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From Prison to Mosque and Back Again

How an NYC imam uses his past life of gangs and drugs to save the future of troubled and incarcerated young people

By Sarah Moawad
January 17, 2019 | , ,

“What unhealthy decisions have you made in your life that got you here?”

The question hangs in the air for a moment. Five teenage boys, seated on drab gray couches in a windowless basement room, stare blankly, some look down at their hands; one, the youngest, is only half listening, alternating his attention between the conversation and the monopoly game we interrupted.

Slowly, the boys begin to answer. The question was posed by Imam Jawad Abdul-Wadud, a clinical chaplain and pastoral counselor who works with incarcerated youth in New York. Seated in the recreation area of a reception center in New York City – the first stop for juveniles who are convicted of a crime – Abdul-Wadud tries to connect with the young men and help them open up about their struggles. “I don’t like to use the language of ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” Abdul-Wadud says. “I like to say healthy or unhealthy decisions.”

One 16-year-old does so with a single word: “robbery.”

“Boredom,” replies another, who says he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and became associated with another boy who set a car on fire.

The rest remain silent, skeptical; the youngest, entirely disinterested, fools around, jeering and gesturing in the hopes of winning the attention of the rest. A few of the 16-year-olds had already been here for two weeks, and were set to be transferred to a facility upstate the following day.

The second boy, the one accused of setting the car on fire, appears nervous, but remains attentive and engaged. “Tomorrow we’re going to another jail – uh, place,” he says, glancing at one of the staff members. “Another facility.”

Wearing khakis and a crisp white polo, almost as though in school uniform, with dyed pink hair neatly slicked back into a bun, the boy later tells me he is unsure what to expect at the new facility, where he will be spending the next three months. “I’ve never been somewhere like that,” he says. “But after this, never again. I’m going back to my high school, I’m gonna get a job.”

As the older boys become more engaged, answering the chaplain’s questions and laughing at his occasionally theatrical mannerisms and impressions of prison characters, the young jester, realizing the futility of his attempts to redirect the others’ attention, decides to tune in. At one point, he attempts to speak. But the chaplain, in his fervent, animated torrent of prescribed inspiration, misses the cue, and the boy goes ignored. Almost immediately, he returns to his antics, remaining on the periphery for the duration of the discussion.

 

“‘I know,’ he tells the boys. ‘And you know how I know? Because I was incarcerated once, too.'”

 

Abdul-Wadud asks the boys if they’ve heard of Malcolm X. The boy with the pink hair replies: “He’s like Martin Luther King, but he went the violent way.”

“Well, not exactly,” the chaplain says, pulling a handful of pamphlets bearing the civil rights leader’s familiar, pensive face out of a clear plastic bag full of Qurans, Bibles and other religious and social justice oriented literature. “Malcolm was a pimp, a hustler, a criminal. And he turned his life around when he found Islam,” he says.

He takes on the air of a concerned grandfather, the stark white of his beard the only betrayer of his age against smooth, wrinkleless skin. But, at over six feet tall, his build and presence is more that of former football player than frail elder, and he immediately commands respect, if not slight intimidation, upon entering a room.

He closes by imploring them to listen to their parents – “If you love your parents, why would you hurt them like this?” – and to avoid getting involved with the wrong crowd, who he calls the “Willie Bobo Crew” – a reference that is lost on everyone in the room, including me (apparently, it is the stage name of Jazz percussionist William Correa and became jail slang for “shooting the breeze”) .

But Imam Jawad is impassioned, his baritone voice laden with a sense of urgency, a need to break through, to believe that somehow, maybe, he could shield these boys, to cushion the fall. “I know,” he tells the boys. “And you know how I know? Because I was incarcerated once, too.”

After leaving the boys with some literature, we say goodbye and take the elevator back up to Jawad’s office on the 4th floor.

“Did you catch what happened with the little one?” Jawad asks me in the elevator. “He tried to speak, but I lost him. You see that? Completely lost him. Man. I should’ve given him a chance to speak.” He shakes his head, regretful at the missed opportunity to connect with the young boy.

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From Big Doug to Imam Jawad

Born July 10, 1951 at Harlem Hospital, Douglas Peter Freeman was a “back-and-forth baby,” constantly moving between Harlem and Savannah, a product of parents who “didn’t know what to do with they selves” – a father who was a longshoreman and handyman, a mother who was a “party girl.”

Eventually those parents figured it out, and parted ways, his mother staying in Harlem and his father returning to his native Georgia. The split traumatized 10-year-old Douglas, who responded by acting out. “I was rebellious,” he says, “because I was angry with my father. And I never questioned my mother because, you know, the way Southern folks raise you, you don’t sassy them, they gon’ sassy you.”

