Local Journalism Happens With YouSupport
First Person

The View From Inside: On Building Community Behind Bars

In his first column for Knock LA, from Corcoran State Prison, Mwalimu Shakur (AKA Ajamu) describes the challenges of keeping in touch and the vital work of political education. 

Ajamu wearing glasses, a gold chain, and a light gray sweater and smiling into the camera.

Mwalimu Shakur, born in Inglewood in 1973, is serving a 22-year prison sentence, currently locked up at Corcoran State Prison. In 1998, he was moved into solitary confinement for an indefinite term — solely for his political beliefs. He served 20 years in SHU and was released from solitary in 2018. His objective, along with countless other New Afrikans, is transforming California’s prison slave camps into schools of liberation. 

A lot of people don’t really know what goes on behind these prison walls. Reaching out and educating people on that has been a beautiful thing. I’ve seen a lot of people start to understand and want to get involved in our struggle. And that’s what I’ll continue to do. 

Since being let out of Special Housing Unit confinement in 2018, I have been able to get in touch with my kids and a couple of family members. I’ve been maintaining a continued line of open communication with them, to see how they’re doing. 

I have four children. They’re all grown. Three girls and a boy. (A 33-year-old, a 30-year-old, a 28-year-old, and my boy is 21.) I love that they haven’t made any of the mistakes that I made. They didn’t go down those roads. Just hearing how they’ve been able to make it without me there makes me happy. But not being there — to help raise them and help them navigate through life — still upsets me at times. I try not to think about it and I find myself apologizing to them a lot. 

I know that I can’t get those years back, but what I can do is go out and be a grandfather to my grandkids — I have seven so far. All my daughters have children. I’ve been able to meet one grandkid in person. A couple of my children are out of state now, but I plan on seeing them when I get out. I talk to them on the phone. I see pictures of them; I send them pictures of me. It’s been a real joy. 

Of course, I’ve lost a few loved ones — like my grandmother, a couple of aunts, a couple of cousins. They were close to me, too. 

I have not been allowed to attend funerals of anyone I’ve lost while behind bars. CDCR won’t allow that. No matter how much money you raise, they’ll consider you “armed and dangerous” — too violent to be escorted. They say they don’t have enough money to pay for the cars they might need to escort us… All this nonsense they use so that they don’t have to do it for you. They can if they want to. But even if you raise the money to be able to do it, they won’t. 

I only talk to two of the friends that I grew up with. It is hard to maintain those connections, because they have a life out there, and I understand that. I don’t try to bother them. If they want to reach out, they’ll find me. I don’t contact too many people out there — I don’t want to draw undue attention to them. Most of the people I knew, if they’re not dead or incarcerated, have moved on with their life somewhere… Some are here in Corcoran. There’s quite a few people from LA here.

Aerial view of Corcoran State Prison in California
Aerial view of Corcoran State Prison. (Photo: Corcoran State Prison)

As far as new friends and comrades that I’ve met while behind bars, they’ve been able to visit and maintain some contact. I talk to them on the phone here and there, and they write. Trying to get people out there involved in the struggle is probably the most important thing for me. That’s what my main focus is when it comes to maintaining contact.

I do it so that I can try to open people’s eyes to get them to see what’s really going on outside of their lives politically, just to see that there’s a bigger picture out there — so they can understand what the picture is, as well as how to fight it. I’m winning people over and trying to get them to reeducate themselves so they can become activists in some form or fashion. Community organizers. Abolitionists. To help bring changes to this prison system and do away with some of these laws. Like three strikes. And drug use laws that just get people caught up in the system rather than offering rehabilitation. 

I get in contact with a lot of college students who just want direction. When they have the opportunity to hear from somebody who understands what’s going on, they feel more inclined to listen. I give them my opinions and tell them how we do things, and what works and what doesn’t. 

A lot of young people move and shake too much. And when things don’t go right, they say “to hell with it,” or they’ll turn to alcoholism or any other type of destructive behavior — which is counterproductive. So you’ve gotta continue to drill that into them — like, “look, this is important” — so they will stay focused and won’t give up. They mean well. And I’ll keep doing the best I can with anyone who crosses my path.

Knock LA is looking to expand its coverage of California state prisons. Can you help? We would like to hear from anyone (on the inside or the outside) who can help us illuminate the realities of incarceration. Please send tips, pitches, or information to email hidden; JavaScript is required today.

Those of us who are conscious New Afrikans, who continue to fight to bring positive changes, we have a unique way of doing things. We still use the same methods and means the elders learned in the ’60s and ’70s — to get the word to each other, to different buildings, to different yards. We are still trying to maintain that connection with our outside supporters and activists — to develop that growth and that consciousness so that they can be brought into the fold and understand exactly how to combat the evils we’re facing. 

As long as people understand this capitalist economic system, they’ll understand no matter how much you try to reach for that 1% class, you’re still considered in the middle or lower class — you’re still in the same class as the rest of us.

On the inside, we often reflect on how far we have come, consciousness-wise, from what we used to do that brought us to prison. And how important it is for us to help bring more positive changes to the community. 

A lot of times we didn’t know we were destroying the community. We didn’t know the big picture. The FBI with their COINTELPRO operation. The welfare system keeping us further at bay. And how poor our school system was — it wasn’t really teaching us what we needed to know. By us learning all these things now, the main focus is getting back out there and making changes. There’s a few of us around. People are transferring in and out all the time. As more come in, we’ll be here to bring people on board. 

We’ve been fighting to get basic things since COVID started. It’s been a literal living hell, as we’ve had deaths here and some of us have lost loved ones out there due to the pandemic. But we will remain strong. And for those who haven’t been, we will continue to make them strong if we can. Starting this year, California prisoners are being allowed to speak on the phone for free. And we at Corcoran should be getting tablets soon, which should make it easier for us to keep in touch. 

Until next missive,