Life, health care, prisons and cutting costs


by Sundiata Acoli

Sundiata AcoliHealth care costs are soaring and have become unaffordable for many families. It is no different for the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), except they’re required by law to provide medical care to their wards.

Although much of prison health care is inadequate, many of its youthful captives can at least squeak by on what’s presently provided. Not so for those over 50 years of age, most of whom are beset by the common old age infirmities: high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, clogged arteries, heart disease, cancer and the need for body part replacements.

California has the largest prison population in the U.S. plus the highest health care costs and spends $98,000 to $138,000 per year for each prisoner over 50. (See “Study Finds Record Numbers of Inmates Serving Life” by Solomon Moore, New York Times, July 2009, page A20.) An Aug. 11, 2009, New York Times editorial noted that just days before a Chino, California, prison riot, a three-judge panel ordered the state to reduce its 150,000-plus prison population by about 40,000 in the next two years as the only way to bring its prison health care system up to constitutional standards.

The editorial concluded: “The riot at Chino and the federal court’s ruling contain the same message for states everywhere: They must come up with a smart way to reduce prison populations and they must do it quickly.”

More prisoners today are serving life sentences than ever before. They are called “Lifers,” their numbers have quadrupled since 1984 to over 140,000 and they’ve become a major driving force behind the explosion of health care costs in prisons. Many Lifers are over 50 and most are parole eligible, while the remainder are doing life without parole (LWOP.)

One reason for the ballooning of life sentences is the Three Strikes You’re Out mandatory minimums, 100 to 1 ratio of crack to powder cocaine sentences, children sentenced to LWOP – in clear violation of international law – and other harsh edicts of the law and order climate of the last several decades.

The other reason for the balloon is the unrectified racial residue that has accompanied America’s justice system since antebellum days. Two thirds of prisoners serving life sentences are Latino and Black and nearly half of those serving life are Black. In 13 states Blacks make up 60 percent of the Lifers. In New York state, only 17 percent of prisoners serving life are White.

Many Lifers over 50 have already done 20, even 30 years or more and some are 60, even 70 years old and more. Crime has been decreasing for the last decade or two and ALL indicators show that elderly prisoners, once released, rarely commit another crime and are least likely to return to prison.

So it is self-evident that the smartest and quickest way to begin reducing prison health care costs and prison overcrowding is to release aged and infirmed Lifers and LWOPs whose age plus years served equal a fixed number – say 70 years, for example – which could be further reduced in proportion to the seriousness of the Lifer’s illness.

Such a release process would not only be smart but ethical and prisoners’ families, loved ones and the public would be even wiser to urge their Congress member to put such a prison cost cutting bill into effect immediately.

About Sundiata

Sundiata Acoli is a 72-year-old prisoner at FCI Otisville, New York, who is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, afflicted with common old age infirmities and has been imprisoned 36 years to date. He was arrested for the May 2, 1973, New Jersey Turnpike shooting incident in which he shot no one but merely managed to survive but in which his passenger, Zayd Shakur, and a New Jersey trooper, Werner Foerster, were killed and another trooper, James Harper, was wounded as was Sundiata’s other passenger, Assata Shakur, who was at the time the object of a nationwide “woman hunt” and she was captured. Sundiata was also wounded, then captured 40 hours later. Sundiata and both his passengers were members of the Black Panther Party at the time.

Sundiata has endured some of the harshest treatment a prisoner could experience. Still, he maintains a favorable prison record. He is a talented painter and has written numerous published articles about the prison industrial complex. He is a beloved father, grandfather, brother and elder to many with a rich history of making invaluable contributions to his community.

In the ’60s Sundiata left a promising career at NASA as a computer programmer to travel to the South to help register Blacks to vote. During his activism with the New York Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Sundiata contributed to various programs providing the city of Harlem with community control of schools, tenant control of slum housing, free breakfast for school children, free health care, legal clinics and political education classes. He also worked on community programs against drug dealers and police brutality. Numerous Panthers are still languishing in prison and have repeatedly been denied parole despite clear support for their release.

For those reasons and because Assata escaped prison long ago, the Parole Board has twice denied Sundiata parole claiming he’s likely to commit another crime. Sundiata comes up for parole hearing again in February 2010 and people concerned about justice are urged to send letters, cards and signature petitions.

As the attorneys will present your letters formally and keep record of the number of letters received, please do not mail them to the Parole Board directly. Instead mail your letters to: Attorney Florence Morgan, 120-46 Queens Blvd., Kew Gardens, NY 11415.

Letters should be addressed to: Chairwoman Volette C. Ross, New Jersey State Parole Board, P.O. Box 862, Trenton NJ 08625, saying in effect that 36 years is enough. Sundiata Acoli, New Jersey No. 54859 and federal No. 39794-066, has long ago fulfilled all requirements for parole and is too old, infirm and highly unlikely to commit another crime, so I urge you to release Sundiata Acoli on parole.

To join the Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign (SAFC) email list or request additional information, feel free to contact SAFC by email at


  1. What kind of a sick twisted mind do you have to write an article where a murderer is made out to be a good citizen because he helped organize voters with the black panthers? That is what this article implies.
    “He left a promising career with NASA? really? Doing what ? Cleaning the bathrooms and mopping the floor? Give me a break. This man deserves a slow death in jail!

  2. Wow, you guys are really miserable souls but entitled to your opinion, no matter how twisted it may be.

    Sundiata was actually a brillant mathematician, which is why NASA hired him as a computer programmer. He spent many years of his time in solitary confinement, a cell human rights advocates deemed not fit for a german shepard dog.

    You cannot through that word terrorist around whenever it suits your liking. Sundiata is no terrorist and at 72 years of age, what threat to public safety could he possibily be to anyone? That is basis for a parole board to make their decision. Not revenge or retribution.

    The judge sentenced Sundiata to life with the possibility of parole. He has served his time. No one has the right to extend his sentence to death. If you are such a proud American you should be aware of the Constitution’s amendment about cruel and unusual punishment. The families of those who lose loved ones will hurt for certain but if that was the basis for freedom or imprisonment, no prisoner convicted of murder would ever be freed. What ignorant, uniformed, hate-filled statements from you all.

    36 years IS enough. Sundiata must be set free. There is no LEGAL reason to deny him. (note the period)

  3. How about using the word THROW instead of THROUGH for starts genius? (Beginning of third paragraph) This man should be executed. The only hate in my heart comes anti-american terrorist apologists who make excuses for killers. You must think the Taliban are “Freedom Fighters “and not terrorists either!

  4. Great information! Sundiata Acoli has been tormented for 36+ years because of his political beliefs, something which the U.S. claims to abhor overseas but hypocritically practices right here on these shores. He is a model prisoner and has done more than enough time to be granted release on parole. Thanks so much for this article.

  5. Sundiata Acoli is a true hero, one of many demonized and shut up in these prisons by an antiquated corrupt system, that even as the rest of the nation, and the world, evolves to a higher consciousness, continues to carry out the vendettas of its past.

    When the final tabulation is made, men like Sundiata Acoli will be revered and celebrated in the history books, unsung heroes of the civil rights era, for without whom there would be no Oprah, no Jay-Z, no Barack or Sotomayor.

    But we can´t wait for the history books, this beautiful brotha needs our help now.

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