Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

My Memories of Sundiata Acoli

May 25, 2022

By Marcos F. Santiago

On May 9, Sundiata Acoli, 85, was released from prison after 49 years. The former member of the Black Liberation Army was convicted in the 1973 shooting death of a state trooper along with Assata Shakur, who later escaped from prison and now lives in Cuba. Here, one of our network members reflects on their time together in U.S. Penitentiary Allenwood.

My days as an armed robber were short-lived; when it all came to an end after a brief hunt by a police helicopter with SWAT team, I found myself in the Lancaster County (PA) Jail. About six or seven months later, when the U.S. government picked up my case, I landed in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia. The thought of cooperating against my codefendants in return for a lesser sentence never entered my head. Since I refused to turn against my codefendants as the prosecutor wanted me to do, I prepared for trial. I was a newbie; I had never served time in prison before, so I figured I had a chance.

Some of the charges were indeed dropped, but nonetheless, I ended up staring at a sentence of 33 and a half years. In June of 2005, I was transferred to my designated facility — U.S. Penitentiary Allenwood in White Deer, Pennsylvania. I spent the first month in the Special Housing Unit (aka the “hole”), because I had gotten into some trouble before my transfer. So by the time I was released into the general compound, my nervous system was wound up and my mouth so dry I couldn’t even talk!

I had seen this play out in plenty of movies, but now I was the main character. Hundreds of inmates were scattered everywhere on the yard — playing baseball, handball or basketball; working out doing push-ups or pull-ups; or watching us new “jacks” as we entered. It would take well over a decade before I was truly used to prison life, but I soon pulled it together and fell into a routine.

There was an inmate on the unit named A-Sadiq, and we had a lot in common as far as books and legal work, so we hit it off. In time, he introduced me to an interesting cast of characters: Prince, one of the two leaders of the Supreme Team (the infamous New York City crime syndicate); Guy Fisher, the first Black man to own the Apollo Theater and a member of “The Council,” which controlled the heroin trade in Harlem; and, most importantly in my view, Sundiata Acoli. Since I was an excellent typist (the only thing I learned in high school), I typed plenty of documents for Prince — tickets, a book he was writing about the streets of New York, legal work, etc. He was a pretty cool guy but, for the most part, our relations were limited to our business dealings. Stamps — the medium of exchange in prison — were pretty much what bound us together. As for Guy Fisher, I don’t remember shaking his hand or even speaking with him. He worked in the Supplies Department, and I went there one day with a request in hand to see if I could get a job. He sat before a desk typing something. When I explained why I was there, he said: “She’s not hiring.” “Well, I think I’ll just give her this request myself,” I replied. “SHE’S NOT HIRING!” he retorted, raising his voice a little louder. That was pretty much my only interaction with him. And the last one.

I can’t claim that I had many conversations with Sundiata Acoli either. But I can say that his spirit was on a much higher plane than the average inmate. He didn’t hustle, make stamps, swap and/or buy pictures of semi-nude women, brag about money, businesses, cars or other material possessions he once had or strip clubs he visited. And he didn’t jockey for the best positions in the prison. When I was around Sundiata, or even just greeting him in passing as he sat down on one of several benches in the yard with his shirt off on a hot day (“WHAT’S GOING ON, SUNDIATA!” “OH, HEY, MARCUS!”), I never failed to feel like I was in the presence of a true friend. Someone who cared about me, rather than someone whose opinion depended on what I could do for him.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have opportunities to chat with Sundiata. I’d often see him sitting on the same bench in the prison yard, situated at the end of the middle track closest to the gym and his unit. But since quiet or alone time was hard to come by, I respected what I assumed was his desire to reflect and think. Something else held me back as well. I would have loved to ask Sundiata a thousand questions about his past, but an inmate who asks too many questions will cause others to wonder if they’re working for the government or SIS (the FBI agents of the prison system).

I found myself drawn to him though. He was a writer, and at the time, I was fixated on Marxist philosophy — so much so that I even had another inmate tattoo a large hammer and sickle on my upper left arm with “IIIrd International” written above it in cursive. I poured over books on political sociology, economics, history, social issues of the day, etc.

Another memory of Sundiata embedded in my brain is the time when my bandmates and I played a jazz-like piece for him on his 67th or 68th birthday. I had been fooling around with the guitar since I was 17 years old, and the piano since I was 10; so, at some point during the early part of my four-year stay at USP Allenwood, I joined a band led by an “old head” from D.C. named Al. Sundiata was in the recreation department on his birthday, and Al invited him into the band room. He acted as the maestro, leading us as we played for Sundiata. I have never played before a large, live audience before, mainly due to stage fright. But, looking back now, I realize that when I played for Sundiata that day, I was playing for a prestigious audience indeed.

The only other memory I have of Sundiata is the time when we walked over to the chow hall together to eat lunch. It was winter and since there was ice on the ground, at one point I said to Sundiata, “Be careful walking over that ice. The other day I almost busted my ass! It looked like I was out here doing a breakdance!” Sundiata immediately broke out in a hard, light-hearted, child-like laugh — the same laugh that his codefendant, Assata Shakur, described in her poignant autobiography as being straight out of the countryside! For that moment, neither of us were in prison. I’m glad that I helped him “escape,” even if for only a few seconds.

If I remember correctly, it was during that same winter (2006 or 2007) when Sundiata was transferred to a medium-security prison. Sadly, it would take another 15 or 16 years of imprisonment before he was finally released. The question that ran through my mind when I heard on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now show that the New Jersey Supreme Court declared that Sundiata was no longer a “threat to society” was: “Who the hell are these people to judge who is and is not a threat to society?” During the last 50 years that Sundiata was kept in prison, U.S. government officials waged countless deadly wars of imperialism against other nations; massacred hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians; committed scores of vicious and brutal acts of terrorism around the globe; extolled the virtues of “democracy” from the rooftops while secretly undermining democratically elected governments around the world; and sent billions of dollars to Ukraine to fight a war against Russia when Americans at home can’t even find food to feed their babies. If anyone is a threat to society, it’s the members of the government who have kept Sundiata behind bars until he was 85 and had dementia.

As Assata Shakur put it in her autobiography: “…I sat next to a pregnant woman who was doing 90 days for stealing a box of pampers and watched on TV the pardoning of a president who had stolen millions of dollars and who had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of human beings…”

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