A Christmas Cage

After recovering from his gunshot wound and surgery, Mumia Abu-Jamal wrote “A Christmas Cage.” for Philadelphia’s Community newspaper (February 1982). He describes his beatings by police on the day of his Dec. 9, 1981 arrest, continued mistreatment following surgery, and the broader political context of his case. Abu-Jamal is now awaiting a ruling from The US Third Circuit Court of Appeals following oral arguments on May 17. Video footage is now available of the Dec.4 “Murdered By Mumia?” press conference organized by Journalists for Mumia (Parts One and Two), as well as the Dec. 8 slide show presentation of the newly discovered crime scence photos that were recently spotlighted by Reuters, NBC’s Today Show, and National Public Radio.

A Christmas Cage

by Mumia Abu-Jamal
February, 1982

Shortly before 6 A.M., the speaker in this tiny, barren cell blares a message, said to be from prison superintendent David Owens: “A Merry Christmas to all inmates of the Philadelphia prison system. It is our hope that this will be the last holiday season you spend with us.”

A guard reads Owen’s name and the speaker falls silent for a half-hour. I wonder at the words, and ponder my first Christmas in the Hospital wing of the Detention Center. Christmas in a cage.

I have finally been able to read press accounts of the incident that left me near death, a policeman dead, and me charged with his murder. It is nightmarish that my brother and I should be in this foul predicament, particularly since my main accusers, the police, were my attackers as well. My true crime seems to have been my survival of their assaults, for we were the victims that night.

To add insult to injury, I have learned that the forces of “law & order” have threatened my mother and burned, or permitted the burning, of my brother’s street business. Talk about curbside justice! According to some press accounts, cops stood around the fire joking, and then celebrated at the stationhouse.

Nowhere have I read an account of how I got shot, how a bullet happened to find its way near my spine, shattering a rib, splitting a kidney, and nearly destroying my diaphragm. And people wonder why I have no trust in a “fair trial!” Nowhere have I read that a bullet left a hole in my lung, filling it with blood!

Nowhere have I read how police found me, lying in a pool of my blood, unable to breathe, and then proceeded to punch, kick, and stomp me — not question me. I remember being rammed into a pole or a fireplug with police at both arms. I remember kicks to my head, my face, my chest, my belly, my back, and other places. But I have read no press accounts, and have heard tell of no witnesses.

Nowhere have I read of how I was handcuffed, thrown into a paddy wagon, and beaten, kicked, punched and pummeled. Where are the witnesses to a police captain or inspector entering the wagon and beating me with a police radio, all the while addressing me as a “Black motherfucker?” Where are the witnesses to the beating that left me with a four inch scar on my forehead? A swollen jaw? Chipped teeth?

Not to end prematurely, who witnessed me pulled from the paddy wagon, dropped three feet to the cold hard earth, beaten some more, dragged into Jefferson Hospital, and then beaten inside the Hospital as I fought for breath on one lung?

I awoke after surgery to find my belly ripped from top to bottom, with metallic staples protruding. My penis, strapped to a tube, and tubes leading from each nostril to God knows where, was my first recollection. My second was intense pain and pressure in my already ripped kidneys, as a policeman stood at the doorway, a smile on his moustached lips, his nametag removed and his badge covered. Why was he smiling and why the pain? He was standing on a plastic, square bag, the receptacle for my urine!

Am I to trust these men, as they attempt to murder me, again, in a public hospital? Not long afterwards, I was shaken to consciousness by a kick at the foot of my bed. I opened my eyes to see a cop standing in the doorway, an Uzi submachine gun in his hands. “Innocent until proven guilty?”


Days later, after being transferred to city custody at Guiffre Medical Center, under armed police guard, I was put in a room (#202) in the basement’s detention unit, which is the coldest in the place.

After I was transferred to what’s laughingly referred to as the “new hospital” wing of the Detention Center, I found out what “cold” really means. For the first two days the temperature plummeted so low that inmates wore blankets over their prison jackets.

I had been officially issued a short-sleeved shirt and some tight high-water pants, and I was so cold that for the first night I could not sleep. Other inmates saved me from the cold. One found a prison jacket for me. (I had asked a guard, but he told me I would have to wait until an old inmate rolls, or gets out. So much for “using the system.”) Other inmates, and a kind nurse, supplemented my night warmth.

The prison issued one bedsheet and one light wool blanket. When I protested to a social worker she told me defensively, “I know it’s cold, but there’s nothing I can do. The warden’s been told about the problem.” Why am I concerned about cold? Because the doctor who treated me at Jefferson Hospital explained that the only real threat to my health was pneumonia, because of my punctured lung. Is it purely coincidental that for the next week I spent some of the coldest nights and days of my life? Is the city, through the prison system, trying to kill me before I go to trial? What do they fear? I told this all to my prison social worker (a Mrs. Barbara Waldbaum), and she poo-pooed the suggestion. “No, Mr. Jamal, we want to see you get better.” “Not hardly,” I replied.

