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Activists are working to keep Tupac Shakur’s stepfather from dying of cancer in prison

Prison doctors have given Mutulu Shukur, activist and Tupac Shakur’s stepfather, up to six months to live, according to his attorney.
Mutulu Shakur
Mutulu Shakur sits in the Manhattan Correction Center in N.Y., on Nov. 6, 1987.Jim Hughes / NY Daily News via Getty Images file

Organizers have launched a movement to release Tupac Shakur’s stepfather from a decadeslong prison sentence as he faces a rare form of blood cancer that his doctors say is incurable. 

Mutulu Shakur, an activist and holistic health care advocate, has been behind bars for more than 35 years and now, at 71, has several health issues, most notably stage-3 multiple myeloma, a  blood cancer that can affect the bones and kidneys. 

Shakur has endured drastic weight loss due to his illnesses and treatments; has had Covid at least twice; and has relied on IV feeding tubes on and off since May, his attorney, Brad Thomson, said. Thomson said doctors with the Federal Bureau of Prisons gave Shakur less than six months to live in May, noting that his cancer treatment had stopped working. 

“His health situation is extremely dire right now. He’s very much on an end-of-life trajectory. We’re looking at a matter of months at the most but, realistically, it could be a matter of days or weeks,” Thomson told NBC News. “At this point, the issue is getting him released so he can say goodbye to his loved ones, his family, his children, and grandchildren. To be surrounded by loved ones, so he can die in dignity, peace and comfort outside of prison.”

Shakur was diagnosed with myeloma in 2019, Thomson said, and his legal team requested his “compassionate release” in May 2020. U.S. District Judge Charles Haight Jr. in November 2020 denied Shakur’s request, holding that his crimes were too serious, and his health had not deteriorated enough to warrant release. 

“Should it develop that Shakur’s condition deteriorates further, to the point of approaching death, he may apply again to the Court, for a release that in those circumstances could be justified as ‘compassionate,’” Haight said in the ruling obtained by NBC News. 

A spokesperson for Haight, who also presided over the 1988 case that landed Shakur in jail for bank robbery and other crimes, told NBC News that a new request for Shakur’s release is pending and the judge is waiting for guidance from the U.S. attorney’s office  before making a decision. Shakur is being held at a federal medical center in Lexington, a prison in Kentucky for incarcerated people who require care. 

Shakur is serving a 60-year sentence stemming from a 1988 conviction for conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO Act, bank robbery, armed bank robbery and bank robbery murder. He was convicted of leading a group of revolutionaries in a string of armed robberies in New York and Connecticut, including one that left three people dead. He was also convicted of helping JoAnne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, escape from a New Jersey prison in 1979, according to The Associated Press and Thomson. 

However, Shakur and his supporters say that the acts were political, not criminal, in nature. Jomo Muhammad, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement working to free Shakur, as well as Shakur’s friends and family, said his incarceration is linked to his Black liberation efforts and his work with revolutionary Black nationalist groups in the 1960s, including the Revolutionary Action Movement and the Republic of New Afrika.

Muhammad said Shakur is being used as an example because of his activism. At the time of his 1986 arrest he was doing his own independent investigation of COINTELPRO, an FBI campaign to discredit radical groups including Black liberation movements that were deemed illegal, Muhammad said.

“Fifty years later, the United States government continues to hold a grudge,” Muhammad said. “You can make the argument that he is, in fact, a political prisoner.”

Along with being a respected activist, Shakur is called a “doctor” among his family and supporters. He is praised for his work bringing holistic health care to Black communities in the Bronx in the 1970s. He informally studied acupuncture and joined with several other activists, in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, to take over part of Bronx’s Lincoln Hospital and run the Lincoln Detox Center, a community  center that used acupuncture to address drug dependence and provided political education that produced several community activists, according to The Washington Post

A group of faith leaders and Shakur’s supporters gathered on Wednesday in front of the U.S. Department of Justice in a rally urging the U.S. Parole Commission, Bureau of Prisons, and Justice Department to free Shakur. Supporters said at the rally that Shakur is confined to a wheelchair and his brain function has deteriorated so much that he barely recognized his son during a visit two months ago.

“They claim he is a danger to public safety, a danger to society, and that he has the capacity to influence people. They don’t speak to the fact that he is a 71-year-old elder. They don’t speak to the fact that he has been incarcerated for 36 years,” Nkechi Taifa, founder of the Taifa Group, a social justice-centered consulting firm, said of the federal agencies. 

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on Shakur’s health, but said in an emailed statement: “The BOP has no direct authority to grant a reduction in an inmate’s sentence as a compassionate release measure. At all times, the decision on whether to grant such a motion — whether brought on behalf of the Director of the BOP, or the inmate themselves — lies with the sentencing court.” The spokesperson added that the bureau can recommend a person’s release. They have not done so for Shakur. 

Shakur has been denied release several times over the years, Thomson said, though because of “various time credits,” he is set for mandatory release in December 2024. But Thomson, doctors and Shakur’s supporters say it’s unlikely he’ll live that long. Shakur was eligible for release in a 2016 mandatory parole hearing but was denied. 

Thomson said that Haight’s assertion that the severity of Shakur’s crimes are what has delayed his release should not hold water because Shakur’s co-defendant Marilyn Buck, who was convicted of the same charges, was granted compassionate release in July 2010. She died of uterine cancer just weeks later.

“That’s exactly the situation that Dr. Shakur is facing now. We’re asking for that same relief,” Thomson said. “Everyone who was charged in that conspiracy, and overlapping conspiracies, all of those people have been released from federal custody.” 

Shakur’s latest request for release is expected to see a resolution in the coming weeks. Although they are hopeful, Muhammad said he and Shakur’s advocates would be devastated if Shakur dies in prison.

“This is a clear injustice. Regardless of what he’s done in the past, which he’s taken responsibility for, he should be free,” Muhammad said. “We will continue to fight. There’s a lot of justice that needs to happen. A lot of freeing and healing of people, which is what Doc’s work was about. We would mourn our beloved elder and we’d do what he instructed us to do, which is to carry on straight ahead.” 

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