It didn’t take long for Najee Ali to start advocating again — even behind bars. This time it’s for the early release of California’s nonviolent prisoners, specifically himself. “The conditions are horrible and unsanitary,” says the hated-and-loved L.A. human-rights activist, speaking from Avenal State Prison, where he’s serving four years for witness tampering.
On a typical day, “I exercise, study and tutor inmates — many can’t read — and just try to keep a positive attitude.
“The worst thing I’ve seen?” he says. “Someone was stabbed last week and died in the hospital. He was targeted for being a child molester. Rapists and child molesters are pariahs here. I’m not advocating for the early release of hardcore gang members, rapists or child molesters.”
A year ago, Ali pled guilty to witness tampering involving a 2007 road-rage incident in which six motorcylists surrounded a car driven by Ali’s daughter, Jasmine Eskew, on a freeway. Eskew was accused by county prosecutors of crashing her car into one of the motorcycles — but the D.A. lost that case in court. At the pretrial hearing, Ali says he approached the bikers merely to “beg for mercy for my daughter” — a claim he sticks by today. But the bikers accused him of trying to bribe them, and county prosecutors again believed their version.
Ali, a former Crip who turned his life around, was on parole with two suspended sentences for a 1992 robbery, and a 2004 felony hit-and-run involving perjury. According to court records, prosecutors intended to charge him with attempting to dissuade a witness — a potential third strike that could have put him away for years. Instead, he pled to a lesser charge of “tampering,” and got four years.
Ali is at Avenal in the Central Valley, and with good behavior he is likely to be out within the year. But “based on the governor’s criteria” for cutting state spending by releasing prisoners, Ali now figures he would qualify for early release as of next month.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed letting nonviolent inmates serve their final year under “house arrest” with GPS monitoring. A federal court ordered California to cut its prison population by almost 44,000 over two years, using the savings to provide remaining prisoners with better health care. A few days later, 1,300 prisoners at the jam-packed California Institution for Men in Chino rioted.
Schwarzenegger last week described it as bedlam, with prisoners trying “to find anything they could to just hit each other, or stab each other with broken glass … and entire housing units were burned.”
Ali says things are bleak at the Avenal: “We have eight toilets for 250 people, and the toilets back up. … I think God put me here so I could see these Third World conditions. The only reason I haven’t gotten sick is that I can afford to buy my own food.”
He buys tuna, $1 per can.
In recent years, the extrovert Ali became an omnipresent voice, continually slamming the powerful. He was arrested for protesting what he saw as a racist Mexican stamp, he slammed Chief William Bratton as having failed to acknowledge organized hits on black children by Mexican Mafia, he called out Jesse Jackson for ignoring his illegitimate daughter, he got a restraining order against Congresswoman Maxine Waters for blocking him from entering a church.
He also advocated against the early release of heiress Paris Hilton by L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, who complained that his jail was crowded. “I do regret that now,” Ali says. “I’m not afraid to say I made a mistake.”
Even more ironic, the man who openly courted controversy left for prison without a word to the media. That lull is over. “At the end of the day,” he says, “my accusers were all ex-felons, and one was a convicted child molester.” The attorney for his daughter, Anthony Willoughby, says: “I impeached all her accusers on the stand with their criminal records. The one guy who didn’t testify had a conviction of lewd acts on a child under 14.”
Now doing time for an incident that lacked independent eyewitnesses, Ali says today, “If I had been convicted of drugs or robbery, my credibility as a leader would be over. But I get letters from across the nation from people who are outraged at my situation.”
He says he’s received messages through outside contacts from state Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Jermaine Jackson (“a very emotional moment for me”).
Before his incarceration, he was everywhere, holding press conferences, brokering gang truces, calling singer R. Kelly a “pedophile.” He doesn’t feel at particular risk from race-based gangs in prison, he says, because, “Gang members in the black, white and Latino population knew my gang work . … In the Long Beach case, I supported three white young women who were victimized by a mob of black youths. There’s my support for the Latino woman who was set to die on the floor of the King Drew Emergency Room. … I think even the Mexican Mafia respects me for standing up for justice.”
He puts another inmate on the phone — Benjamin Tatum, 53, a soft-spoken man who has served 17 years of a 16-years-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. Tatum says he killed a man he thought was about to pull a gun. He talks about his Lutheran upbringing, his preincarceration work as a journeyman plumber. Tatum’s been rejected three times for parole.
“Did you take down his story?” Ali asks. But violent offenders aren’t eligible for early release, even assuming Schwarzenegger’s controversial idea is approved by the Legislature. Ali argues, “He’s served two decades, done counseling, educational and vocational training and mentors young students.”
California is deeply divided on early release. Advocates insist it would apply only to nonviolent illegal immigrants (who’d theoretically be deported), nonviolent drug users and other low-level offenders. Critics, including gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Jerry Brown, point out that some of these prisoners are violent thugs and rapists, who got plea bargains, and thus look much more benign on paper. He recently said that after release, most of them “commit more crimes, and a vast majority are back in prison.”
But writer Celeste Fremon of witnessla.com has a different take and is challenging news reports that suggest 27,000 inmates would get out. “We’re only talking about 6,300 low-risk inmates,” Fremon argues. “A certain segment are elderly and ill. Rather than caring for them in prison, at a cost of up to $100,000, we can do it cheaper on the outside.” That scenario faces worsening prospects, after Bass and the Assembly — worried about voter backlash — balked at the state Senate’s early release plan.
L.A. became the epicenter of this debate after the tragic killing of 17-year-old Lily Burk by a drug felon and home-invasion robber violating his parole.
Former Daily News editor Ron Kaye, now a civic activist at ronkayela.com, tells L.A. Weekly, “I’ve encountered community activists — one of whom is a probation officer — whose point is that many people who have nonviolent offenses engaged in violent crime but were pleaded out. They wound up with drug- or nonviolent charges despite what may be a great deal of violence in their lifetimes.”
But Kaye agrees that Najee Ali “is not likely to get into real trouble again, from what I know of him. He was the guy who drove people like Bill Bratton crazy.”
Defense attorney Willoughby says Ali’s incarceration has hurt civic life in L.A.’s urban core. “For a long time, I wondered how he got so much press,” Willoughby says. “That was a curiosity to a lot of people. But truthfully, since he’s been gone, there’s been no true advocacy.”