“Joe-Joe” Bowen is a Black Liberation Army (BLA) Prisoner of War, serving two life sentences for the assassination of a prison warden and deputy warden, as well as an attempted prison break which resulted in a five-day standoff after his initial arrest.
A native of Philadelphia, Joe-Joe was a young member of the “30th and Norris Street” gang, before his incarceration politicized him. Released in 1971, his outside activism was cut short a week following his release when Joe-Joe was confronted by an officer of the notoriously brutal Philadelphia police department. The police officer was killed in the confrontation, and Bowen fled. After his capture and incarceration, Bowen became a Black Liberation Army combatant, defiant to authorities at every turn.
In 1973, Bowen and Philadelphia Five prisoner Fred “Muhammad” Burton attended a meeting with the warden to advocate for religious rights for Muslim prisoners. It was at this meeting, that the warden threatened to instigate a gang rivalry against Bowen and Burton. Taking this as a direct threat, Bowen then assassinated Holmesberg prison’s warden and deputy warden as well as wounded the guard commander. At the trial, Bowen claimed sole responsibility for the murders.
In October 28, 1981 Joe-Joe led a mass liberation attempt from the state’s largest prison at Graterford, after arming other prisoners with two shotguns and two revolvers. Bowen and three others attempted to scale the prison’s 40-foot wall and were stopped by a rifle shot from a guard tower. After returning fire, they captured three guards and retreated into the prison kitchen where they captured three kitchen employees and 29 inmates. Three other prisoners joined in the action.
Bowen and the six others held off the prison’s guards, State Police and FBI for five days until an agreement was struck. In the end, the men were charged with assault, attempted escape, kidnapping and one other offense. Joe-Joe was sent to the Federal Prison in Marion, IL where he met up with other political prisoners and prisoners of war such as Sundiata Acoli, Hanif Shabazz Bey and Ray Luc Levasseur.
Life in Prison
Much of Joe-Joe’s time in prison has been spent in and out of control units, solitary confinement and other means of being isolated from the general prison population. However, he is legendary to many prisoners as a revolutionary. "I used to teach the brothers how to turn their rage into energy and understand their situations," Bowen told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1981. "I don't threaten anybody. I don't talk to the pigs. I don't drink anything I can't see through and I don't eat anything that comes off a tray. When the time comes, I'll be ready."
During his time in prison he has raised the consciousness of thousands of Pennsylvania prisoners through his powerful history and political/military education classes. Many of these prisoners become aware of his story just by arriving at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, named after the warden and deputy killed in 1973.
40 Years in Segregation
As of 1 August 2017, Joe-Joe was finally transferred into general population. This is important because Joe-Joe had been in control unit segregation for nearly 40 years.
In 2018, the PA Dept of Corrections instituted a restrictive mail policy where all mail to prisoners must be sent through a mail processing facility in Florida where all correspondence is scanned, copied and then the copy is mailed to the prisoner. There is an active campaign to get Gov. Wolf to repeal the restrictive policy so that friends and family member can send mail such as greeting cards again.