Prisoner wins round in civil rights suit over media access
PENNSYLVANIA–Prison officials violated the civil rights of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal when they denied him the right to be interviewed by the media and opened private mail sent to him by his lawyers, a federal magistrate found in early June.
Magistrate Kenneth Benson of Pittsburgh approved Abu-Jamal’s June 1995 request for a preliminary injunction prohibiting prison officials from barring his communication with the outside world. The findings will be presented to a federal district court handling the civil rights case.
Abu-Jamal was not permitted to give interviews for three months when officials learned that he was writing a book, titled “Live From Death Row,” describing his life at the institution. Prison officials also screened legal documents addressed to Abu-Jamal and reviewed his outgoing mail. In addition, officials banned telephone calls to and from his family and sharply curtailed his visitation rights.
Officials argued that they had been investigating whether or not Abu-Jamal had violated prison rules by running a publishing business from the jail. The magistrate ruled that although prison officials were not justified in taking the documents, they have the authority to make sure that Abu-Jamal was not operating a business from prison.
A number of media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend of the court brief aguing that “the restrictions placed on Abu-Jamal were imposed to punish and quell a dissident voice, rather than maintain safety or promote rehabilitation. If so, they are patently unconstitutional.”
Abu-Jamal and prison officials have until late June to respond to Benson’s opinion. Federal District Court Judge Donetta Ambrose will then issue a ruling based on Benson’s report and any objections to it.
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and radio reporter, is on death row for the 1982 murder of a Philadelphia police officer. Abu-Jamal and his lawyers have asked for a new trial. (Abu-Jamal v. James Price, Martin Horn, Thomas Fulcomer; Krakoff and O’Brian, Pittsburgh)