Freeman was the second of five children, forced to grow up too fast. He never again saw his father after the split. With no breadwinner, the family survived on welfare. But things only got harder as the children got older. Douglas’s younger sister died of HIV. A younger brother lost his mind when he caught his wife cheating, and “drunk hisself to death,” cirrhosis of the liver. The last remaining members of the family are an older brother and a younger sister.

 

“I asked if he thought it was funny, how a Young Chaplain became a prison chaplain. ‘Ha!’ said Abdul-Wadud. ‘I never thought of it like that… It’s like Allah was working on me all the time…'”

 

“You know what really troubles me sometimes?” he asks no one in particular. “How I can go and speak every place and do everything for everybody else’s family, and I couldn’t save my own family.”

As for young Doug, he sought solace in the streets as early as 13, dropping out of school, hustling, smoking, and dealing drugs, mostly marijuana and heroin. “I been in gangs, I fought in the streets of Harlem, I got hit upside the head with a baseball bat, dude tried to kill me.” The gang he joined was called the Young Chaplains.

I asked if he thought it was funny, how a Young Chaplain became a prison chaplain. “Ha!” said Abdul-Wadud. “I never thought of it like that. Ain’t that something? It’s like Allah was working on me all the time, huh?”

He credits these early experiences for his ability to relate to incarcerated youth, many of whom come from similar backgrounds. “I tell them, I was raised in the hood. And they can relate. Some other imams came in there, and they couldn’t relate to them. They wouldn’t open up.”

He also recalls this phase of his life, Harlem in the 1960s, as deeply intertwined with the Black Power movement; “I came up through the Black struggle,” he often says. He remembers vividly the speeches Malcolm X would give, standing on a ladder on the corner of 125th street and 7th Avenue, in front of the Theresa Hotel.

“I remember Harlem when Harlem was Harlem. When you came up out of the subway you knew you was in Harlem, you smelled the fragrance of the food cooking everywhere, the soul food. It was a whole other world,” he said.

In the early 70s, Doug, known at the time as “Big Doug,” served three years on Rikers Island for armed robbery of a supermarket. “I wanted to be like Jesse James, robbing banks and supermarkets, take the money and don’t bother the people…I thought I was like Robin Hood. I was crazy out of my darn mind.”

 

“I knew after that conversation that I had to see his work in action. I asked if I could shadow him on prison visits and maybe attend a Millati Islami meeting.”

 

In prison, he encountered the teachings of the Nation of Islam, converted, and quickly found himself stepping in to fill a void in leadership. “When other brothers was going upstate, they had to leave the masjid [mosque] to somebody, and I was spanking brand-new in the deen [religion], and they gave it to me. I said ‘I can’t, I can’t – I’m no imam!’”

But he did, for a time, until his eventual split with the Nation of Islam over disagreements with leadership and internal discord. The final straw was the ousting of a fellow prisoner from the group for engaging in sexual activity with another man. “I seen some things went down with a brother and I didn’t appreciate it. I said, ‘how you gonna oust a brother and you leave him out there with the snakes? They gonna get him.’”

He decided to complete his education and get a GED, having only attended school up until the 9th or 10th grade. This was part of the reason he got in trouble, he said – every job he applied for required a diploma. But he failed in two subjects – Reading Comprehension and Math.

After three years of incarceration, he went home, got some GED books and re-took the test, this time passing. Now with a diploma, doors started to open. He got a job as a maintenance man at the second McDonald’s opened by Robert Lee Dunham in New York City, a black-owned store on 132nd Street and Lenox (Dunham opened the first McDonald’s franchise in New York City, and the first inner-city McDonald’s in the country, in Harlem in 1973).

Doug eventually worked his way up to general manager, winning an award for “Most Outstanding Manager of a Black or Hispanic-owned McDonald’s for the New York Region,” an honor that included a $1,000-cash prize and a plaque, in 1977. At night, he worked as a city clerk at Harlem Hospital, the place of his birth.

But when he got a call from the New York State Department of Sanitation letting him know that he had passed the entry test, he dropped both jobs to dedicate the next 25 years of his life to sanitation. In the late 80s, he was elected as a senior shop steward, the workers’ representative for the Manhattan West 12 district of the sanitation department’s labor union.

This is also around the time he decided to focus on getting clean, and joined Narcotics Anonymous. He had already been enrolled in Phase Piggy Back, a Harlem-based addiction recovery program, and became an active member of neighborhood community groups, organizing seminars about health, family, and the importance of being a good father for groups like “Men Getting Real” and “Men Supporting Men.”

 

“‘There are under 18-year-olds serving life sentences?’ I asked naively, bracing for an answer I didn’t want. ‘Some of them ain’t never coming home,’ Jawad said.”

 

Having left the Nation back in prison, he returned to his old way of life upon his release – partying, drinking, womanizing. But something kept him searching for meaning. “As I got older I was looking. I been a Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Protestant – I been in a lot of holy waters, trying to find myself.”

