By Tandy Lau

Given six months to live, political prisoner Mutulu Shakur might die in prison because authorities see the cancer-stricken 71-year-old as a potential recidivist. On July 20, activists rallied outside of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. to deliver a letter signed by more than 200 faith leaders demanding the release of the Republic of New Afrika figure so he could spend his last moments free and next to family. 

The stepfather of slain rap icon Tupac Shakur, Mutulu Shakur forged his own legacy in New York City as a revolutionary, a healer and an always sharply-dressed man. The Black Liberation Army member worked at the Lincoln Detox program in the ’70s, offering acupuncture at the South Bronx clinic as an alternative to methadone treatments during the “War on Drugs.”

“One of the beautiful things in the [Free Mutulu] campaign is that there are a lot of folks who have a ‘Mutulu healed me’ story,” said Jomo Muhammad of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. “They range from folks who actually knew him before he was incarcerated to…those young men who served time with Mutulu [who] bear witness to the transformation that he brought in their lives…many of them have left prison and now are leading full and holistic lives and they give most if not all the credit to Mutulu.”

Shakur was convicted for leading the deadly robbery of a Brink’s Company armored car in 1981. He’s been in jail for 36 years and sentenced to 60 but was set to be released in 2016 under mandatory parole laws for “old law prisoners” with crimes predating 1987. Six years later, he remains in prison, denied parole nine times and diagnosed with terminal bone marrow cancer. 

“At this point, he’s extremely weak,” said his lawyer Brad Thomson. “He’s in and out of very strong bouts of pain. I have gotten a chance to both speak to him on the phone and to visit him in recent months and his ability to engage in the conversation is very restricted based on his condition.”

Show us that this country works. You’re running around calling for [defunding] the police and saying Black Lives Matter. Yes, this Black life matters. He has served his time. And according to the rules of this country, which he was convicted under, he should be free.

Jomo Muhammad, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement

According to Thomson, Shakur tested positive for COVID-19 three times, getting severely ill with the virus twice. Currently, he’s staying in a federal medical center, where he receives additional care from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. For treatment, Shakur regularly goes in-and-out of prison while shackled by multiple guards, often with an electro-shock stun belt attached to him for security purposes. Additionally, his constraints prevent him from practicing his own healing methods, including stretches, herbs, vitamins and healthier foods.

There are a trio of legal avenues that could potentially free Shakur. According to Thomson, he hasn’t received full credit from the Bureau of Prisons, which could also recommend a compassionate release or home confinement. Then, there’s the aforementioned mandatory parole from the U.S. Parole Commission, which grants release to “old law prisoners” following two-thirds of their sentence unless they’re likely to reoffend. Shakur’s lawyers are appealing the 2016 parole denial. And lastly, through the courts, he could receive a compassionate release from the same judge who heard the initial case—91-year-old Charles Haight Jr. Shakur’s legal team is exploring all three routes. Unfortunately, time is not a luxury.

“It’s a general idea that courts and administrative processes tend to move slowly,” said Thomson. “There is an issue here where there’s various agencies within the U.S. government, and specifically within the Department of Justice, that are taking conflicting positions or passing the buck and redirecting us to who may claim as the appropriate entity to provide this type of release.”

Muhammad calls it a “death sentence by bureaucracy.” To the activist, freeing Shakur helps restore trust in the same institutions he spent his life fighting. Specifically, he hopes Black politicians and lawmakers step up.

“Show us that this country works,” said Muhammad. “You’re running around calling for [defunding] the police and saying Black Lives Matter. Yes, this Black life matters. He has served his time. And according to the rules of this country, which he was convicted under, he should be free.”

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: