After death row: An unlikely love story

Shujaa Graham is one of 157 death row exonerees in the US. He and his partner Phyllis Prentice tell their story.

After death row

Shujaa Graham, 65

“I grew up in the 1950s on a plantation in Louisiana. My family were sharecroppers and I grew up picking cotton as a young boy. I also grew up under racism. In the small town where we lived, there were signs which said ‘black only’. There was one black police officer and he was only allowed to arrest black people. 

When I was 11, we moved to the Compton-Watts area of Los Angeles, which is probably the worst area of the city in terms of violence and poverty. That is where my trouble began. I joined neighbourhood gangs and got involved in robberies, burglaries, stealing cars – you name it. As a teenager, I spent close to three years of my life in juvenile hall, getting in and out of trouble. Ultimately, it was a robbery that got me into state prison on a five-years-to-life sentence [a minimum of five years in prison with the possibility of getting paroled afterwards]. I was 18 years old.”

Shujaa Graham in elementary school, Lake Providence, Louisiana, 1959-1960 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]
Shujaa Graham in elementary school, Lake Providence, Louisiana, 1959-1960 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]

Phyllis Prentice, 67

“I was born in Iowa, in the Midwest, in 1949. My family were very conservative and well-educated. I was able to go to Europe as a child and got many opportunities. 

Growing up, I wasn’t as conscious of race relations as I maybe should have been. The northern states weren’t legally segregated, but in practice, it was very segregated by neighbourhood. There were no children of other heritages in elementary school. In high school, there was one young man from Mexico. But on the other side of town, it was a different story. 

Back then, I saw myself as a conservative person. It was the 1950s, so it was the time for it. But I’m also a child of the 1960s – I was changed when I went to the University of Iowa.”

Phyllis Prentice in Iowa, 1953 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]
Phyllis Prentice in Iowa, 1953 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]


“On the way to state prison, I sat next to a man called Yassin Mohammed. He was very quiet and I was curious about him, so I started asking him questions. We got to be good friends and he started teaching me about people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

From that day, I resolved to become a new person. I denounced my gang activity, I learned to read better. I joined the Black Panther Party prison movement. We were struggling against racism, struggling to bring black, white and brown prisoners together to stand up against guard brutality.

In 1973, I was transferred to a new prison where I started organising and became a leader of the prison movement myself. I had only been there for a few months when an uprising happened and a guard was stabbed to death. Together with a fellow inmate, I was framed. We were indicted by a grand jury and for the next eight years, I had to fight for my life.

On my first trial, the jury couldn’t determine whether I was guilty or innocent, but on my second trial, they convicted me. I was sentenced to die in the gas chamber of San Quentin prison.”


“I was at the University of Iowa, training to become a nurse, when the nation’s campuses started erupting. This was in 1968. I started demonstrating against the Vietnam War and started learning about Dr King and the women’s movement. It turned my whole world upside down and I decided I had to get out of the Midwest, so I moved to New York – that’s when my real activism started.

I got involved with the prison movement in 1971, after the Attica prison riot during which inmates took control of the prison to protest against the terrible conditions there. By the time the takeover ended, 29 inmates and 10 guards were dead.

I started working on a paper called the ‘Midnight Special’. Prisoners in the US can’t write to each other, so they would send us letters about what was going on in different prisons – from militancy to a lack of food – which we would reprint and mail out to different prisons as a newspaper.

This was long before I knew Shujaa. But years later, I found out that he had been reading the ‘Midnight Special’ as well.”

Phyllis, left, with her singing group at a protest rally in New York, mid-1970s [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]
Phyllis, left, with her singing group at a protest rally in New York, mid-1970s [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]


“I was on San Quentin’s death row for about three years. The hardest part was being separated from the other prisoners for a long time. They gave me an entire tier to myself and for six months, I was alone.

I always tell people that I’m not here because of how the system works, but that I’m here in spite of the system. Two high school students came to my aid. They had come to my trial and afterwards, they raised money and awareness for my case and wrote to people to get them to help me. In 1979, the California Supreme Court overturned my conviction because all African American jurors had been struck off by the district attorney during my second trial. I was moved to a county jail to await my next two trials.

At the time, I was in a state of paranoia. I had gone through hell on death row. I didn’t trust anyone; I was very angry. In the county jail, there were some nurses and social workers who were politically very active. They started talking to me about my politics and agreeing with me. I was used to people being brutal to me, so I didn’t trust them at first. But slowly I let my guard down with some of them.

I remember the day that Phyllis first came to the prison. One of the nurses who I trusted was showing her everyone in the jail. When they came by my cell I didn’t move, because I didn’t want anything to do with this new person. She started coming by my cell every day, asking if I needed anything, and I wouldn’t move. I’d just say ‘nope’ and wave her off. I thought she could be an undercover police officer.

She finally got me with vitamins. She came by one day saying ‘Mr Graham, do you want some vitamins?’ That’s when I started coming up to the bars. And that’s when we started talking about politics. Guards would tell her to stay away from me, that I was dangerous, but she just kept coming by talking to me and I felt comfortable with her.

At some point we started exchanging letters. They would contain political conversations, and I would end them saying ‘With revolutionary love’ and she would do the same. Then one day, she wrote to me and told me she felt more than revolutionary love.”

A photo of Shujaa on a poster promoting support for the campaign to free him, mid-1970s [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]
A photo of Shujaa on a poster promoting support for the campaign to free him, mid-1970s [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]


“I moved to the Bay area in 1979 and started working in the jail where I met Shujaa. Some of the other nurses had told me about his politics and I was interested in talking to him. But it took a while – he had other things on his mind. I knew he was fighting for his life. The prosecutors were trying to put him away for a long time again.

When we started getting close, our entire relationship had to happen through the bars. I would call him out for blood pressure checks fairly often to get some physical contact in. I had a pushcart with medication and would secretly pass him a burrito or a little love note every now and then. It was a clandestine little love moment.

But mostly we’d talk politics. It was a unique kind of bonding, which I think is why the relationship has lasted for all this time. It wasn’t just a romantic fantasy of a prisoner and a nurse. We were comrades – and it has always stayed that way.

Some of the guards got uneasy. They felt I was getting too familiar with Shujaa and they moved me to a different floor. Shujaa’s third trial ended in a hung jury. By the time his fourth trial started, I had quit my job to focus on supporting his case.

During the trial, I was in the courtroom every day. I guess the jury figured out what was going on between us. Because when they walked into the room on the final day to announce their decision one of them looked over to me and gave me a little thumbs up. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at Shujaa and he must have thought ‘What’s she been smoking?’ – I was smiling.”

A party to celebrate Shujaa's release, 1981 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]
A party to celebrate Shujaa’s release, 1981 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]


“The judge said ‘not guilty’ and I could just walk out. My nightmare had come to an end after 11 long years. Phyllis and I moved into a basement in San Francisco. Initially, it was hard on me. I wasn’t used to living without prison guards telling me where to go, when to get up, where to walk. It was intimidating for me to get out of the house as well. In prison, you survive by constantly being aware of your environment, and a prison environment is very small. Outside, it’s not possible to know who everyone is and I felt like I didn’t have any control over the situation. Even now, more than 30 years later, I have my bad moments.

Speaking at events about my experiences with organisations such as Witness to Innocence helped me get back into society. Now that I’m retired, I feel a responsibility to go around speaking as much as I can.

In 2016, 20 people were executed in the US – the lowest number since 1991. There’s been some progress, but I won’t be happy until we have a federal ban on the death penalty. We just lost a fight in California, where an initiative to repeal the death penalty was rejected by voters on November 8, 2016. That was a setback. In Texas alone, seven people are scheduled to be executed in the next four months.

Capital punishment doesn’t solve a social problem, it doesn’t reduce violence, it’s no deterrent to crime – it’s just retaliation. It doesn’t work. And we have to keep educating people about this.

But my activism is about more than the death penalty – it’s about social justice. Racism is alive and well in the US and Trump is enabling it. We have an attorney general who once said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he found out they were smoking marijuana. In prisons, the situation is now worse than ever. Everything I fought for when I was part of the prison movement has been reversed.

We’re living in dangerous and troubling times. The silver lining is that people are standing up against injustice again. Racism has come right to our dinner tables and we need to have discussions on how to deal with it.”

Shujaa and Phyllis shortly after Shujaa's release, 1981 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]
Shujaa and Phyllis shortly after Shujaa’s release, 1981 [Courtesy of Shujaa Graham and Phyllis Prentice]


“Shujaa’s release was a very intense moment for both of us, but we felt differently about it. For me, it was all good, just wonderful. He was happy to be out, but leaving his comrades behind in prison was hard, too.

We took it one day at a time and moved around several times. We now live in the Washington, DC-area and we have three children and six grandchildren. People often wouldn’t put me and my children together when they were growing up. It didn’t really bother me, I would just think it’s funny. It’s a learning moment for people, that they shouldn’t assume they know who they are talking to. When it comes to race relations in the US, things haven’t really changed all that much and the current political climate is putting us in a bad space again.

I still work as a nurse, but whenever I can I try to go speak with Shujaa at events. It makes people aware that men and women on death row have families, children and grandchildren, too. I worry that, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, executions will go full force ahead. I have a friend whose son is on death row. Her son is scheduled to be killed – it’s just unbelievable something like that can happen in this day and age.

Shujaa is one of the fortunate ones. He got the opportunity to have another jury trial – he could have easily been dead.”

Shujaa and Phyllis during a recent speaking tour in Italy
Shujaa and Phyllis during a recent speaking tour in Italy
Source: Al Jazeera