A few years later, in 1993, he attended a memorial service for Sheikh Allama Al-Hajj Ahmad Tawfiq, the imam of the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, an orthodox Sunni Muslim mosque borne out of the legacy of Malcolm X. This was a place by and for the African-American Muslim community. Sheikh Tawfiq was a student of Malcolm’s, and aimed to establish a space for a social justice-oriented, authentically African American Islam, rooted in remediating the ills plaguing the Black community.

As Andrea Elliott wrote of the mosque in a 2007 New York Times article, “Since its birth in 1964, the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood has been a fortress of stubborn faith, persevering through the crack wars, welfare, AIDS, gangs, unemployment, diabetes, broken families and gentrification.”

It was during this service that Big Doug says he became aware of the difference between the black nationalist teachings of the Nation of Islam and mainstream Sunni Islam. “That day, when I heard the Quranic recitation, I was sitting there, and it was like something permeated my chest and went to my heart and started massaging my heart,” he says. In that moment, he decided to take his shahada, the Islamic proclamation of faith.

“I started crying. Tears just came down my face…I said man I think I gotta do this, I think this is what I been searching for. This is it.”

That is how Douglas P. Freeman became known as Jawad Abdul-Wadud, a name that translates to “generosity and kindness” in Arabic. After retiring from his job in sanitation seven years ago, he decided to dedicate his time to what naturally felt like the culmination of his life’s work. He went to pastoral school and became certified as a clinical pastoral counselor and chaplain. “I got a lot to make up for,” he says. “I got a history.”

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“When did you make the choice to do the unhealthy thing?”

I was first connected to Imam Jawad through the Muslim History Walking Tour of Harlem. One of the most important stops on the tour is the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood (MIB) on 113th Street and St. Nicholas, where Jawad first became Muslim and now serves as the assistant imam.

I scheduled my first meeting with Jawad at MIB on a Friday afternoon in April, right after the weekly Friday prayers. Sitting in the prayer room designated for women congregants, I learned about his childhood, his experience with incarceration, and the work he now does – as an imam, a youth prison chaplain, and the leader of the New York chapter of Millati Islami, a substance abuse recovery program that draws from 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, but incorporates Islamic principles and scripture.

I knew after that conversation that I had to see his work in action. I asked if I could shadow him on prison visits and maybe attend a Millati Islami meeting. The first he agreed to immediately; the second was more difficult, given the confidentiality concerns of the group’s members.

The second time I accompanied Jawad to the reception center in NYC was on a Sunday morning in November, a few days after the first snowfall of the season, a miserably messy affair that left New York City in four inches of wintry mix and chaos. On this gray morning, he picked me up from my Harlem apartment at 9 am in his gray Chevy Tahoe, wearing a gray down jacket, gray pants, and a gray beanie pulled over his white and grey-striped kufi – the knitted skullcap that, along with the gray prayer beads around his neck (engraved with the word “Allah” in Arabic), marks his Muslimness.

 

“‘I gotta get some kufis for the kids,’ he told me as we got out of the car. He warned me that he intended to haggle. I assured him it was fine – I am Egyptian and we, too, love to haggle.”

 

A Sarah Vaughan CD played softly as we got onto the FDR. After not seeing each other for a couple months, we had a lot to catch up on. He finally found a buyer for his Long Island home, a home he spent years turning into a “utopia,” a peaceful cul-de-sac where he planted cherry blossom and pear trees. “And now, here I go, buying 2.9 acres of land and building a house up there. I don’t understand it. I like concrete and city lights. Long Island was the farthest country I went, and I thought that was going to be my last abode before I leave this planet.”

But his wife Shirley had other plans. She decided she wants to move upstate to live closer to their son and his family. “I said ‘lady, are you crazy? There’s bears, there’s coyotes, there’s all kinda animals runnin’ around loose up here!’”

His fears are not unfounded. He’s a little too familiar with the wildlife upstate, where he travels a few times a week to make prison visits, always fearful of hitting a deer or encountering a bear. I pointed out that living up there permanently puts him closer to the facilities he has to visit, cutting down on commute time, but this doesn’t seem to be much of a consolation. I laughed as he told me the advice he gave his wife: “If any animal comes running in there, feed them and push them out. Don’t call me. Feed ‘em, push ‘em back out.”

He told me about the various facilities he visits upstate, maximum security (sentences of 25 years to life) to what he calls “the mini-max” (three months to a year). “There are under 18-year-olds serving life sentences?” I asked naively, bracing for an answer I didn’t want.

“Some of them ain’t never coming home,” Jawad said. “If they do, it’ll be by the grace of Allah.”

