“I came to Islam through Muslim drug dealers, because I was so corrupt that I wouldn’t listen to anyone else.”
I’m serving a 60-year sentence (for) a gang-related shooting that resulted in the deaths of two men and a serious injury of a third. My older brother was a well-known gang member. I was out with him one night when we were attacked by members of a different gang. I had been carrying a gun on me for protection in case of such an event. Because it wasn’t premeditated I did not receive a life sentence. I have served exactly 25 years and a month so far. I have been parole eligible for a little over ten years. My mandatory release is a little less than 15 years. I pray that I’m paroled in the next few years.
My parents were immigrants from Mexico. We were nominal Catholics and rarely attended mass. Growing up I felt somewhere in between being American and Mexican. I grew up speaking both English and Spanish. I grew up in a home with a great deal of dysfunction. I have three older brothers and an older sister; everyone ran the streets as soon as they were able to, getting involved in delinquent activities as a result. Living in a depressed area of the city full of drugs and gangs, I felt safe neither at home nor in my neighborhood.
I did well in school academically, graduating first in my class from 8th grade. It was when I went into high school that the problems began. I started to fall behind academically and this started the downward spiral where I started to hang out with my older brother even though I knew he was in a gang. I had no sense of identity and I just wanted to belong somewhere.
When I was first sent to prison I felt that an injustice had been done to me. I couldn’t believe that as a 16-year-old youth I was being sent to prison for so long. I felt that I was justified in defending myself and my brother from these other gang members who started this confrontation. Now I know that by carrying a gun I was prepared to do harm if provoked, and as a minor I should not have been walking the streets armed.
I have taken every opportunity to take positive advantage of my incarceration. Of course the best thing that has happened is that I became Muslim in prison. Allah decreed that this is where I would receive the favor and blessing of Islam. It was meant to be that I would come to prison and become Muslim. There are still times when the bitterness wells up in me and I wonder why I have to be in prison for so long, but then I think that Allah knows best and this is the better place for me right now and that what is out there is not good for me right now.
Path to Islam
I remember first hearing about Islam during history class in high school but I didn’t give it much thought beyond what questions would be on the test. In prison, all the Muslims were black so I didn’t give it much thought as other than something weird that some of the black guys were on and that they didn’t eat pork. I really got to know about it from a fellow classmate in a vocational program I was taking. This is the first person I really asked about it.
The reason I was hanging out with this Muslim in class was because he engaged in some of the corrupt acts that I was involved in. Plus he was the first white Muslim I met in prison. At this time I was part of a prison gang and I had progressively grown worse as a human being. I had a lot of hate and anger in my heart. So unless a person was somewhat on what I was on I didn’t give them any attention. I had lost myself in prison, I refused to be anyone’s victim, and so was ever ready to deal in violence if necessary.
This white Muslim introduced me to some of the other black Muslims who were also corrupt and used drugs. Since we had a similar interest I dealt with them. I thought that they were only Muslims as it was a means to rebel against the majority white/Christian society. I didn’t think they had real convictions so I began to debate them. Despite being corrupt, they were well educated about their beliefs and Islam. This impressed me especially when I learned that the Qur’an was the same Qur’an that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (saws) 1,400 years ago.
I asked for some reading material to familiarize myself with Islam; part of my motivation was to find something to refute their beliefs with. One of the black Muslims passed me “Revolution by the Book” by Imam Jamil Al-Amin. While I read this book which presented Islam so clearly to someone who had little exposure to Islam, I found myself agreeing with what it explained Islam to be. Islam was a way to revolutionize one’s life. I didn’t realize how chaotic my life had become, how much I craved a better way of living – living with purpose and a sense of dignity and identity. Yes, I was a member of a gang, but in the back of my mind I knew it to be false. Right after I finished the book, I asked the brother how I could become Muslim and took my shahada right then.
One of the hardest things was how my fellow gang members would deal with me. Prison is a racially charged place. I belonged to a Latino gang, and Islam in prison is seen as the purview of blacks and some black gangs who use Islam as part of their identity. My gang had had several battles with some of these quasi-Islamic groups. Plus I didn’t want to be seen as a race traitor.
The way I dealt with it was that I left the gang when I was asked where the loyalties lied. I used this time as an opportunity to build my character. I knew this was a period in my life where I would look back to for strength when I would need to deal with other tough times in the future. Dealing with being viewed as a race traitor was a little more difficult. I did my best to educate other Latinos that Islam wasn’t a black religion but a universal one. As people got used to me being a Muslim, they saw that I hadn’t turned my back on my culture but that I had taken on a new spiritual path and that I was sincere about it.
My family wasn’t very religious to start with so they didn’t really have a problem with it. As they saw that I was sincere in my beliefs they began to support me in it even though none of them have become Muslim. I found out who my true friends were as they stayed my friends after I became Muslim and they learned more about Islam from me and if they didn’t become Muslim they at least became more respectful and tolerant of it. Other inmates came to view me with more respect and esteem after I became Muslim and left the gang.
The biggest difficulty that I have faced as a Muslim is finding a good companion to help with this journey. Right after I became Muslim, I had a good sincere brother take me in hand and teach me the basics of the deen. There was another brother who would spend his recreation periods with me and who discussed the pitfalls I could expect to face walking the path of a Muslim in prison. He told me that if I was sincere it would be a lonely path. I asked why this was. He said that you rarely find someone who when you’re around them they inspire you to become a better Muslim. His counsel was the truest I’ve ever had. So the biggest difficulty is feeling alone as you take this path. The times that you feel connected to other Muslims are few and far in between.
Until I connected with Tayba I felt that the Muslim community in the free world rarely thought about us here in prison. The story of Yusuf resonates so strongly for me and other Muslims who are sincerely striving to walk on the straight path. I don’t expect much from people who haven’t experienced this struggle, but the Muslims who get out and don’t look back after have become a disappointment. Then when you see them back in prison and they complain about the state of Islam in prison I have to fight the overwhelming urge to tell them, ‘Brother, shut up! What are you doing out there to help us in here?’
This is why I have so much love and respect for the staff at Tayba and for the people who donate money to educate us; because they haven’t been through our experience yet, they are reaching out to help us with their time and their money. May Allah reward you well for this loan to Him! Ameen!