Former Black Panther Jalil Muntaqim, who has been imprisoned for 49 years, was rushed to the hospital from the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York, May 25 after testing positive for COVID-19. His blood oxygen level was at a critical 81%.
Muntaqim, working with the Legal Aid Society, had filed a petition April 13 for his release on constitutional grounds, as an ongoing medical condition heightened his vulnerability to the virus.
Two weeks later Sullivan County Supreme Court Judge Stephan Schick granted Muntaqim’s release. “I can’t imagine anyone more vulnerable, more at risk for death,” he wrote. “Mr. Muntaqim may have gotten a 25-to-life sentence, but it was not a death sentence.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James intervened, appealing the judge’s decision, preventing Muntaqim from being released. A court hearing took place May 28, but no decision has been announced.
“What happened is incredibly sad and a commentary on the whole system of the New York state prisons,” Nora Carroll, an attorney with Legal Aid Society who is representing Muntaqim, told the Militant May 29. “A judge felt his life mattered and granted him temporary release,” but with the appeal pending “he must stay in prison.”
In a brief filed before the May 28 hearing, the attorney general’s office argued there is nothing in the Constitution that protects Muntaqim from getting sick in prison, or that supports the proposition that because he did get sick he should be released.
James’ brief goes so far as to argue that Judge Schick’s April decision to release him is null and void since Muntaqim is now infected with the virus and his earlier arguments based on the possibility of getting the virus are no longer valid!
“Jalil should be released from prison and his sentence commuted,” Seth Galinsky, Socialist Workers Party candidate for Congress in New York’s 10th District, told the Militant May 29. “His outrageously long sentence and repeated denials of parole show the true workings of the capitalist ‘justice’ system. They’re punishing Muntaqim for his political ideas, and to try and intimidate others from fighting for their rights.”
Free Jalil Muntaqim!
Muntaqim has been in prison since he was 19 years old, accused of killing two police officers in 1971. He, Albert Washington and Herman Bell were convicted in 1975, and each given a sentence of 25 years to life. Washington died in prison in 2000. Bell won parole in 2018. Muntaqim has been rejected for parole 19 times, with the next hearing set for this September.
Overcrowding and decrepit health conditions throughout the U.S. prison system has made inmates, especially those who are elderly, more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and other diseases.
While department of corrections figures tend to underestimate the numbers of those infected, as of May 20 at least 29,250 workers behind bars in the U.S. tested positive. There have been at least 415 deaths, the Marshall Project reports.
At the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, one case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in mid-March. Within two weeks, more than 200 cases were diagnosed. Mass testing was done at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio, and of the 2,500 prisoners there, 2,000 tested positive.
A few state governments, like those of Ohio and California, have released some prisoners because of the threat of coronavirus. In New York the Democratic administration of Andrew Cuomo has released just 172 inmates, all of whom are 55 and older. All were within 90 days of when they would have gotten out of prison anyway. Of the 40,500 persons incarcerated in New York state, nearly a quarter of them are older adults, many whose health has suffered in prison.
Muntaqim — who prison authorities refer to as Anthony Bottom, his birth name — and supporters of the rights of prisoners continue to demand he be released and allowed to seek the medical care he needs.
Call Letitia James’ office at (718) 560-2040 to demand freedom for Anthony Bottom. Send your support to Jalil Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom) 77A4283, Sullivan CF, P.O. Box 116, Fallsburg, NY 12733.