Breaking Barriers

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MTT News Desk's picture
Katherine Perreth

One could focus bitterly on the loss: Caliph Muab-El bounced around Wisconsin’s prison facilities nearly half his life. Or one could focus, as the soft-spoken, eloquent 32-year-old minister does, on the good he can do now.

Yet, the way to the now has been fraught with danger, hardship, and much self-work. When he was nine, his parents moved the family from Chicago to Milwaukee, mistakenly believing they would “escape the infestation of violence, drugs, gangs, and crime,” Muab-El explained.

Ironically, Milwaukee turned out to be worse. The low-income housing available “was so concentrated it made the infestation more intense.” At the same time, his father was not always residing with the family and his mother held down three jobs. As eldest, the responsibility of caring for his siblings fell on Muab-El.

“At first I did well, but then the streets attracted my attention,” he said. Muab-El cites the lack of supervision, his natural middle-school-boy curiosity, the need to fit in and a desire to prove himself in the neighborhood as contributing factors to the lure of the streets. By the time he was 11 or 12, the gangs had him.

“When we had guns, we felt invincible, like we couldn’t be touched,” Muab-El said. “We were not cognizant that someone else with a gun feels the same, and he can take your life. We only thought about the empowerment: I had someone’s life in my hand. I could take it or let them keep it. That god-like power gave me a great sense of security.”

But it was a gun that turned Muab-El’s security into maximum security.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t carry a gun without the intention of using it,” he mused.

As a teen Muab-El shot another man, believing the man to be reaching for his gun. Muab-El drew first, injured the man, and as a 15-year-old, was waived into adult court, sentenced to 15 years. A few years after his incarceration at a facility in Green Bay, Muab-El retaliated when a guard “put a hand on my face, and spit in my face.” It wasn’t the first time the guard had done so. Hitting the guard landed Muab-El in solitary confinement at a “super max” facility, he said. He remained there for seven years.

“There was a 24-hour camera in my cell, no windows, a food slot, and a shower, toilet, sink inside the cell,” Muab-El explained. “I rarely saw the light of day except for the fogged up skylight in the far back of the cell.”

However, Muab-El set his mind like granite, determined not to give in like so many others he’d observed.

“I had to equip myself to survive the battle of the mind. So many hang themselves, and guards can tap into your mental capacity and destroy you,” Muab-El stated. “I decided not to allow that to happen.”

To aid in his fight, he turned to books and research, devouring history, theology, and jurisprudence. While incarcerated, he obtained Para-legal certification, enabling him to toil from prison on behalf of other prisoners by filing lawsuits and petitions. He was allowed to use the prison law library one hour per week he said, unless he had a pending case. Then it was two or three hours per week.

“I became a legal guru,” he quipped. He believes part of the reason for his lengthy solitary confinement was because staff viewed him as a “radical,” fighting against the system from within the system.

Previously, only a few years into his penal sentence, Muab-El had proved himself a leader, with an inquisitive, sharp mind. He became an Imam around age 18, he said, and led men of the Muslim faith in prison. It was during a discussion of sacred books, between Christians and himself, that the incident with the guard took place. Muab-El dabbled in various theologies before finally settling upon becoming a Sufi minister, a position he currently holds.

While in prison he also changed his name to reflect how he viewed himself as a scholar and spiritual leader. His spiritual devotion helped see him through grief.

In November of 2001, Muab-El was sent to Wisconsin Resource Center (WRC) for a psychological evaluation. His family had experienced eight deaths in quick succession, including his grandmother, mother and stepmother. The task for WRC staff was to determine if Muab-El could endure continued super max solitary conditions. Despite findings to the contrary, Muab-El was sent back permanently to solitary, he said.

“I still to this day do not know why,” he said. “I surmise it was because I was the leader with the Muslims, and they don’t want inmates to have that sort of power.”

Muab-El recalled being lost in the system for about five months, without the typical review administered by the committee responsible for deciding which prison should incarcerate an inmate.

“That’s unusual,” he said. Despite serving time in at least five facilities, he survived.

“Finding the strength in myself to help others, that’s always been my motivation,” Muab-El said. “That’s what saw me through, in the moments I felt like giving up. What kept me determined was that someone would call me asking for help, and I’d snap back into reality: this is why I have to be strong.”

As his prison release in July 2012 approached, Muab-El committed his strength to a new future. His thoughts at that time were, “How am I going to help those I’m leaving behind? How am I going to create opportunities for them for when they come home?”

For the past eighteen months, Muab-El has devoted himself to promoting gun control, and serving those already incarcerated or at risk of incarceration. To do so, he founded a fledgling grassroots nonprofit.

As president of Breaking Barriers Mentoring Inc (BBM), his goal is “to dismantle the school to prison pipeline,” Muab-El said. To that end, the organization employs a variety of programs reaching out to at-risk eight-to-26-year-olds in Dane County, including in Middleton. Programs center on teaching “a plethora of different life skills, including independent living, academics, and entrepreneurial skills,” he said.

Muab-El called racial disparities, including low rates of academic success for Wisconsin’s people of color, “soaring through the roof.”

“Wisconsin incarcerates more minorities than anywhere in the country per capita,” he pointed out, “and racial segregation is at an all-time high [in Wisconsin].”

Another BBM program, Remnant, helps provide housing, employment, substance abuse counseling and support groups for released inmates. Currently one volunteer is receiving certification in mental health therapy, Muab-El noted. He is eager to get that component implemented.

“It’s likely that our services can work towards stabilizing or minimizing the pressures of mental health issues people may come from, whether traumatic domestic situations or prison,” he said.

Muab-El is looking for volunteer tutors, mentors, and funding. Just over 40 individuals support the various programs out-of-pocket, something Muab-El concedes is “unsustainable.” BBM volunteers are writing grant proposals, and various faith communities are also on board. Holy Wisdom Monastery was one of the first to support BBM, he said. 

Muab-El also serves as the vice president of Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality, and Solidarity (MOSES), an interfaith organization promoting social justice causes. One of its lofty goals is to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by half by 2015, namely by preventing incarceration in the first place. When offences are drug-related or non-violent, and the underlying issue is substance abuse or mental illness, “treatment is more logical than locking those people up,” Muab-El said. In addition, he asserted, “It costs a lot less to treat people in the community than to send them to prison, about $10,000 per person versus about $33,000.”

Muab-El credits his father as key to his post-incarceration success. His father staunchly supported Muab-El, and received his own “wake-up call” when his son was sent to prison as a teen.

“[My father] started to reform himself,” Muab-El said. “He was one of founders of Voices Beyond Bars, and had connection to resources. Subsequently those resources were at my disposal [upon release] and I tapped into them.”

Muab-El has dedicated himself to the betterment of humanity and to speaking out, because he has noticed that, “When I speak, people listen.”


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