Miraculously, after my complaints, some semblance of heat found its way into the cells on my side of the wall. Enough to sleep, at least. Is it coincidental, too, that the heat began to go on the night I was visited by Superintendent David Owens? “It is our hope that this will be the last holiday season you spend with us…” Owens’ words ring through my mind again — is there another, grim meaning to this seemingly innocuous holiday greeting?


There is another side to this controversial case that people are not aware of. My cell is reasonably close to the place where Pedro Serrano was severely beaten and strangled to death. I have talked to eyewitnesses – some who I know in the street. These brothers, at considerable personal peril, have told their stories to police and to prison officials, to city Managing Director W.W. Goode, to the Puerto Rican Alliance, and to me. Some have been threatened by guards for doing so, but they have done so despite the threats.

According to several versions Serrano, who had already been beaten by guards, was shaking his cell door, making noise to attract attention. Guards, angered at the noise, ordered all inmates into lock-up. Most complied. One, a paralyzed, wheel chair-bound inmate, did not. He drove his chair near a wall, and watched in silence.

The guards opened Serrano’s cell, dragged him out, and proceeded to punch, kick and stomp him. He cried out in pain and terror, but the other inmates, locked up, were helpless. One guard, well-known for his violence, reportedly whipped him with his long keychain, producing thin red welts in Serrano’s white flesh.

Before this latest assault on my brother and myself, I covered a press conference called by the Puerto Rican Alliance and members of the Serrano family. I saw photographs of Pedro Serrano, his face swollen even in death. I saw a body riddled with swellings, bruises, and welts. I remember the thick dark bruises beneath his neck and I remember calling David Owens for a comment.

“Mumia,” he answered, “Mr. Serrano was not beaten to death, according to all the reports I’ve received. The Medical the Examiner concurs, Owens said authoritatively. “Mr. Serrano was not beaten by any member of my staff,” Owens would later proclaim to my radio listeners.

Remember the dark bruise around Serrano’s neck? Owens told me he apparently strangled on a leather restraining belt, by exerting pressure until death. Inmate eyewitnesses say a guard wrapped the leather strap around Serrano’s neck and pulled him back into the room, where he was again beaten and placed in restraints. Serrano, arrested for burglary, was described by his wife as being in love with life, and surely not suicidal, as prison officials have suggested.

Why have I recounted these intricacies of a case that is now public knowledge? I’ll tell you why: because my jailers, the men who decide whether I am to leave my cell for food, for phone calls, for pain medication, for a visit for a loved one, are the very same men who are accused of murdering Pedro Serrano!

Remember the D.A.’s claim that police had enough evidence to charge me with murder? How much more evidence do they have on Serrano’s accused murderers? Yet every day they come to work, do their do, and return home to their loved ones … while others sit in isolation and squalor.

Consider the scenario — accused murderers guarding accused murderers! How insane — yet, how telling it is of the system’s brutality.


What is the dividing line? That Serrano was a “spic,” a “dirty P.R.,” and thus his life is worthy of the diversions of a system that talks justice, yet practices genocide. I am accused of killing a policeman, who was, moreover, white. For that, not even the pretense of justice is necessary. “Beat him, shoot him, frame him, put fear into his family” is the unwritten, but very real script.

I have been shackled like a slave, hands and feet, for daring to live. Those who have dared to question the official version have been threatened with dismissal from their jobs, and some with death.

Why do they fear one man so much? Not because they loved his alleged “victim” — but because they fear any questioning of their role of accuser, and, occasionally, executioner. Who polices the police? The D.A. is well-known as a character whose only interest is higher political office — obviously he would oppose a special prosecutor, for he wants his office to have the glory of hanging murder on “the radical reporter.”

Where was Ed Rendell when Winston C.X. Hood and Cornell Warren were summarily executed, their hands shackled behind them? What credence did he give the witnesses to these murders? Or the outright, cold-blooded killing of seventeen-year old William Johnson Green? Or the intentionally broadcast beating of Delbert Africa? Where was his unquenchable thirst for justice then? Need we mention Pedro Serrano?

Make no mistaka-jaka! As a nigger or a spic, there is no semblance of justice and we better stop lying to ourselves.

Who are we to blame? No one but ourselves. For we condone and allow it to happen. We are still locked in the slavish mentality of our past centuries, for we care more for the oppressor than for ourselves.

How many more martyrs will bleed their last, before we wake up, stand up, demand and fight for justice?

And justice, true justice, comes not from the good graces of the Philadelphia Police Department, the District Attorney’s office, the court system, or your friendly neighborhood lawyer. It comes from God, the giver of your very life, your health, your air, and your food.

* For more information, the Journalists for Mumia Abu-Jamal website is: Abu-Jamal-News.com or also visit: FreeMumia.com (NYC), FreeMumia.org (SF), EmajOnline.com (Educators for Mumia), PrisonRadio.org (Mumia’s Radio Essays), or contact:

International Concerned Family & Friends of MAJ
P.O. Box 19709
Philadelphia, PA 19143
Phone – 215-476-8812/ Fax – 215-476-6180
E-mail – moc.loanull@jamffci

Hans Bennett is a Philadelphia-based photo-journalist who has been documenting the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners for over five years. Read other articles by Hans, or visit Hans's website.