Mutulu Shakur: Proof That a Different Kind of Prison is Possible
He helped us and paid with his life
By Pam Bailey
In 1988, Mutulu Shakur, a Black-liberation leader and stepfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, was convicted in connection with the robbery of a Brink’s armored truck, during which three people were killed (although not by him). He has been incarcerated for 35 years now and has repeatedly been denied both parole and compassionate release, despite a record of peaceful and productive leadership in prison.
Now, at age 71, Shakur has been diagnosed with advanced bone marrow cancer. An oncologist has told the court that even with successful treatment, Shakur will likely die within two to three years. Without treatment, or if it fails, he is expected to live fewer than 11 months. Nearly 55,000 people have signed a petition calling on President Biden and the federal Bureau of Prisons to grant Shakur immediate compassionate release.
James Carpenter, released in 2020 after serving 24 years, is one of those signatories. But unlike most of them, he has personal knowledge of the role model Shakur has become. They were incarcerated together back in the early 2000s.
“They should let that man go home,” he says. “He’s been nothing but positivity and an uplifter of people, always working to intervene in conflicts and find solutions to problems. The concept of tolerance and cultural diversity that is so big right now? I heard it from him years ago.”
James first met Shakur in 2001 at the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta, when he was just 23 and still new to prison life.
“When I got there, I didn’t know how to do time in that type of setting,” he recalls. “There are a lot of different, often negative influences. At that age and in that setting, you’re just trying to figure out how to survive. There are all sorts of groups in prison: You got people who are violent and people doing drugs. There are all sorts of other factions too — Nation of Islam, Scientologists, various Christian communities. Dr. Shakur was part of what I’d call the ‘conscious community.’ He always had a group around him; he attracted the positive type of people, interested in learning and elevating the knowledge base of the younger prisoners.”
Shakur passed out literature and organized classes, including a cultural diversity forum that brought together people from various races. Prison “society” normally sets race and ethnic groups against each other, turning them into gangs of sorts, so Shakur had a dramatic, contrary effect.
When USP Atlanta was shut down, the prisoners were moved to another institution in Coleman, Florida. That’s when James really got to know Shakur because they lived in the same unit. Fortuitously, USP Coleman had a progressive warden at the time, Carlisle Holder, who believed a penitentiary should be a place of learning and true rehabilitation. Shakur seized on the opportunity, and soon brought all sorts of proposals to Holder. They were approved, and soon speakers ranging from the head of the NAACP to comedian and actor Tony Rock were visiting the prison.
“Back then, nobody had ever heard of Juneteenth, which today is a national holiday,” recalls James. “But Dr. Shakur* got us to learn about and celebrate it back then.”
Shakur also had a dramatic effect on the typical climate of violence. “Everybody pretty much worked together under Dr. Shakur’s watch,” James recalls. “Like, when we knew we had an upcoming event, everybody was on high alert, working to keep violence down because we didn’t want to be locked down; we wanted the talk, or the performance or whatever it was to happen. So, for example, if it was September and the function was in November, when we saw somebody about to do something like get in a fight, people would intervene, saying, ‘Hold up, man. You know we got the function coming up, man. Don’t do that.’ There was actually a feeling optimism instead of the usual a negative cloud over the place all the time.”
That all abruptly changed, however, in March 2007, when Holder was fired and Shakur was transferred out of Coleman, eventually ending up at a “super-max” (solitary confinement) prison in Colorado. The charges? The claim was that Shakur profited from a hip-hop summit he helped organize at the prison by selling DVDs of the event. However, James suspects that it was just a ruse to get rid of Holder, whose support of progressive programming wasn’t liked by many in the BOP.
Advocates for Shakur agree: A website set up in support of Shakur says, “Bureau of Prisons officials interrogated, harassed, demoted and purged Warden Holder and members of his staff. In addition, prisoners who worked with Mutulu were transferred to other facilities. This purge and retaliation are motivated by Justice Department and FBOP opposition to educational and cultural programs that have a life-changing impact on dozens of men, particularly youth, helping them transition from a criminal mentality to liberation consciousness. It seems that constant violence and hostility are preferred to rehabilitation and peace.
In the wake of Shakur’s and Holder’s departure, cultural and educational programming were suspended at the facility. The only programming allowed was religious.
“Prison is naturally a very negative place. And after Dr. Shakur was taken out, it went back to that,” says James. “Instead of being in a history class, a lot of the guys went back to dice games or walking in the prison yard just doing dead time. I ended up doing another 15 years in prison, and no other penitentiary I went to ever brought in programming that generated that kind of positivity. I had taken it for granted when I was around Dr. Shakur. I didn’t realize that it was him. But it was. And when he wasn’t around, I saw the void he left.
Shakur has been denied release numerous times by the U.S. Parole Commission (infamous for its presumption of continuing incorrigibility). In addition, an application for compassionate release was rejected by a judge last year. “Should it develop that Shakur’s condition deteriorates further, to the point of approaching death, he may apply again to the court,” wrote the 90-year-old Judge Charles Haight Jr. Who is Judge Haight? As is the custom in the federal court system, he is the same judge who sentenced Shakur to prison over three decades ago.
*Before his incarceration, Shakur became a doctor of acupuncture, pioneering its use to treat drug addiction.
Curious about what happened to Warden Holder? He fared better than Shakur. Today, he is president and CEO of CMCG (Correctional Management & Communications Group), a private provider of correctional services and products. In 2014, Holder was appointed to the board of directors of Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE) by Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. On its website, PRIDE is described as “a self-funded enterprise that makes communities safer and saves taxpayers money by training eligible inmates in vocational skills and transitioning them into the job market upon completion of their sentences.” In 2016, Holder was appointed to the Leadership Council of the National Small Business Association.