Jomo was tried in three separate trials for the cop killings before being acquitted in 1980. In each case a majority of the jury believed he was innocent; however, Jomo’s notoriety from Attica worked against him as the media painted him into a notorious thug.
Elizabeth recalls the media hype:
“When they interviewed the witnesses at the scene, “the perpetrator” who shot the cops was clearly identified as a 5′ 6″ male Hispanic with a beard. Jomo is 6′ 3″, black, and didn’t have a beard. He was tried three times and then acquitted. The case hit the front page of The New York Times, The Daily News, and The Post. Two white cops dead. Black man arrested. It was a big mess” (Davis 1995).
As part of the trial, the judge only agreed to grant Jomo the facial reconstructive surgery he needed to save his eyesight, if he submitted to a surgery to remove a bullet in his leg that the state wanted to use as evidence against him. Jomo needed the surgery after the two cops who arrested him shattered his skull and face.
After Elizabeth and Jomo separated in 1984, Jomo found himself in trouble again. When a gold chain belonging to one of Jomo’s older children from a previous marriage was stolen, Jomo and two of his friends found out who took it and went to get it back. The man was on drugs and the confrontation became violent.
“The guy stabbed Jomo, and the other guy had a gun and shot him. They all took off; the other two guys got arrested– the guy who actually did the shooting was arrested for murder; the sergeant was arrested for aiding and abetting or something. Jomo took off.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip24.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip24]
Jomo immediately went to visit Elizabeth and his children in New York; he told her what happened and then called his parole officer to say he was going to turn himself in. However, after saying his goodbyes, Jomo went on the run from the FBI.
Elizabeth speaks about her families experiences after Jomo went into hiding from the government:
“The children and I were under twenty-four-hour surveillance for a year while they looked for him — even though we had already separated. He was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Their reports said that he was attached to his children, which he is, and they believed that he would eventually try to see them. So whenever my daughter had a ballet recital, the FBI was there; when we went to Disney World, the FBI was there; they never left us. They tapped our phone and our house — I later learned that all the pay phones in the entire neighborhood in Park Slope had pen registers on them in case I tried to use them to call him” (Davis 1995).
The FBI found him living in an apartment in the Bronx in 1985, and extradited him to Virginia where he was sentenced to 107 years for felony murder. The lengthy sentence stemmed from the fact that the man was killed during a robbery, which is one of seven enumerated felonies where any death is automatically considered a felony murder, and because his co-dependents blamed him for the crime during his absence.
“When his two co-defendants were tried, the guy who did the shooting was originally charged with capital murder and he was scared to death, as was the other guy, and Jomo was gone, and they didn’t think he was coming back. So they all testified that this was all Jomo’s idea –Jomo this, Jomo that — and I don’t think they really thought they were screwing him, because they didn’t think he was gonna be around. But then a year later when they picked him up, and brought him in, they bring these guys back to testify and what are they going to do, tell a different story? So they were like, “oh no this is somebody Jomo knew, and this was Jomo’s idea, and he brought us all down there to go and take off a drug dealer.” So the evidence made him look like; I mean he was the only one with a record; he was the only one who was sort of connected to the thing.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip25.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip25]
Parole laws in Virginia at the time, indicated that Jomo would only have to serve eleven to twelve years if he remained on good behavior. However in 1995, the year he became eligible for parole, Virginia parole laws changed. Under the new system, Jomo was unable to get his case heard.
“At the time he was sentenced, the judge basically said, “you’ll be out in eleven or twelve years. If you go up there, and you take care of yourself, and you be a good boy, and you go down to the penitentiary.” Because at that time, the way the Virginia law was is, you went to the parole board after one quarter of your time, up to a maximum of forty years. And if you had a previous case, it could be one more year. So the 107 years, the judge said it doesn’t matter if you get 40 years or a 107 years, as a practical matter you still go to the board after eleven years and you’ll get out. The trouble is that the eleven years hit, he was supposed to go to the parole board in 1995 and that was the year that Virginia abolished parole. So even though technically he was still eligible for parole because . . . he was sentenced under the old law. So he was still allowed to go to the parole board, but the state had just abolished parole, put in a whole new sentencing scheme, there were hardly any parole board members and the people that were hired were brought into an environment of “we don’t believe in parole.” So this has been a big issue in Virginia for years– this whole issue of the old law prisoners who are still sitting there decades later, because the understanding that was in place when they were sentenced was not what happened when they actually went to prison, because they switched to a definite prison time.”- Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/LizClip1.mp3|titles=LizClip1]
Changes in parole laws were not limited to Virginia; “by the new millennium ‘thirty-three states had abolished limited parole’ (up from seventeen in 1980)” (Thompson 2010). The simultaneous proliferation of New-York style drug laws across the country sent the prison population soaring. Between 1970 and 2010 the number of prisoners increased from 52,249 to 12,662,435 people (Thompson 2010). As urban dwellers became subject to new laws that regulated communities in a more punitive manner, violators also became subject to longer periods behind bars. As these policies swept across the nation, police tended to focus more energy on communities of color (despite evidence that most drug trafficking took place in white neighborhoods).
“A greater number of African Americans had ended up in the penal institutions than in institutions of higher learning by the new millennium (188,500 more) . . . In the 1980s alone, however, African Americans’ “share” of drug crimes jumped from 26.9 percent to 46.0 percent, and arrested black juveniles “were 37 percent more likely to be transferred to adult courts, where they faced tougher sanctions.” If convicted, African Americans of every age “were more likely than whites to be committed to prison instead of jail, and they were more likely to receive longer sentences” (Thompson 2010).
