Over 49 years ago, Jalil Muntaqim (formerly Anthony Bottom), who is now nearly 70 years old, is one of the longest held people in prison in New York state. Muntaqim was originally sentenced to 25 years to life in prison after being convicted of killing two police officers, but that sentence has continuously been extended. This week, he tested positive for COVID-19, and is fighting new challenges to stay alive. Now, his lawyer and supporters hope to get him released from prison at least until the pandemic subsides and conditions are safer.
Once famous for his days as a member of the Black Panther Party, Muntaqim, who has most recently been serving his sentence at Sullivan Correctional Facility, requested to carry on his sentence under something akin to house arrest since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York. Muntaqim is elderly and immunocompromised, with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions, and after testing positive for COVID-19, is being cared for at Albany Medical Center, according to his lawyer, Nora Carroll.
But due to slow process and, ultimately, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's (DOCCS) refusal to let him leave, Carroll and his family are in a race against the clock. New York state court most recently heard oral arguments requesting Muntaqim's release in order to properly recover from the disease on Thursday, May 28. This is not the first time that his case is being heard in court, though.
On April 13, Muntaqim’s lawyer requested relief, citing that he was extremely vulnerable and worried about contracting the virus. Before that, his family had already requested medical parole. Muntaqim was originally granted a release from Judge Schick, but Attorney General Letitia James, who represents DOCCS, halted the process — preventing Muntaqim's release.
According to Carroll — who is a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society — original court arguments included the fact that there were no other cases of COVID yet in Muntaqim's prison, and that it would be dangerous for him to remain there in his condition. The judge agreed with us, Caroll said, but then things took a turn for the worse. “Exactly what we said was going to happen then happened, because the process was too slow to really make a difference for him," Carroll told Refinery29. "Now, they could technically say there's no reason to release him to a safer environment because he's already sick."
People are dying and the court system has shut the door in their faces.
As of 2020, Muntaqim has gone through over a dozen parole hearings since he was first convicted over 40 years ago — and his case is one of the most high-profile parole hearings still pending today. Muntaqim, then Anthony Bottom, was convicted after multiple trials in 1975 alongside two other people, for the murders of Joseph Piagentini and Waverly Jones, two New York City police officers who responded to a call in Harlem, in upper New York City, on May 21, 1971. He was part of a shootout with the officers, though at the time, the Black Liberation Army took responsibility for the attack.
Muntaqim was only 19 when he was arrested. Herman Bell, one of the other two people who were convicted alongside Muntaqim, was freed in 2018 after eight parole hearings. Albert Washington, who was also convicted in 1975, died of liver cancer while incarcerated in a New York prison in 2000. Muntaqim is the only one who remains imprisoned of the original three people sentenced for the original crime.
But this most recent appeal is perhaps the most trying for him — an incarcerated man, already sick, imprisoned for nearly 50 years, and trying to survive a pandemic in what his lawyer says are deplorable conditions. “He’s being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment due to the nature of prison living but also because of his age and underlying conditions which put him exceptionally at risk. The prison has said they have been doing all of these things to protect Jalil and others who are incarcerated but have they actually if people are still getting sick?” says Carroll.
Muntaqim's case could also help set a precedent for other incarcerated people, particularly those not yet close to completing their sentences and those who are immunocompromised or otherwise at risk. “Lots of people are locked up in New York who are older or have comorbidity and conditions that make them vulnerable, and a lot of people have tried to be released and have gotten rejected by the courts,” says Carroll, adding, “People are dying and the court system has shut the door in their faces.”
Currently, the United States leads the world in coronavirus-related deaths, and New York is the epicenter, with the highest number of cases and mortalities. But beyond that, prisons in New York state are the epicenter within the epicenter, and people who are currently incarcerated are the the most at risk. With more than 500 confirmed cases of COVID in people in prison and 1,270 cases among staff in state prisons in New York alone (which do not include Rikers Island and other private prisons), the danger to people in prison won’t be over any time soon.
America also has more incarcerated people than any other nation, but continues to trail behind in releasing people from prison, despite actions taken around the world. States like Ohio and California have recently been releasing people, but in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has let out only a few hundred inmates who have been within 90 days of being released. Realistically, this only represents a small portion of people in prisons in New York state, with more than 40,000 people incarcerated in state prisons, and more than 9,500 of them being older adults, many of whom are immunocompromised, according to Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP). And, in most places, only those convicted of "nonviolent crimes" have been released.
“We should be looking for public health criteria to release people, focusing on the fact that Jalil and other elders are most vulnerable and it’s costing the state more money to incarcerate them," said Laura Whitehorn, who's formerly incarcerated herself and is the co-founder of and organizes with RAPP. "It would have been the common sense thing to do for the judge to release Jalil Muntaqim, who is emblematic of an entire population of people behind the walls of prisons who could contribute so much to communities on the outside if it weren’t for the parole board, the governor, the head of corrections and people who try to keep people in.”
Every person I’ve ever spoken to who has been released from prison says that he’s changed their lives.
Since the pandemic began, Muntaqim’s family has filed for medical parole three times in order to protect him from getting sick. All medical parole requests were ignored, according to Whitehorn. Muntaqim, who has been parole eligible since the early 2000’s, has another parole interview scheduled for September 2020 whether he’s released now or not — which will ultimately determine if he’s officially released from his prison sentence.
But his current situation is not unique, either, Whitehorn told Refinery29. To be granted medical parole in New York, an incarcerated person must be experiencing a disease or syndrome that debilitates or incapacitates them enough so as to "create a reasonable probability that he or she is physically or cognitively incapable of presenting any danger to society."
“We thought medical parole standards would change given the pandemic, but they haven’t budged,” Whitehorn said. “Let’s say he survives, what happens then? It takes a long time to get your nutrition, breathing, organ function back, all of that. This is a man who has spent his time mentoring people in prison. Every person I’ve ever spoken to who has been released from prison says that he’s changed their lives. He’s an elder, he’s a grandfather, and he would be an asset to the community.”
While oral arguments for Muntaqim were heard on May 28, the decision might not be ready for several weeks. During the hearing, Judge Eugene P. Devine also argued that while Muntaqim may be vulnerable if sent back to prison, he is not "the most vulnerable," and that if they were to grant Muntaqim temporary freedom, it might set a precedent that would require the state to customize release plans for every single prisoner — and the state is nervous about mass release, Carroll said.
Ultimately, Carroll argued during the hearing that despite everything DOCCS says they’ve done, Muntaqim is still in the hospital because the prison's efforts to protect him failed, and that the state now has a duty to protect the medically vulnerable people in prisons like him.