Sundiata Acoli has been locked up for 47 years. At 84 years old, and after contracting COVID-19 in prison, Acoli’s health is suffering—and a coalition of friends, family, and faith leaders are calling for him to be released before it’s too late.
by Eddie Conway February 1, 2021
At 84 years old, Sundiata Acoli has been in prison for 47 years, and has been denied parole six times. Last December, he was diagnosed with COVID-19. In this episode of Rattling the Bars, Rev. Lukata Mjumbe of the Bring Sundiata Acoli Home Alliance joins Eddie Conway to discuss Acoli’s life as an organizer, mathematician, artist, and poet; the push by his friends and family, along with faith leaders, to secure his release; and the challenges aging prisoners face to their health and well-being.
View the video interview at the end of the article.
Eddie Conway: Thank you for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars. In past episodes, we have been focusing on the well-being of elderly prisoners in the prison industrial complex. Since then, this pandemic, COVID-19 has hit, we have increased our coverage of the conditions inside in relationship to elderly prisoners. Obviously, they are more susceptible to catching COVID-19 than any other part of the population, they’re in overcrowded conditions, and we think they need to have available if they want the vaccine, but I want to take a minute today just to focus on one elderly prisoner. So joining me today to talk about Sundiata Acoli, is Reverend Lukata Mjumbe. Thanks for joining me, Reverend Lukata. Would you talk a little bit about Sundiata Acoli’s situation? Who is he?
Rev. Lukata Mjumbe: Thank you, Brother Conway. My name is the Reverend Lukata Mjumbe, and I’m a member of the Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign, and it’s my privilege to be here with you today and to be connected with your listeners to talk about Sundiata Acoli. Sundiata Acoli is an 84 year old father and grandfather. He was born in 1937 in Texas, and has been in prison since 1973. He dedicated his life as an activist, as an organizer connected with the civil rights and the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 70s, And he committed himself to the struggle for freedom and justice, and has been locked in a prison cell since 1973.
I connected with Sundiata back when I was a college student working for Amnesty International USA, and I was looking at a list of men and women from the 1960s and 70s that had been incarcerated in relationship to their political activities and involvement in various political movements, and I connected with Sundiata back then. I began writing to him as a young man in my early 20s, while he was in prison, and have been working since that time for his freedom. I never imagined that I would be almost 50 years old and still working for his freedom, but on January the 14th, Sundiata turned 84 years old in prison, and there is a growing movement of people across the State of New Jersey, across the country, that are calling for us to bring Sundiata home.
When I was in my 20s, I was an activist and an organizer myself. Today, I am a pastor. I’m the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Princeton, New Jersey, and I have joined together with other pastors, and imams, and rabbis, and faith leaders from around the state that have said almost 48 years is too long for Sundiata Acoli to have been in prison. This octogenarian prisoner is in jeopardy right now. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 last year, and we prayed, and we prayed, and we prayed that his life would not be lost, and our prayers were answered. But now we know that he continues to be in jeopardy, not only because the institution where he is incarcerated right now is under a lockdown as a result of COVID-19, but because Sundiata, as an 84 year old man, has a number of other health conditions, which make him especially vulnerable.
So we’re calling upon people around the country, around the state, to join with us in saying, “Bring Sundiata home,” and again, I thank you for giving me the opportunity just to talk with you just a little bit about Sundiata, about who he is, about who he’s been, but as importantly, looking forward to whatever future that he has left, which we hope and pray will be outside of a prison cell, rather than to [inaudible 00:04:37].
Eddie Conway: Can you tell me a little bit about his family? Obviously, he’s been locked up for 48 years, that’s a long time. How is this affecting them? Do he have support, and what’s the situation with the family?
Rev. Lukata Mjumbe: Well, it’s one of those questions that often comes up with any prisoners that you are working for their release. They ask, “Well, do they have family? What’s their family situation? Do they have a family and community that would welcome them when they come home?” Oftentimes, when people have been in prison, even for a short period of time, they may have lost all contact with any other people, and that can be a very real contributing factor to difficulties in integrating back into communities outside of the prison facility.
Well, Sundiata has two daughters who love him, who have written letters on his behalf, who have written to the governor, who have made appeals to him. There’s one daughter who lives in Texas, the other who is in New York, and they have said, “Look, we are ready to receive our father. We are ready to allow our father to have the rest of his life, not only with us, but also with his grandchildren, where he will have the opportunity to be loved and to be cared for. We have a place for him, there will be no problem,” and Sundiata has an extended family, even beyond his daughters and his grandchildren. He has a loving community of people that, as I mentioned before, have been working for decades to see his release and are looking forward to receiving him, and welcoming him, and caring for him, as he moves further into the twilight of his life.
Eddie Conway: Okay. I can’t verify this, but I believe that somewhere in Texas in his earlier years before he joined the Black Panther Party, he was involved in the NASA program down in Texas. Do you know anything about that?
