Giving Prisoners Some Air

Noelle Hanrahan saw unfairness in the criminal justice system. So she put inmates on the radio.

July/August 2001

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Giving Prisoners Some Air

Photo: Seth Affoumado

Is death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal guilty or isn't he? The radio journalist who has broadcast 72 of his commentaries won't answer. "That's not a question I ask at this point," says Noelle Hanrahan. "What I call for is a new trial."

Abu-Jamal, a radio journalist himself who reported on inner-city life and was once a member of the Black Panther Party, was convicted in 1982 of murdering a Philadelphia police officer during the brawl that ensued after the officer stopped Abu-Jamal's brother for a traffic violation. Protesters as far away as Denmark, Japan and South Africa say Abu-Jamal was framed by a racist Philadelphia police department. Others say he was legitimately convicted on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. Still others contend that a manslaughter conviction would have been more appropriate than a death sentence. One thing's certain: Hanrahan's broadcasts--along with the book of Abu-Jamal's writings she edited and two cds she produced--are fueling the debate.

It's all part of Hanrahan's work with Prison Radio, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1990 to "challenge mass incarceration and racism by airing the voices of men and women in prison." Donations from foundations and 4,500 individuals support her interviews with Abu-Jamal and other inmates, which air frequently on Berkeley's kpfa and occasionally on hundreds of other public radio stations around the world. Most of Hanrahan's subjects have an activist bent: in April, for example, she interviewed Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Movement leader convicted of killing two fbi agents in a 1975 shootout; Linda Evans, a Students for a Democratic Society organizer imprisoned on conspiracy and weapons charges who was pardoned in January; and Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a founder of the Los Angeles Crips gang who now writes anti-gang children's books. Hanrahan's questions typically address prison conditions, the details of the inmates' cases or their political work.

The inmates appreciate the attention, but prison officials have been less enthusiastic. Since Hanrahan, '86, launched Prison Radio, many states have restricted journalists' access to inmates. Some, citing security concerns, no longer allow reporters to bring in pens, pencils, paper, tape recorders or cameras when visiting death row prisoners, so Hanrahan has to seek exemptions--or write questions on her clothing.

By broadcasting interviews with prisoners, Hanrahan hopes to erode public support for the death penalty and lengthy sentences for nonviolent crimes. "If the voices of prisoners were heard in the mainstream daily news, it would be extraordinarily difficult to conduct executions and mass incarceration," she says. "Because the humanity of the prisoners would be clear."

Hanrahan is also motivated by the unfairness she sees in the criminal justice system. She thinks, for example, that many of the activists she interviews received disproportionately long sentences because of their political positions. She believes that police leave women vulnerable to rape, domestic violence and murder by failing to arrest their attackers (she sometimes airs interviews with people pressing for investigation of such crimes). And she cites statistics indicating that murder defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if they are black, especially if their victims are white.

Hanrahan has been interested in social justice since her college years, when she designed her own major in gender, race and class studies. Her adviser was history professor Estelle Freedman, whose research includes the history of prison reform. "I would say my perception of race relations and analysis of white supremacy began evolving at Stanford," Hanrahan says. "I was there by pure luck, surrounded by people I didn't think were any better than anyone I knew. Yet the level of privilege that was laid at our feet was enormous."

Abu-Jamal has said that Hanrahan "exhibits a Taurean stubbornness that would make a bull blush," and the description would strike anyone who sees her in action as apt. A gifted basketball player who attended Stanford on a scholarship, Hanrahan displays an athlete's bursts of focused intensity as she pursues interviews and muscles her way through a KPFA pledge drive. She doesn't like to talk about herself, and is perhaps a bit shy. But she has a tendency to speak her mind. Her family and friends admire her for that.

Growing up, "she was very opinionated," says her father, Michael Hanrahan, a retired insurance adjuster for the Rhode Island Department of Labor. "That's a nice way of saying she wouldn't take any crap from anybody."

Professor Freedman says Hanrahan's advocacy keeps oft-forgotten prisoners in the public eye. "She reminds the rest of us to stop and think for a minute about who is in prison and whether justice is being served in all cases."

None of the prisoners Hanrahan has interviewed has been more visible than Abu-Jamal. They met in 1992, when she asked him to comment on the experience of being on death row, in a follow-up to kpfa's coverage of Robert Alton Harris, the first person executed in California in 25 years.

Hanrahan remembers the thunderclap of the doors clanging shut behind her as she entered the Pennsylvania facility. "As a radio person, I'm always looking at the sound of a prison," she says. She also was struck by how talented Abu-Jamal seemed. "I didn't realize until I met him that he was a trained broadcast journalist of the highest quality," she says. "The timbre of his voice is amazing."

Hanrahan says Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial because of corruption in the Philadelphia police department and court system in the 1980s (nearly 300 convictions were overturned amid scandal in the mid-'90s). "No black man--or possibly any poor capital-murder defendant--would have received a fair trial in Philadelphia in 1981," she says. The prosecutor, she adds, inappropriately used Abu-Jamal's writings as a 16-year-old Black Panther to argue for the death penalty. On occasion, Hanrahan has gone so far as to call for Abu-Jamal's release.

Some say she has a blind spot when it comes to Abu-Jamal. "I don't know too much about the other work she's done to help inmates, but her facts are inaccurate in this particular case," says Maureen Faulkner, the widow of the slain Philadelphia policeman. "If anyone in this world wanted to know who murdered my husband, it was me. I can honestly tell you I went to the trial with an open mind and at the end of the trial, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was Mumia Abu-Jamal."

"To me, Mumia is a fake; he's a phony," says Marc Cooper, a Los Angeles journalist and author who has written and broadcast about Abu-Jamal. "He certainly has a political side to him. But to say he's some kind of leader or political thinker is ridiculous. The Mumia stuff is more of a circus, more about people who want to feel good about themselves than fighting the death penalty. I oppose the death penalty for Mumia and everybody on death row. But to argue that Mumia Abu-Jamal should be spared the death penalty because he's innocent or [because] he was framed up by some elaborate government conspiracy because of his political ideas is an obscenity. It's an insult to people around the world who are in jail suffering for their ideas or for an authentic engagement with justice."

In fact, it's hard to tell sometimes whether Hanrahan is saying Abu-Jamal is a political prisoner who didn't kill anyone or whether she's simply insisting that, like all criminal defendants, he deserves an impartial trial. She sighs. "It's complicated," she says. "Given the corruption, I am not sure it would even be possible for him to receive a fair trial now. But I have to believe in the justice system." After a pause, she says there is evidence Abu-Jamal is innocent. Then she adds: "I believe in rehabilitation. Twenty years is a long time to serve in prison."

Perhaps this distinction eclipses the main point. Hanrahan's goal is not for her listeners to draw conclusions about ultimate guilt or innocence, but for them to think about who is in prison, for how long and why. And she's certainly achieved that.

Cate T. Corcoran is a freelance writer in San Francisco.  

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