Murder, rape, drive-bys, gang-related violence, drug mules – he recounted the types of charges he sees, and the emotional toll of hearing these stories. “I went in my office and closed the door and start crying.”

As he spoke, I leafed through his Narcotics Anonymous book, a 35-year-old, almost 500-word tome; its black, faux-leather cover frayed and falling apart at the seams. Every page had evidently been thoroughly pored over and marked up over the years – dried coffee stains along the bottom of crinkled pages, highlighted passages in faded pink and yellow and underlines in different colored pens.

 

“The reception center in New York City is the first stop for juveniles who have been arrested and brought into the system. “

 

Scribbled notes in the margins, alongside passages dedicated to each of the twelve steps of the program, read: “BLIND FAITH,” “ASK GOD,” and “Peace of mind is the here and now, selfless service of this work,” “DEFECTS of character – a lack of something necessary for completeness, adequacy or perfection.” A blue ink-stained post-it note reads, “Miracles will happen with a desire to stop using,” and the book jackets are covered in scrawled phone numbers and high school yearbook-style messages.

Jawad credits NA with changing his life, and has emphatic opinions about programs that differ from its 12-step, abstinence-centered model. “All these new programs, their theory is that if they’re still using drugs, but they’re not using as much drugs as they used to use, they’re recovering. If I’m shooting dope, I’m shooting dope. You’re still using!”

As we turned onto Atlantic Avenue, Jawad needed to make a quick stop. We pulled up in front of a small store with a clothing rack out front displaying dozens of jilbabs and abayas – loose, embroidered dresses and gowns for women – in hues of hot pink, yellow, purple and turquoise. The faded green awning read “Treasure Islam” along with a list of goods that can be found inside: prayer scarfs, fragrance oils, shea butter products, Islamic books.

“I gotta get some kufis for the kids,” he told me as we got out of the car. He warned me that he intended to haggle. I assured him it was fine – I am Egyptian and we, too, love to haggle. He clearly frequents the place often, and knows which employee will give him the better deal. “Uh-oh, that lady over there, she gonna give me a problem,” he said, upon seeing one of the employees walk into the store, a middle-aged South Asian woman in a hijab. And he was right. As he tried to negotiate a lower price for a dozen kufis in black, white, navy and grey, she wouldn’t budge.

But a man sitting at the back of the store, behind shelves of natural soaps, toothpastes, lotions and oils – almond, black seed, jojoba – and piles of prayer, doing accounting and inventory, agreed to cut Jawad a deal – a dozen kufis for $30.

He paid for these out of his own pocket. I asked him if OCFS gives him a budget for this. “Listen, I done asked about that.” I could tell I hit a sore spot. “Now they say they working on a budget, they don’t have a budget. The State is crazy, man.”

 

“Jawad launches into his diatribe, telling them that this is the ‘baby jail’ and that it only gets worse from here, asking questions he never leaves quite enough space to answer.”

 

I wandered around the store, sniffing oils and browsing through rhinestone bedazzled headscarves, as Jawad tried to choose his favorite scent of oud, a perfume oil originating from agarwood, popular in the Arabian gulf. He settled on a scent called “Golden Sand,” before asking me to hand him the yellowest tub of shea butter from a stack on the floor. Is yellower better? I asked. “It’s richer,” he told me. “From the bottom of the barrel, like when you eat the rice crackling at the bottom of the pot.”

After one last pit stop at a deli to grab tea and a snack (an egg and cheese sandwich for me, a “Table Talk” brand chocolate chip pie for him), we finally made it to the Ella McQueen Reception Center. We signed in, locked my phone into a coin-operated locker, and made some small talk with the employees, learning that there were eight boys and one girl in the center today. We headed up to Jawad’s office on the fifth floor, where he made some phone calls to find out when we could meet with the kids. The boys were eating and having recreation time; the girl had to have a psych evaluation, followed by an appointment with the beautician.

Th ereception center in New York City is the first stop for juveniles who have been arrested and brought into the system. Youth between the ages of 12 and 18 typically spend two weeks at the reception center for intake before being placed in an OCFS residential facility. The intake process involves medical assessments (including physicals, lab work, immunizations, STD testing), psychological assessments, and residential placement preparations for life in a facility, where they will go on to serve the remainder of their sentences. This is also where they can meet with one of the chaplains, like Jawad, who have offices in the center.

A framed sign on his wall, with text set against the backdrop of a waterfall, reads “Prayer with no action is just a lot of talk,” and I thought about how Jawad embodied all of these – lots of prayer, lots of action, lots of talk.

Jawad’s thesis project in pastoral school was entitled “Real Talk: Reviving the Human Spirit,” and he prides himself on “keeping it real” with the youth. “Ima give it to you hard, real and raw. No more babies. They are young men. Engage them and give it to them real.” But this realness may occasionally backfire, like when he’s especially candid about the horrors of interactions in prison, only to discover that his words may be triggering teenagers who have histories of sexual abuse and trauma.

