order to free him.
The second step has been tasked, among others, to C. Allen Garrett Jr., a partner at the law firm of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton (KT&S). Garrett, based in Atlanta, has been working on Al-Amin’s case pro-bono since 2007. The law firm originally was assigned Al-Amin’s case when he brought a suit against the warden of the Georgia State Prison, Hugh Smith, and other prison officials for illegally opening mail from his legal counsel, which is protected by attorney-client privileges.
As he researched the case, Garrett, and lead counsel and senior partner at KT&S, A. Stephens Clay, discovered retaliatory actions on the part of prison officials against Al-Amin. Moreover, they came across the work of G. Terry Jackson and Linda Sheffield, Al-Amin’s attorneys from his state appeal case in 2007. Jackson, who passed away in March of 2012, and Sheffield found major flaws with the initial trial in 2002 and revealed important evidence that was never presented. Jackson’s and Sheffield’s discovery uncovered what Garrett refers to as the “ineffective assistance of counsel” on the part of Al-Amin’s original defense team, thus leading Garrett to file various petitions with the state of Georgia for a retrial based on ignored evidence.
Al-Amin’s petition for a retrial sits with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, which issued an order on July 3, 2012, directing the respondents (Georgia state Attorney General, Samuel Olens; ADX Warden, Blake Davis; and Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner, Brian Owens) to address why Al-Amin’s challenge should not be granted. On August 17, the respondents replied by dismissing Al-Amin’s claims and urged the court to deny a retrial.
Now, within a federal facility reserved for the most dangerous criminals who pose a national and international security threat, Al-Amin must quietly await a court to once again rule on his fate. That fate, which is linked to an inconsequential traffic stop in 1999, was put into motion during his role as a Civil Rights leader, when he first garnered the watchful eye of the federal authorities.
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