Rev. Lukata Mjumbe: Absolutely. Now there are many, many people who were brilliant and had all kinds of different types of work that they did prior to their involvement in the civil rights movement and during their involved in the civil rights movement. But yes, Sundiata was and is a mathematician. He was a computer programmer, he worked for NASA, he worked for a number of computer programming firms when he was in New York, and worked as a member of the Black Panther Party while he was in New York. And so, yes, this is someone who had serious and has serious skills and opportunities, and decided aside and alongside all of that, that he wanted to use the natural gifts that he had, and the skills and the talents that he developed as a part of a freedom movement. So when we talk about Sundiata, we talk about him as a human being, that he is someone who yes, was highly skilled, highly educated. Yes, that worked for NASA, was a computer programmer.
Now, my brother, I suspect that computer systems have changed quite a bit in 2021, as opposed to the systems that he was dealing with back in the late 60s and early 70s, but Sundiata is someone who has always been incredibly gifted and talented. I remember when I was a college student, and classmates of mine and student members of the organization that I was a part of in Atlanta, Georgia, we used the write to Sundiata, and call Sundiata and other prisoners who were incarcerated as a result of their political activities, and they would help us with our college papers. They would give us advice and instruction, and do rewrites, and sometimes they were more difficult in their critiques than our professors were. So Sundiata is someone who we have always known, not only as someone who had a deep commitment to the freedom struggle, but someone who was incredibly talented, and skilled, and intellectually developed, he’s also an artist and a poet.
And a number of people who wrote to him recently, I mentioned that his birthday was just this month, the day before the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King on January 14th, and so hundreds of people around the country wrote letters to Sundiata. He’s in the federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, and he’s been in this federal prison, even though he is a New Jersey State prisoner, since the 1970s, he was moved into the federal system as a result of his history of political activity, and when they are getting letters written back from him, they’re just amazed. I have someone who just called me a couple of days ago that said, “I got a letter back from Sundiata Acoli,” and this gentleman is an accomplished poet, and he sent Sundiata a poem, and Sundiata read his poem, and gave him an evaluation and a critique, and he said, “I am just honored and privileged that he took the time to look at my work, to share with me, to help me to become better,” and that’s a testimony that I can give personally about Sundiata, and that so many others can.
So yes, brother, that history is something that we find written up in biographies about Sundiata about his history with NASA. I wouldn’t say he was one of those hidden figures that they’ve done movies about, but certainly, his history and his contribution, in many ways, are hidden, when we only think about him as a prisoner.
Eddie Conway: Yes, I have a personal story like that to share myself. I was writing the book, The Greatest Threat, a book about the Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO, and I sent it to him and he critiqued it, he offered a suggestion to improve it, additions to the edits, and the book turned out pretty well, so I was thankful to him for that. You say you are working with a group of faith leaders to get some support for Acoli. What does that look like, and how can people help with that?
Rev. Lukata Mjumbe: Well, it looks like what I would consider to be growth and expansion. Oftentimes, when we talk about those who are connected with our legacy of struggle and the Black Liberation Movement, there’s a certain group of people, a certain reliable constituency of folks that we can expect to call for freedom, and justice, and self-determination, who may mobilize or organize, and we have seen those communities working hard for Sundiata for decades. Now what we’re seeing is a growing group of people who you might not expect.
Now, for example, members of my church, where the average member of my church is over 60 years old, we have people who are in their 60s, and 70s, and 80s, and 90s who are saying, “What in the world is going on? Why is this man 84 years old, still in prison? He’s no threat to commit additional crimes. There is no recidivism contradiction that we have to deal with.” When we look at Sundiata, we see that he has had a perfect disciplinary record for 27 years without any infractions whatsoever. And so, now what we’re finding are older people who may not know anything about in great detail, the history of our freedom movement. Now we’re finding people who are coming out of faith communities, whether they be historic black churches, whether they be large churches or small churches, whether they be white churches, or brown churches, or urban churches, or suburban churches, whether they be rabbis, or imams.
I was on a call just last night with a group of believers from a temple in Hillsborough, New Jersey, and we were talking about the documentary that was on Netflix by Ava DuVernay, 13, and they were able to make a connection with the contradictions that we see within the system of mass incarceration, with the particular case of Sundiata Acoli, And they themselves have made commitments to write letters, to reach out.
So the ways that we can help are manifold. The first thing that I ask people to do, is if you’re on social media, and if you receive and connect with information in that way, go to the hashtag, #BringSundiataHome. if you go to the hashtag #BringSundiataHome, you’re going to find access to the Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign website, for example, which is www.sundiata, and I’ll spell it out, Sundiata Acoli, www. S-U-N-D-I-A-T-A A-C-O-L-I .org. And so, when you go to the website, you’ll find information in terms of Sundiata’s case, you’ll find information about how you can write him directly at the federal correctional institution in Cumberland, Maryland, Sundiata’s quote, slave name, the name before he accepted his African name, was Clark Squire. And so, you’ll have to write him with Sundiata Acoli with Squire in parentheses, and his prison number, number 39794-066, and then you’ll send it to P.O. Box 1000, Cumberland, Maryland, to the federal correctional institution at Cumberland, Maryland.