In many respects, it is still a learning process for Jawad, but he maintains that sincerity must remain at the core of the work he is doing. “The kids be observing you. They’ll feel you, if you’re being genuine or not. And if they sense you’re not, they take you for a ride; they give you a whole lot of bullshit.”

 

“‘Sometimes, it be the people in the hood that be showing us love, so it’s hard to separate ourselves from that negative energy. They lure you in.'”

 

Another sheet he pulled out was a list titled “Phrases for Use in Charting,” to be used when filling out self-evaluation forms and charts. Some of these phrases included: Listened supportively, Allowed patient to verbalize, Heard patient’s confession, Helped patient maintain hope.

I knew I would get another chance to watch Jawad in action, now with these phrases in mind. How would his Scared Straight, Real Talk, Tough Love style resonate with the youth? The phone rang, and one of the youth division aids (YDAs) let Jawad know that we can meet with the boys, who were now in the recreation room.

We took the elevator to the basement, entering a low-ceilinged room with blue painted walls and ping pong tables. Chess boards, Four Square, and playing cards are scattered on another table in the corner. Two YDAs, both young men, supervised the boys, who all wore identical outfits – khakis, crew neck sweatshirts, and black sneakers with velcro straps. The only difference was the color of the sweatshirts – three in orange, three in black, and two in purple. This color diversity exceeded that of the boys themselves – all were black or brown.

The rowdy room quickly went quiet when Jawad and I entered, interrupting games of ping pong and Four Square. The YDAs told the boys to gather around the table. We were a few seats short, and one of the boys stood up to give me his chair, despite my protests. Jawad introduced himself, briefly explaining what a chaplain is, how he is a resource for them to speak to whenever they want, regardless of faith.

He then posed a question, one I didn’t expect, after reassuring them that he was not here to preach or proselytize. “What do you believe in?” They slowly began to answer – God, Christianity, “power in everybody.” “I don’t believe in God to be honest,” one said quietly.

“When did you make the choice to do the unhealthy thing for yourself?” Jawad returned to his original line of questioning, pausing not quite long enough to give them a chance to answer. One of the YDAs interjected, using himself as an example. He told his own story of growing up in the projects, of wanting to be a drug dealer, of “the peer pressure to be a thug.” “I could have easily been where you guys are,” he told the boys, some of whom listened intently, while others hung their heads in quiet introspection, perhaps, or shame, or regret. Unlike the first group, this time nobody is distracted or messing around.

“Do you think God is punishing you?,” Jawad asked next. One of the boys raised his hand. “I’m punishing myself,” he responded. Jawad launches into his diatribe, telling them that this is the “baby jail” and that it only gets worse from here, asking questions he never leaves quite enough space to answer. The boys are engaged, their eyes revealing stories they can’t share, their deep inhales the beginning of sentences that are never formed. Jawad plows on, with the YDA serving as a hype man, interjecting with more-than-occasional “that’s rights” and “mm-hmms.”

 

“The moment I left, I found myself wishing I had more time with that boy – with all of them really. What did he mean when he said that Jawad’s intervention helped? In what way?”

 

As he grew more impassioned, his voice rising, Jawad suggested that perhaps this was a blessing, that maybe, if they were still on the streets, they would have been killed. “How many of your friends got toasted out there?”

“All of em,” one boy responded.

“God is giving you the opportunity to reflect on where you wanna go from here.”

Another YDA chimed in. “I know sometimes y’all think that older people don’t really understand what you’re going through, that this old guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said, putting a hand on Jawad’s shoulder. “But I’m telling you, without going too much into his business, this is the kind of man you want to learn from and build with. Learn from his wisdom.” A small part of me wondered if this extra bit of performance was for my benefit, trying to remain aware of how my presence affected the dynamics of the space.

Finally, the boy seated next to me – an engaged, thoughtful young man, no older than 16 years old – managed to interject. “Can I say something?,” he asks, finally breaking through the cacophony. “Sometimes, it be the people in the hood that be showing us love, so it’s hard to separate ourselves from that negative energy. They lure you in. We need advice to make ourself get away from that.”

Jawad argued that it isn’t love, if they encourage bad behavior.

“I call it love cuz they lookin’ out for you. It be like that. Especially if they a mans you know for a long time,” the young man said.

“What makes you a man is when you can say I’m not with that no more,” Jawad replied.

Before Jawad closed, I couldn’t help but interject. Looking out at their curious, pained, reflective faces, I quietly nudged Jawad – “Ask the boys if they have anything they want to say.” He did, but by then it was no longer organic, a question that came too late, a way to force engagement that seemed, at that point, disingenuous. They were silent.

“I’m hungry,” one boy replied.

