by Rasheed Shabazz
at least a fifth of Muslims in the United States are African American; and most Muslims who are incarcerated in the U.S., especially political prisoners, are Black and Muslim.
The United States is the global leader in incarceration. Over 6.7 million people live under some form of carceral control, including over 2.3 million people incarcerated in local, state and federal jails and prisons. Within this system of mass incarceration, African Americans are most likely to be arrested, convicted and sentenced to harsher sentences. Muslims are overrepresented in U.S. prisons. Although Muslims make up a small proportion of the African American population, at least a fifth of Muslims in the United States are African American; and most Muslims who are incarcerated in the U.S., especially political prisoners, are Black and Muslim. Considering the long history of Black Muslim resistance to enslavement and contributions to the prisoners’ rights movement, it’s not surprising that some authorities warn of Muslim “prisoner radicalization.” In reality, Islam has long been a stabilizing force within carceral facilities, organizing for prisoners’ rights, and a mobilizing source for personal redemption.
The streets told me I was a gangster, the streets told me I was a murderer, the streets told me I was a gang chief — Islam was telling me I was a human being.
The desire to use faith and hard lessons to transform one’s life is the core narrative of the documentary film “The Honest Struggle.” The film centers the humanity of incarcerated people, by highlighting faith as an anchor and the complexity of rebuilding relationships in the wake of what was broken. The documentary directed by four-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Justin Mashouf follows Sadiq (Darrell) Davis as he returns to the South Side of Chicago and works diligently to build a new life, in the community that he once warred in after being incarcerated for 25 years. Throughout the film, Sadiq visits friends and family who recount his turn from being a talented young singer to becoming a gangster. Sadiq’s childhood friend, Rochelle, recalls how he broke into her house to steal from her father. While Sadiq remembered the incident, he explained that he finally changed to the man he was meant to be. “I contributed to the problem,” Sadiq acknowledged. “My name is Sadiq, which means truthful. So one thing I’m not going to do is dishonor my name like I dishonored my life.” We watch as Sadiq reclaims his honor and seeks to uphold his righteous name, amid the second-class status afforded to the formerly incarcerated and the challenges that come with returning to society.
Once home, formerly incarcerated Muslims experience discrimination in housing and job markets and may struggle to maintain their faith practice. To support his transition, Chicago’s Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), provided Sadiq with housing, a construction job and a community. Transitional housing enabled Sadiq to live in community with other Muslims: they ate together, prayed together and supported each other in staying free. Sadiq also wanted to give back to his community by helping young people. So, he created a safe space for youth to use music as a creative tool to explore their creativity and examine who they wanted to be in the future and why.
While his love for music helped others, it also served as a lens to explore his personal trials and tribulations and the impact of violence. Despite his efforts, Sadiq struggled to stay free. An injury and surgery left him unable to continue working in construction. In desperation, he accepts a low-paying cleaning and security job with a shop owner but quits after witnessing how the merchant exploits the people in his community. His concerns of being manipulated or perhaps notions of manhood and independence find him skeptical of those that offer assistance.
Despite leaving prison, Sadiq was still not free. Besides being on parole and required to check-in electronically, he was still a Black man living in the “prisonized” landscape of Chicago.
Despite leaving prison, Sadiq was still not free. Besides being on parole and required to check-in electronically, he was still a Black man living in the “prisonized”landscape of Chicago. In Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago, Rashad Shabazz writes about the racialization of space by highlighting how urban planning and carceral powers function collectively to contain Black communities and limit the mobility of Black men.
This film does not explain these structural forces of mass incarceration and the historical geographies produced by restrictive covenants, redlining, contract buying, or even the notorious corruption of the Chicago Police. Instead, it focuses on the struggle of one man set against the backdrop of boarded-up buildings of post-industrial South and West Side Chicago. The Windy City, home to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a destination of the Great Migration, imprisons Sadiq like Richard Wright’s “One Room Kitchenette.” Being a Black and Muslim parolee, Chicago police can easily take his freedom. And they do. Police arrest and fingerprint him one day while hanging out on a corner with a friend. A recorded call from jail gives voice to the hopelessness and despair Sadiq experiences as he counts down to his parole sentence ending.
As thousands of incarcerated people return to society due to fears of a coronavirus-related outbreak, they will join the tens of thousands who have returned home in the last decade. The formerly incarcerated will struggle to find housing and employment while dealing with the complexities of otherness in gentrified neighborhoods that they once called home. “The Honest Struggle” intimately depicts Sadiq’s complex journey of faith, community and transformation as he seeks to reconcile the past and craft a new future. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “The world is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the unbeliever.” Sadiq is striving to be a better believer and a better man. His struggle continues.
For more information about the growing number of Muslim-led organizations providing resources for Muslims who are incarcerated and those returning home, please check out these sites.
- Believers Bail Out
- Green Reentry (IMAN)
- Islah LA
- Link Outside
- Lighthouse Mosque
- Al Ouda
- Timelist Group
- Tayba Foundation
- Ta’leef Collective
Rasheed Shabazz is a creative cultural communicator. He seeks to spread information and inspiration as a multimedia journalist, historian and educator. Rasheed also leads Habari Ummah, a Bay Area collective that curates events, news and culture. He is also a board member of the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, or MuslimARC. Rasheed is currently pursuing a Master of City Planning at the University of California at Berkeley.