SCI Greene County Prison on the outskirts of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, sits low in the rural landscape so that it’s easy from the restaurants and petrol stations on the main road to miss the barbed wire coiled in endless circles. Inside, the plush leather chairs that squat on shiny floors make it feel more like a private hospital than a maximum security institution. But the black men in prison jumpsuits cleaning the floor, eyes downcast, dispel any such illusions. Signs spell out the rules: no hoods, no unauthorised persons, only $20 in cash allowed.
Death row – or at least the visiting area – is a curiously ordinary place. A central waiting room where a guard watches the goings-on. Institutional doors opening on to small boxes, each furnished with a table and chair. But then, inside the visiting room, there is the shock of a grown man in an orange jumpsuit, his hands cuffed, the space small enough for him to reach out and touch both walls. And between us a layer of thick, reinforced glass.
Mumia Abu-Jamal has lived at SCI Greene since January 1995. Convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of a police officer in his home town, Philadelphia, he spends his days in solitary confinement, in a room he has described as smaller than most people’s bathroom. When I arrive, he puts his fist to the glass in greeting. He is a tall, broad man with dreadlocked hair, still dark, and a beard slightly greying at the edges. He has lively eyes.
It is hard to know how to begin a conversation with Abu-Jamal, revered for his activism around the world as much as he is reviled as a cop killer by some in his home country. He is careful about who he agrees to see and rarely talks to the mainstream media – this is the first time he has granted an interview to a British newspaper. We start with the basics – the everyday restrictions of prison life. Visits: one a week – though it is difficult for his family to make the 660-mile, 11-hour round-trip from Philadelphia. Money: a stipend of less than $20 (Â£10) per month. Phone calls: three a week lasting 15 minutes each – but a quarter of an hour to Philadelphia costs $5.69 (Â£2.77).
This being Abu-Jamal, a campaigning journalist who has written five books about injustice while in prison, it is not long before we are on to the bigger questions: why SCI Greene, which takes most of its 1,700 inmates from Philadelphia, was built “the farthest you can be from Philly and still be in the state of Pennsylvania”. “I believe it is intentional,” he says. “I could count the times on my hand when I have seen this whole visiting area full.” And why Global Tel Net, the firm that provides the prison phone calls, is allowed to charge so much of people who have so little. His conclusion is characteristically pithy: “The poorest pay the most.”
Abu-Jamal has eight children, the eldest of whom is 38, and several grandchildren. How does he keep in touch? “Some grandchildren I have not seen. That’s difficult. You try to keep contact through the phone, you write. I send cards that I draw and paint. To let them know the old man still loves them.” Abu-Jamal’s father William died when he was nine; his mother Edith died in February 1990 – eight years after he was imprisoned. He goes very quiet telling me this, and there doesn’t seem much point asking how it felt not to be able to sit with her at the end.
Abu-Jamal has been locked up since he was 27. He is now 53. The story of how he ended up here has been told often. As a teenager he had been active in the Black Panther party but by 1981, with most of the party’s leaders either dead or in jail, he had become a well-respected radio reporter and president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Black Journalists. Radio journalism was not well paid, however, and Abu-Jamal supplemented his income by driving a taxi at night.