 

“Malcolm X recalled his disdain for religion in his teenage years. ‘No religious person, until I was a man in my twenties… could tell me anything. I had very little respect for most people who represented religion.'”

 

As the hour winded down, he pulled out a stack of literature, the familiar finale to a practiced production. I was surprised when the boys jumped at the books, grabbing pamphlets of the Lord’s prayer and bibles. Jawad once again made a point to hand to each of them the pamphlet about Malcolm X, the quintessential story of redemption. Perhaps it’s his way of filling in any gaps or shortcomings in his counseling, a way of saying, “Malcolm will pick up where I left off. I’m leaving them in good hands.”

The young man next to me reached for a Quran, and then a children’s book about Islam. He asked what the difference between the Quran and the Bible was, looking at the Arabic and English text on the pages of the book. I briefly explained.

And then, after Jawad stood up and walked to the other end of the room, preparing to leave, I leaned over and whispered, “Was that helpful? That whole lecture?” I briefly chuckled, a nod to the theatrical presentation we had all just witnessed. “I know he can be very dramatic.”

“Yeah,” the boy said quietly, his eyes downcast, voice sullen. “Believe it or not, it did.”

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Shame, introspection, or indifference?

The moment I left, I found myself wishing I had more time with that boy – with all of them really. What did he mean when he said that Jawad’s intervention helped? In what way? How long would that impact, if any, last? A few hours? Weeks? What was behind the expressions I couldn’t quite read – was it shame, introspection, or indifference? By now, they have been transferred, scattered among the various youth facilities upstate. Are Jawad’s words still with them?

In his autobiography, Malcolm X recalled his disdain for religion in his teenage years. “No religious person, until I was a man in my twenties – and then in prison – could tell me anything. I had very little respect for most people who represented religion.”

In his early days in prison, he made this disdain explicit: “The prison psychologist interviewed me and he got called every filthy name I could think of, and the prison chaplain got called worse. …Eventually, the men in the cell-block had a name for me: “Satan.” Because of my anti-religious attitude.”

But then, something happened. Malcolm began to receive letters from his brothers in Detroit, telling him that they had discovered “the natural religion for the black man.” They told him to stop smoking and eating pork, and taught him about the Nation of Islam, a political and religious movement that merged black nationalist ideas with Islamic teachings, led by Elijah Muhammad. “In prison, I found Allah and the religion of Islam and it completely transformed my life,” the autobiography reads. “Every instinct of the ghetto jungle streets, every hustling fox and criminal wolf instinct in me, which would have scoffed at and rejected anything else, was struck numb. It was as though all of that life merely was back there, without any remaining effect, or influence.”

Studies on the efficacy of prison chaplaincy are lacking. In a 2014 paper for the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Rev. Dr. Emily Brault, a chaplain at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, wrote that “a review of pastoral literature geared toward the prison population is scarce at best.” However, some studies suggest that a religious outlook can have a transformative impact, as Malcolm’s biography suggests, on the attitudes and behaviors of incarcerated people.

“Religion can also give meaning and purpose to life, provide clear moral and ethical guidelines, allow inmates to transcend immediate reality and connect to something larger than themselves (or their immediate situation), and help people adapt to the stress of prison life,” writes Brault.

In 1964, criminologist Daniel Glaser found that about one-sixth of the prisoners in his study who were successful upon release credited a chaplain with being the major influence in their transformation. In his 2009 research with juvenile delinquents, Eugene Hausmann found that youth who received ongoing pastoral counseling during their time in a residential facility were less likely to be re-arrested once they got out, but provided few details about the nature of the interventions or why they were effective.

“Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative,” a 2006 report based on 75 life story interviews with religious converts in prison, found that the “conversion narrative ‘works’ as a shame management and coping strategy” because it creates a new identity to replace that of prisoner or criminal and provides a framework for forgiveness.

Efficacy of intervention programs like these is difficult to measure, especially because correlation (i.e. a decrease in recidivism among prisoners who saw a chaplain) does not necessarily equal causation. Dr. Butler, the psychologist who conducts intake assessments for the youth at Ella McQueen, agrees. “The effect might be years down the road, same as psychology,” said Butler. “Who’s to say whether or not some phrase is going to sink in, finally?”

While the literature remains incomplete as to the specific nature of effective spiritual counseling, evidence seems to suggest that the promotion of a healthy religious life has a positive impact on those behind bars. What is clear, however, is what is not effective. According to a number of studies, writes Brault, “interventions focused on fear, emotional appeals, and shaming simply don’t work.”

Instead, she suggests that chaplaincy programs should focus on providing concrete skills and techniques for managing difficult situations. Additionally, chaplains should avoid a “you need to do this approach,” instead focusing on building empathy and understanding to help people identify their own personal strengths.