“From the time we were working in the 70s until now, the prison population has literally quadrupled, and it has been driven by harsh drug laws throughout the country and so a lot of the organizing began shifting from prison conditions to the number of people being incarcerated and this concept of mass incarceration.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip3.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip3]
These policies lead to more aggressively targeting adults who committed petty crime and violated quality-of-life policies. As incarceration rates rose, communities that were drained of adults began to fail and individuals found themselves in cycles of poverty that lead to further imprisonment (Thompson 2010).
“The average one of the prisoners today, they’re not well educated and they’re probably in jail for some kind of drug related incident that got something to do with their economic status, most of them. They ain’t really hurt nobody except themselves and their family. But there’s no other place, I mean, the systems got to grind them out.” – Agieb [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/AgiebClip7.mp3|titles=AgiebClip7]
Mass incarceration and new policies instituted after Attica, changed the channels of communication available for organizing. In some places, prisoners were better able to organize in the open so that guards could keep an eye on their activities; in other facilities, the rules made it more difficult. However, almost all prisons have instituted these changes with Attica in mind.
“One of the things that’s difficult to understand as far as prison movements, is that the United States has fifty different prison systems, and they’re fairly different in how they operate but in general they have done everything they can since Attica, actually there’s training films from corrections that show footage from Attica and try to explain carefully to corrections people how to make sure that never happens again, and a lot of it has to do with suppressing the ability of prisoners to meet and organize themselves.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip5.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip5]
Even when organizing was possible, Jomo sensed that prisoners were more apathetic.
“In the early days, prisoners didn’t want to be organized because they thought they would get in trouble. Later on, it was more just, it was a combination of fear and just really not caring. One of his most poignant moments was he did time in the box, he wanted to read some books that used to be banned in prison. And he went to the box for his right to read this book. And he said and years later it was in the prison library and it was thrown away. The guys had the privilege to do the reading, but at that point they didn’t read.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip26.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip26]
Jomo speaking to Elizabeth about prisoners’ attitudes (recounted in a 1995 interview with Jean Stein):
“These kids have no idea. They have the right to read these things and they can’t even read. I walk around with these bullets from Attica in my back. What the hell did I do this for?” (Davis 1995).
For Jomo in Virginia Beach, organizing became an individual effort to galvanize prisoners he now believed were apathetic to the struggles for prisoners rights that transpired before their time.
“He used his case; he organized in Virginia. He got all these prisoners to sign petitions about the unfairness of the old parole law, he was organizing people around food, he got them organized in the Virginia prison about– he got OSHA in there because he was sure that the ventilation system wasn’t working and they were all dying. So there’s a whole other aspect of him organizing around what he thought were issues that were of importance to prisoners.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip27.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip27]
He wrote to organizations outside the facilities walls that fought for justice within the prison system, because he had limited power to enact change from inside; these interactions typified the relationship between organizers inside and outside the prison in later years.
“So people like Jomo would be writing to them and giving them information about what was going on inside, and then they would start to try to organize outside. Because people like Jomo have limited ability to organize, so they would work through a lot of different organizations.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip28.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip28]
In 1995 when Jomo became eligible for parole, Virginia changed its parole laws and Jomo’s case was rejected because of the nature of his crime. He received the same ruling each subsequent year. Elizabeth contacted Mike Tigar, a prominent lawyer and law professor at Duke University, to take on the case. After a first attempt failed, Mike joined with a law firm in Richmond to employ a new strategy.
“The reason you get involved in these types of cases is if Jomo gets out, that sends shock waves through the system, and then that gives other people that may not have the same sort of visibility some traction to try and influence the system.” – Tigar
“Mike correctly assessed the fact that this was just too political, it was no longer about Jomo or this case, it was obvious Jomo should get out. But that firm, is a big firm in Richmond, and they came up with what turned out to be a better strategy; which is using their political connections to meet with every parole board member and finally get the case the attention that it needed to get. Because the truth is, the way they do parole there, is you never, the prisoners never interviewed by the parole board. It’s a computer system and they’re doing it on scores. So by bringing the case up to a public level, they were able to have a different impact. So he made parole.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip30.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip30]
In 2009 Jomo made parole and moved back to North Carolina. While he is still interested in the struggle for prison rights, he is also exploring his Native American heritage more in depth, raising farm animals and spending time with his children and family.
Still, the struggle for justice within the prison system is far from over. After regulations in prisons suppressed prisoners’ ability to organize in a manner that is as visible to the general public as Attica, most of the battles fought for prisoners have stemmed from groups such as Critical Resistance and The Osborne Association on the outside.
However in December 2010, a series of strikes in prisons across Georgia brought these issues back into the media and into the public’s mind. Thousands of men from Augusta, Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith, and Telfair State Prisons, among others, refused to work and staged a non-violent protest for their human rights, making this the biggest prison protest in the history of the United States. As in Attica, the prisoners issued a list of demands including being compensated for jailhouse labor, healthier food, improved medical care and more access to educational opportunities and their families (Times 2010).
“We committed the crime, we’re here for a reason,” said the Hays inmate. “But at the same time we’re men. We can’t be treated like animals” (Times 2010).
The strike which began on December 9th and lasted until December 18th, was organized via contraband cell phones. The strike started a series of conversations and negotiations to improve conditions within the prison.
“Maybe by putting so many people in prison, we have kind of have triggered a renewal of concern about what’s going on in prison.” -Elizabeth [audio:http://sites.duke.edu/docst110s_01_s2011_kgd3/files/2011/04/ElizabethClip4.mp3|titles=ElizabethClip4]