Journalism in Hell
While a young reporter for a local NPR (National Public Radio) affiliate, housing was my beat.
In a city which was the oldest in the United States, there were no shortages of housing issues, for Philadelphia’s housing stock seemed in a permanent state of disrepair, especially in those sections of the city where Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and poor ethnic whites lived.
But which stories shimmer in the rear-view mirror of memory, brighter than the rest?
Although I reported in several sections of the city, many of those have sunk below the ocean of time. An exception was the rent protest by residents of a dwelling in Southwest Philadelphia, a place I drove by for years, but never entered, until it became my job.
The exterior was attractive and distinctive, and set apart from its neighbors by the decorative moldings and mortar-work which told of another age of its construction, when builders were artisans, who took time not merely to build, but to make the building beautiful.
When I got a call from a contact of the impending strike, I rushed out there and finally entered the building.
The conditions therein made me gasp. Ceilings were dangerously drooping over children’s living quarters, plumbing was backed up, and the general conditions of lack of repair made the building a threat to all of its inhabitants.
As I met with the leaders of the strike, their fury was evident.
When I think back on the story years later, it dawned on me that housing, per se, wasn’t the issue.
Resistance was. That’s what gave the story the meaning, for it represented everyday, working-class people standing up to the injustice of unfair and improper living conditions.
Years later, while in the churning swells of the American House of Pain (prison), this would be my beat.
There are tens of thousands of people in these places, and therefore, tens of thousands of stories.
I have never had a shortage of them.
Sometimes, it’s the cases, which brought a man to this place, and more often than not, the procedures by which this occurred.
Like the making of sausages, the American legal process is a messy and ugly thing when one inspects closely.
I’ve written of unjust and improper prosecutions, harrowing brutality, stunning institutional boneheadedness, and cruelty that would curdle milk.
In 1995, I was institutionally sanctioned for “engaging in the business of journalism.” It took years of legal wrangling, including sitting in a courtroom for several weeks, in shackles so tight that one’s ankles were swollen and bleeding, to finally prevail on the principle that the U.S. constitution’s 1st Amendment protected such activity, but it was well worth the battle (the case was: Abu-Jamal v. Price).
For years, writing a story meant, quite literally, writing a story. With an ink pen. On a legal pad. Sometimes with a 4-inch long flex-pen (this is a pen which has an inner tube of an ink pen, but the shaft is composed of see-through rubber, with a rubber cap at both ends allowing a centimeter of the tip to protrude). It has been likened to writing with a wet noodle. Two of my books were written with these instruments, and then sent out to be typed by friends or editors.
The computer age has not yet dawned on the prison system (at least in Pennsylvania). I am often amused when I receive letters from people, who include, quite innocently and helpfully, their e-mail addresses, or their websites. For it tells me that they actually think I have a computer “here” in the cell, or perhaps computer (or web) access.
Not only are there no PCs in here; there are no Ipods, no CDs, no cassette tapes! (even though cassette-ready tape players are for sale in the prison commissary!)
We are, for all intents and purposes, dinosaurs, who live in another age, at another warp and woof of time, from the millions who dwell without.
Recently, a man named Amin (Harold Wilson) who won a retrial and acquittal from several unjust murder convictions, was ordered released after almost two decades on death row. He left the county prison in Philadelphia, with all his earthly possessions in a trash bag, and a bus token. A local-country prisoner, a Puerto Rican brother, released at the same time, saw the look of loss on his face, and offered him his cell phone. Amin squinted at the machine, tiny in his fist, and asked, “What do I do with this?” He had absolutely no idea how to operate this strange thing, for he had never seen nor held one before.
He later told me “My it looked like something straight outta Star Trek!”
Sometimes, stories come, unbidden, and unwanted.
Several months ago, a funny and well-liked jailhouse lawyer on the Row, named Bill Tilley, tired from his years of butting his head against the grey, judicial walls, and fearful that his emergent health problems were a prelude to cancer, got up early in the morning, used his laces from his sneakers, and fashioned a noose, by threading them through the steel grate mesh of the air-vents into the cell.
He hung himself.
After his passing, the scuttlebutt was that he did indeed have cancer, but medical staff did not disclose this fact, for, as a death row prisoner, the state wouldn’t waste money on such a patient who was going to die anyway.
Several weeks before his death, Tilley confided to a few friends that he suspected it was cancer, given the severity of his symptoms, but whether it was, or not, it was so painful that he remarked, “I don’t ever, ever wanna go through that again!”
What we didn’t know was that he was telling us, in the only way he could, of his suicide plans, back then. Perhaps he was saying, in so many words, that he didn’t fear death, but did fear pain.
His death took place less than 35 feet from the cell door in which these words are written. I broke the story. But it gave me no pleasure.
There are tens of thousands of stories in this House of Pain, and I have written hundreds of them.
This is my hidden beat, one that even the most intrepid of journalists cannot enter.
Yet, it is my beat.
And I intend to do this job with the same thoroughness, the same professionalism, as I did in days of yon.
For, though this is a hidden world, one not seen by millions, it is, too, a public world, for it is bought and paid for with the tax dollars of the citizenry.
Shouldn’t they know what their investments have purchased?
Several times a month, in written form, or otherwise (as in books of commentaries) I offer this service, to the best of my ability.
I fight against being here, but I am here. And while here, the beat goes on.
Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote this article from his prison cell on Death Row
for Reporters Without Borders on May 23, 2009.
—Reporters Without Borders, June 10, 2009