You’ll be able to write him, but then we also will be encouraging people to keep following this hashtag and to get more information, because there are some important struggles that are coming up this year, and we’ve committed to bring Sundiata home this year, and that’s going to involve writing letters to Governor Phil Murphy, sending emails, making phone calls. There’s a lot that we can do even while we’re sheltered in place amidst COVID-19, and some of our senior citizens have found that they can be amazingly impactful activists and organizers from their living room or from their dining room table.
So we’re going to ask people to write letters, to send emails, to make phone calls. We’re going to ask people to make contributions where they’re able, because we still have some legal expenses that are ahead of us this year, and appeals that we are filing. Sundiata has come before the parole board and has been denied parole six times. And so, we don’t have six more times, we don’t have one more time. Sundiata, at 84 years of age, with serious health contradictions beyond COVID-19, he has issues with his heart, he has intestinal issues. There are other presenting health issues that he has been struggling with, and that anyone would struggle with after they’ve been locked up in prison for almost 48 years in substandard conditions. This is the year that we have to bring Sundiata home.
So we ask that you be made aware of what’s going on, that you keep Sundiata’s name on your lips, that you begin to talk with people and connect it, when we have discussions about mass incarceration, when we have discussions about criminal justice. I say to churches, and we’ve been doing this with Sundiata for over a year now, put Sundiata Acoli on your sick and shut-in list. Every week, we have a group of people who are sick, who are shut in, who we pray [inaudible 00:16:55], who we know that we’re not able to connect with directly, who we know are unable to move and to have access the way they would like to or the way that they need to. Certainly, Sundiata Acoli, as well as so many other women and men who are incarcerated within the American prison system, are sick and shut in. And so, add Sundiata to your prayer list, add Sundiata to your advocacy list, and get involved with the Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign, which again, you can connect with at www.sundiataacoli.org.
Eddie Conway: So all that information you just shared with the public will be found at the end of this video, and they can get in contact with Acoli through the address and so on. Do you have any final thoughts, something you want to share with the public?
Rev. Lukata Mjumbe: Well, I just want to emphasize the urgency. One, let me first say, well, thank you. I know that you are one who understands this legacy of struggle, that knows the details of the trial and tribulation of people who are incarcerated and held for long periods of time. And so, I honor you and I respect you, Brother Conway, and I appreciate you. In fact, I remember seeing your name on that list back in the early 90s, when I was looking on the list of various women and men who were locked and bound as a result of their political activities on the injustice of this system. But I say to so many of us who are wanting to advocate for Sundiata, if not now, when? If not us, then who? That we have to do something this year, and we have to do something which is going to appeal to the broadest cross section of people who will join with us in a harmony that says, “Bring Sundiata home.”
I’m not arguing anymore about the particularities of Sundiata’s case. I am a pastor, and I have prayed for everybody involved in this case. If you go back and you look at what happened in 1973, I hadn’t even turned two years old at the time, I was still one at the time. There were so many people that were impacted. Sundiata was a driver of a car on the New Jersey Turnpike. You may have come to know about Sundiata Acoli as a result of his association with the case of JoAnne Chesimard, now known as Assata Shakur, and there had been so much political angling that has surrounded this case going back all the way to the early 1970s, and Sundiata, in many ways, has been a casualty much of that political angling, but I’m not arguing about that anymore.
Sundiata has already served almost 48 years of prison, it will be 48 years in May. He has served what is almost what would be double a life sentence in the State of New Jersey. He has already paid and served every single year, every single month, every single day that he should serve, and the courts have already said that he should be released. We’ve gone before panels of judges that said, “Clean disciplinary record. When we look at the parole situation, there’s no reason why he should not be released,” but the reason has been politics. So moving forward, we’re not dealing with a focus and a fixation on politics, we’re calling for the compassionate release of an 84 year old man who has almost been in prison for 48 years, who was born in 1937, incarcerated in 1973, who is a grandfather, who is a father, who is sick and who needs to come home.
And so, if people can find it in their hearts to understand that there is no need, and there is no justice, and there is no rational, logical, principled, moral reason to keep Sundiata Acoli in prison, I just ask that you do something. That to send an email, that you write a letter, that you make a phone call, that you let his name be on your lips, that you speak to a friend or a family member, if you have a grandmother, if you have a great-grandmother, if you have someone who is elderly in your life.
In the Book of Colossians, and I’ll end with this, I am a preacher. In the Book of Colossians, the Apostle Paul, in the very last verse of a short letter that the Apostle Paul wrote, he said, “Remember my chains. Remember my chains.” In the Book of Hebrews it says, “Imagine that you are in prison with me.” So imagine if you were in prison with Sundiata for 48 years. Imagine if your grandfather, if your great-grandfather or great-grandmother, or grandmother were in prison, and what would you do? That’s what I wake up with in the morning. I think about this man, grandfather, father, activist, organizer, someone who is beloved and needs to come home, and I just ask that you join with us.
Eddie Conway: So, thank you for joining me.
Rev. Lukata Mjumbe: Thank you, brother. God bless you.Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.
Watch the complete interview below.