I think back to the boys. Will the effect of Jawad’s words find them years down the road? Did he give them the tools they needed to cope, or just leave them with a trifold brochure?

I wish I could ask them.

☐ ☐ ☐ ☐ ☐  

 

“You gotta let them grow up.”

I finally attended a session of Millati Islami on a Tuesday night in early December. I had attempted many times before, always to a lukewarm response from Jawad, who was concerned that the members of the group might not be comfortable with my presence.

I understood, of course, but thought I should give it one last try, with the permission of the participants. I wanted to see how a Muslim-oriented recovery group would function, and, perhaps more importantly, how Jawad’s methods would manifest in this context. I knew they met every Tuesday at 6 p.m., so I called Jawad and let him know I would be coming.

When I arrived, only a handful of the mosque regulars, all older men, were there, waiting for the night-time prayer to begin. I began to make my way to the women’s space, but one of the men, Brother Luqman, stopped me, ushering me into the men’s prayer area, an olive-green carpeted room with a cherrywood minbar, or pulpit, in the front for the imam.

“Sister, don’t be silly. Join us in here,” he said.

 

“‘The reality, the truth – as much as we wanna do what we wanna do with these children – these kids got to learn on their own,’ Luqman said. ‘All you can do is tell them, suggest to them, what they shouldn’t do.'”

 

The six men lined up shoulder to shoulder for the prayer. When the prayer was over, I hesitantly started to leave the room, unsure of whether I should impose on the meeting I had been so eagerly trying to attend.

“Sister, where are you going?” Luqman asked. I told him I didn’t want to intrude. “With all due respect, park yourself in a chair and join us! Be easy. You are always welcome to join us.”

Jawad looked uneasy. He pulled aside a young man in red training pants, a yellow t-shirt, and cornrows, quickly getting his permission. The boy, a 19-year-old whose parents made him attend the session because he “smoked a couple joints,” was the subject of the night’s meeting, and was unruffled by my presence. The only other participants were the organizers of Millati Islami – Jawad, Luqman, and a third mosque regular, all of whom have been through recovery processes of their own.

The five of us sat on chairs in a circle, and each member took turns reading passages from laminated sheets of paper in green, yellow and pink, excerpts from the Millati Islami book interspersed with verses from the Quran. The boy read a passage entitled “Who’s An Addict?”: “Very simply, an addicted person is a man or a woman whose life is controlled by drugs. We are people who have lived in the grip of a continuing and progressive illness whose ends are always the same – a decrease in faith which leads us to jails, institutions, dereliction or death.”

He was next made to read a passage defining the mission statement of Millati Islami. Luqman read next, introducing himself as a “blessed recovered Muslim.” “Our thanks and appreciation goes to the Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Programs, from which we have borrowed. Just as NA was founded out of its need to be nonspecific with regard to substance, so Millati Islami was borne out of our need to be religiously specific with regard to spirituality.”

I wondered if this was how every meeting began, glancing periodically at the boy, who listened politely.

Jawad then moved on to Chapter 9 of the book, “Relapse and Recovery.” Again, the men each took turns reading as we all listened. When the reading was done, half an hour into the meeting, Jawad asked, “So who would like to expound on what we just read?”

“I actually have a question,” the boy spoke up, almost immediately. “There was one part of the chapter that was like, the thought of doing negative drugs or whatever, could turn into a desire. I was kind of confused on like, what’s the difference between a thought and a desire.”

Jawad deferred to Luqman, who used as an example the difference between thinking that a girl is beautiful and desiring her. “When you have a strong desire, what do you usually do?” Jawad asked. “Take action upon it,” the boy replied.

“There you go,” said Jawad.

 

“‘All you can do is tell them, suggest to them, what they shouldn’t do. But the truth of life is, they gonna do what they do. Because we forget – the learning process of every mobile creature is that we learn from our mistakes.'”

 

Luqman jumped in once again, offering the boy some advice. “Recovery isn’t about just drugs. That’s a first step. Recovery is improvement on your lifestyle, improvement on your behaviors, improvement in your outlook on the world.” Well-dressed in a brown suit and elaborate kufi, Luqman is the same age as Jawad, though shorter and smaller in stature. The two are dear friends, despite their vastly different styles and opinions.

As Jawad launched into his usual diatribe about the dangers and pitfalls of displeasing your Lord, the horrors of substance abuse and incarceration, Luqman tensed up, sitting up a little straighter and loudly clearing his throat. He shares his story, of being an addict and a “bum,” “one of them guys sleeping on a mattress in the park.” But he says he recognizes that his experience won’t be relevant to a 19-year-old recreational drug user, and that kids only learn by making their own mistakes.

