“We have a deep braid of tech industry and a big progressive tradition in the Bay Area,” said Jennifer Beach, co-founder of Prison Radio, recording and broadcasting uncensored, incarcerated voices since the dawn of the internet.
“When we started Prison Radio, you had to do a DAT recording to get broadcast quality; it was difficult, you had to send out tapes to people,” said Beach whose first base of operations with founder Noelle Hanrahan was their 24th Street apartment. Over 25 years later, “We have streamable quality recordings that go up in a few days,” she said.
The walls of Prison Radio’s small Mission District office are lined with flyers, posters and images of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political activist and journalist who is serving a life sentence. The art was sent from around the world by artists in solidarity with Abu-Jamal. Shelves and floors overflow with books, including Abu-Jamal’s latest, “Murder Incorporated: Empire, Genocide, Manifest Destiny.” Prison Radio’s first publishing venture, the book was co-written by Abu-Jamal and Stephen Vittoria, director of the film, “MUMIA: Long Distance Revolutionary,” from which a collaboration was born.
“Mumia would tell you this is his magnum opus,” said Vittoria. “The narrative of the book is in many respects the narrative of Mumia’s journey. We wanted to tell the story of the people who are on the wrong end of capitalist wars and empire, the victims instead of the victors, the stories often left untold,” he said. The pair were inspired by “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, which served as their guidepost during the writing process.
“There was the normal passing back and forth work of collaboration,” explained Vittoria. “Only one man is free and the other is incarcerated, literally and figuratively handcuffed.”
Abu-Jamal was convicted in 1981 of shooting Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He and supporters maintain his innocence and have worked tirelessly for four decades to study the law and appeal the case when possible. Through the years he’s written over a dozen titles for various publishers, including his memoir, “Live From Death Row” (his sentence was commuted in 2011 from death to life in prison).
“I became aware of Prison Radio through the publishing industry,” said Prison Radio’s Keasley Jones, formerly of Peachpit, a press specializing in web design and development books. He remembers a sales conference at which he heard about Abu-Jamal’s first book “Live From Death Row.”
“It was the most moving, impassioned and inspirational presentation I saw in my entire career in publishing,” said Jones, who over 20 years later, is hands-on selling Abu-Jamal’s new book.
“Publishers aren’t reticent to take on a book by Mumia, in fact, quite the opposite,” said Jones of Abu-Jamal’s prophetic, poetic style and rigor as a journalist. “He has a following.” However, at 1,400 pages, “Murder Incorporated” proved daunting to traditional publishing houses which is how Prison Radio ended up with the three volume work.
“We felt so passionate about this material and that you can’t curtail it,” said Jones, though there is hardly unilateral love for Abu-Jamal’s revolutionary voice.
“The Fraternal Order of Police objected to the publication of Mumia’s first book and floated a banner over the publishing company,” explained Beach, who’s also confronted resistance by broadcast media.
“In the early ‘90s Mumia got a contract with ‘All Things Considered,’” she remembered. “Bob Dole mentioned it on the senate floor and threatened to lead the charge to cancel all funding on NPR and NPR dropped the show.”
Nevertheless, by the mid-’90s, Prison Radio found a home for its content on the early days of the internet, back when dreams of a more democratic and just society were alive and before the web’s dominance as a sales, marketing and surveillance tool. In the current age of hashtag activism, Prison Radio remains visible via alternative media, though locally it belongs to a vital network working to change public policy around mass incarceration and reduce America’s statistics of over two million people in prison (the U.S. is the world’s largest jailer).
“San Francisco is a focal point. Students from around the country come to learn about prison justice and participate in programs inside San Quentin, to visit Critical Resistance, and the Restorative Justice Project,” said Jones. The day of this interview, Liam, a summer intern from Philadelphia was working side by side with Jones and Beach.
“There’s a really rich movement here, around examining, revealing and challenging the prison industrial complex,” said Beach. “The Bay Area continues to be the vanguard, even though San Francisco has changed so much in the last 25 years and some of the organizations have moved to Oakland.”
Hanrahan has since moved to Philadelphia with her family and closer to the prison where she and Abu-Jamal, 65, record his missives for Prison Radio while awaiting further news on his recently restored right to appeal (it appears the case’s judge was biased).
“Noelle Hanrahan undertook a Herculean task, getting Mumia’s voice from the depths of hell out all over the world,” said Vittoria. “Prison Radio has done the same with the book.”
Though conditions inside America’s prison nation are grim, hope prevails in the San Francisco offices of Prison Radio where change has been a long time coming.
“Change can happen in an instant,” said Beach. “We believe that we will see Mumia free in our lifetimes.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.