Media Beat, Aug. 2, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Prison Voices Often Muted

Few people are talked about more -- and heard from less -- than prisoners.

Rarely do we turn on a television or pick up a newspaper and learn what prisoners have to say. Without direct communication, they don't seem very real to us as human beings. As a result, it's much easier for us to demand ever-harsher prison terms.

This summer, a flickering national media spotlight has fallen on Death Row in Pennsylvania. Mumia Abu-Jamal -- an African-American advocate of radical change who has worked as an award-winning radio journalist -- is scheduled to be executed on Aug. 17.

As novelist E.L. Doctorow documented in a lengthy New York Times article (July 14), there are many reasons to doubt that Abu-Jamal is guilty of murdering a police officer -- the criminal conviction that put him on Death Row.

Yet, for a long time -- despite years of work by activists pressing his case -- national media virtually ignored him.

The Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia has fought for the ''principle'' of silencing prisoners like Abu-Jamal. This spring, the group waged a fierce campaign to prevent publication of his new book, ''Live from Death Row.'' Fortunately, the publisher, Addison-Wesley, proved to have more backbone than National Public Radio.

In May 1994, NPR announced plans to air a series of Abu-Jamal's already recorded commentaries about crime and prison life. But when Philadelphia police objected, NPR management caved in -- and ''All Things Considered'' listeners didn't hear a word from Abu-Jamal.

Since late last year, the prison system has rejected requests from scores of journalists to interview Mumia Abu-Jamal. Several TV networks meekly accepted the rejections and then canceled plans for stories.

But last month, the Society of Professional Journalists -- and five other national organizations of reporters and editors -- petitioned a federal court to protect the First Amendment in Abu-Jamal's case. ''Inmates are not required to check their constitutional rights along with their personal belongings when they pass through prison gates,'' the groups declared.

The right of prisoners to be heard -- and of the public to hear them -- seems to be quite perishable in the United States. The pattern is clear: When prison authorities don't like the content of what a prisoner has to say, they try to nullify the First Amendment.

On rare occasions, media outlets resist such interference.

Much good resulted from the San Francisco Chronicle's decision to go to court in 1988 on behalf of a 48-year-old prisoner. By then, Dannie Martin had been writing articles for that newspaper for two years.

Trouble arose only when the Chronicle published a piece by Martin that criticized the Lompoc, Calif., federal prison administration for its ''gulag mentality.'' The warden retaliated -- ordering Martin thrown into solitary confinement and then transferred to a prison in Phoenix.

''They wanted to put chains and shackles on my voice,'' Martin said later. He added: ''I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong.''

Dannie Martin and his editor at the Chronicle, Peter Sussman, persevered with their path-breaking efforts. Between 1986 and 1991, the Chronicle published more than 50 of Martin's eloquent articles about life behind prison walls.

With poignant humor and insight, Martin wrote about realities that are routinely fenced off from people on the outside. (His articles, combined with Sussman's narrative, appear in the book ''Committing Journalism,'' now out in paperback.)

When his writings became a courtroom issue, Martin testified: ''Letters I got from people outside made me realize to what extent they don't have any idea what's in a criminal's mind. They see a guy on TV bust someone's head, and he's off the picture... He doesn't have a wife and family. He's just a thug. They see him for a minute, and he's gone. And they wind up with a stereotype of what a criminal is, and it's wrong.'' Sussman, one of the nation's most experienced editors on prison issues, notes that abuses ''are bound to flourish in closed, authoritarian institutions'' such as prisons. Journalism has a responsibility to intrude into places that rarely see the light of day.

''In his dispatches from prison, Dannie did not exonerate his fellow prisoners,'' Sussman points out. ''But he gave them back their names and personalities and families and the same vulnerable emotions we all have. He restored their human complexity. That may be the first step out of our quagmire of crime and punishment.''

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