As the session wrapped up, the ideological tug-of-war between the two was palpable, their words at times overlapping as they struggled to make their respective points. Luqman stressed gratitude, happiness and joy, urging the boy to “keep it simple” and not complicate things. Jawad was more direct and absolutist, arguing for “responsibility and obeying your Lord,” telling the boy to “stay away from the bad and stay with the good.” It’s a process, Jawad says, and “it’ll come to you. But if not, you’re going to catch the hell here on Earth.”

We ended with the recitation of a short chapter of the Quran. I decided this would be my opportunity to pose the question, the one the boy at Ella McQueen had asked a few weeks earlier, the one that was never really answered. How do young people avoid societal pressures to gravitate toward the “bad” and away from the “good”? What would you say to kids who are facing these pressures? How do they say no?

Jawad chalked it up to good parenting and faith. “If you really believe, you would try to do things to please Allah. If you gonna do the bad thing, do you think that’s pleasing to Allah?” This brought him back to his prison spiel, warning kids that “if you keep living that lowly life, you gon get it. That’s a promise to you.”

The boy, who had been antsy to leave, now covered his mouth tightly with his hand, stifling uncontrollable laughter, as Jawad acted out a “scared straight”-style routine, complete with cop impressions and animated movements.

Eventually, Jawad stopped and looked at Luqman. “You wanna say something? I know you wanna say something.”

Luqman calmly said, “He and I have different approaches.”

Luqman described how he had been called to the hospital to counsel youth who were suicidal because their parents had been too hard on them. “The reality, the truth – as much as we wanna do what we wanna do with these children – these kids got to learn on their own,” Luqman said. “All you can do is tell them, suggest to them, what they shouldn’t do. But the truth of life is, they gonna do what they do. Because we forget – the learning process of every mobile creature is that we learn from our mistakes.”

“You chase these kids into this situation because you make them feel so hopeless,” Luqman continued. “When the truth is, you gotta let them grow up.”

“They need proper guidance,” Jawad pushed back. “They need a sense of direction. Every time I talk to the kids in there, most of them kids wish they had a father to discipline them. See I deal with these kids and they tell me.”

“No, you deal with the ones that got caught,” Luqman interjected. “That’s the difference.”

The two men went back and forth, laying out two conflicting visions of how to guide a generation so far removed from their own. Jawad placed much of the responsibility in the hands of parents, elders, and religious leaders who were failing the youth by not imparting sufficient religious instruction and discipline, especially those imams who refuse to confront the ills plaguing Muslim youth and fail to open their doors to programs like Millati Islami.
“You talk about the children in denial?” Jawad said. “The imams are in denial! They too ashamed. Everybody’s ashamed.”

Eventually, Jawad turned to the young man, who had been sitting silently, scrolling through his phone. “What about you?,” he asked the teen. “What do you think the youth need?”

“He don’t know, he’s 19!” Luqman interjected, cutting the boy off.

“Uhh, I’m not actually sure about that,” he responded blandly.

“Next time when you come back here tell us what the youth need,” Jawad said. “Find out from your boys.”

They picked up where they left off, debating and laughing about how the youth talk, what the youth need, how to relate to the youth. Meanwhile, the youth never said more than those six words.

At some point, in the midst of this debate of ideas, the boy slipped away and left. The rest of us hardly noticed.

“You have to meet a person where they at,” Luqman continued. “I used longer than he been on earth. He can’t relate to me.”

“He can learn from your horror stories,” said Jawad.

Luqman shot back. “He’s heard that same horror story every time he’s come from you. So he ain’t learnin nothin. It’s become repetition.”

Jawad maintained that the boy is learning, that there is a noticeable change in his behavior. Luqman pointed out that they don’t know the source of the change, which of the men is having a greater impact. “You talk to him, but guess what? So do I,” he said.

That is the value of a halaqa, a group, Jawad argued. That there is room for, and value in, all viewpoints. Which of them are more valuable than others, however, is another question, one that these men were unlikely to settle that night. It was clear they had been having this argument for years, and had settled comfortably into their amicable disagreement.

So I eventually posed the question to Jawad, one last time – do you think this approach, your approach, works with incarcerated kids?

“You know how I know that it works?” he replied immediately. “Just last week when I went up to Brookwood, I told one of the youth, you lead salah [prayer]. Then another kid said, ‘Hey Imam, if he don’t wanna do it, I’ll do it.’

“When we lined up to pray, you hear one cop say to another, ‘Hey, hey! He got them praying! Come here, look at this!’ and I’m hearing them all outside the door. I wanted to say to them get away from the door, you ain’t never seen nobody pray?

“We praying. We bowing down, still. Yes, it’s working.”

 

Sarah Moawad is a former Open City Fellow. She was the Egypt and North Africa editor for Muftah Magazine, an online publication that provides diverse perspectives on global events. She was an intern for Al-Jazeera in Cairo and NPR’s “On Point.” She holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

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