Spent eight years in prison (1973-1981), five of those in California´s death row.
Louisiana in the 1950s. Shujaa Graham was the son of black sharecroppers who worked in the southern cotton fields, where racism and segregation prevailed. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to the Compton-Watts area of Los Angeles, which was probably the worst district of the city in terms of violence and poverty. There he joined the neighbourhood gangs and started getting into trouble with the law. He spent his entire teen years in and out of juvenile facilities. When he turned 18, he was sentenced to serve five years in Soledad State Prison for robbery. On the way to the penitentiary, Shujaa was sitting next to activist Yassin Mohammed. They soon became close friends, and Mohammed taught Graham about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Once in prison, he learnt to read and write. He studied history and world affairs and ended up becoming a leader of the growing Black Panther Party movement within California’s penitentiary system, which was devoted to fighting against racism, for justice and education and for black prisoners to stand up together against the brutality of white guards.
In 1973 he was transferred to Stockton State Prison. A few months after his arrival an uprising took place and a guard was stabbed to death. Graham and another inmate, Eugene Allen, were charged with the murder. At their first trial, the jury was unable to determine whether they were guilty of the crime. A second trial followed, in which they were convicted and sentenced to death in the gas chamber of the San Quentin State Prison. Shujaa spent the next five years on San Quentin’s death row. He was placed in solitary confinement for the first six months. He got involved in protests and underwent hunger strikes, but to no avail. Then, out of nowhere, two high school students who were willing to help him visited him in prison. After having attended the trial, they started raising funds and campaigning to have Shujaa’s case reopened. In 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that all prospective African-American jurors had been dismissed by the district attorney prior to his second trial. He had been tried by an all-white jury.
Shujaa was transferred to the county jail to await his next trial. By then he was in a state of paranoia and did not trust anyone. But it all changed the day a new worker first arrived at the prison and gradually began to earn his trust. Phyllis Prentice was a white nurse from a well-off family who, while in college, had come into contact with the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations and learnt about Martin Luther King and the women’s movements of 1968. This was where her political and social activism had started. While working in prison she fell in love with Shujaa and they started a clandestine love story.
A third trial resulted in a hung jury. By then Phyllis had already quit her job at the prison and was devoted full-time to working towards Shujaa’s release. Finally, after a fourth trial, he was found not guilty due to the lack of incriminating evidence. He was released in March 1981.
Shujaa and Phyllis moved to San Francisco, where they started their life together and had three children. Living together as a family proved to be extremely hard, since an exonerated man leaves many friends behind in prison. The aftermath of being released makes it difficult to integrate back into society. He decided to learn landscaping and started his own business because he could not bear working in closed spaces. Phyllis continued working as a nurse. At present, they live in Maryland. They have several grandchildren. Together, they have continued to actively campaign against racism and for the abolition of the death penalty.
Thirty five years after Shujaa’s release, Phyllis and Shujaa sit down at home with his three siblings and six grandchildren to celebrate Father’s Day eating spicy southern-style crab with butter sauce. Takoma Park, Maryland, 2016.
Shujaa Graham. Elementary school Lake Providence, Louisiana, 1959–1960.
Lee Graham y Ophelia Graham, Shujaa´s grantparents, In front of their home in Lake Providence, Louisiana. Around 1980.
Shujaa and Phyllis shortly after Shujaa’s release. California, 1981.
Flier promoting support for the campaign to free Shujaa Graham and Eugene Allen, mid-1970s. It reads: Eugene Allen and Shujaa Graham are two young Black men who had been struggling against the racism and brutal oppression of the american System from behind the walls of the U.S.A. only because their dedication. They are presently being held captive in Death Row at San Quentin, having been falsely convicted of the death of a prison guard at Deuel Vocational Institute at Tracy, California on November 27, 1973.
Shujaa watering his garden. Takoma Park, Maryland, 2016.