How One Muslim Chaplain Is Giving Ex-Convicts a Voice

How One Muslim Chaplain Is Giving Ex-Convicts a Voice

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Taymullah Abdur-Rahman, 42, knows a thing or two about redemption. Not everyone who starts out on the street hustling ends up in the chapel promoting education and goodwill.

At 13, Abdur-Rahman had an album go gold under Columbia Records as the lead singer of then pop sensation Perfect Gentleman. After leaving the group at 16, he ghostwrote for Dr. Dre and even put out a few rap records in Roxbury, Boston. In the aftermath of his brief, yet successful stint in hip-hop and R&B, a young and malleable Abdur-Rahman took to the streets for the better part of his young adult life. It took the promise of faith at 29 to keep from heading down a road associated with drugs and violence that would have – should history say it – landed him in jail.

And he did, but not behind bars.

 

“When I discovered Islam, I ended up going to Saudi Arabia to study,” the Boston native says. “Islam saved my life,” he adds, stressing that religion, for him, is not about converting others. Instead, it’s about “trying to beautify myself with the qualities that Islam has instilled in me and demonstrate those qualities on other human beings,” he explains. “Islam gave me the will, moral and ethics to do any kind of good work. It very much informs every part of my life.”

Abdur-Rahman returned to the U.S. and became a prison chaplain at 32. He could have initially taken his real-life experiences and studies and applied them to mainstream academia, but instead felt beckoned to serve a demographic that is, for all intents and purposes, demonized, ostracized and forgotten.

Read More: Three Ways To Fix Our Criminal Justice System 

As a black youth who had spent a fair share of his time on the streets and learned many a life lesson in the school of hard knocks, Abdur-Rahman felt a strong connection to these forgotten prisoners, a majority of whom are black and Latino. “For me, it was a given that if I wanted to give back and serve, it was going to be by helping [inmates] see life through a different perspective,” he says. “That’s why I ended up as a prison chaplain.”

For the uninitiated: One in every 15 African American men is incarcerated, compared to just one in every 106 white men. Meanwhile, there are more than three times as many Latinos living in prison cells than living in college dorms. Black people (presumably including those of Latino descent) are also about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people.

Abdur-Rahman’s visceral reformation work with prison inmates was so resonant it reached the upper echelons of higher education, with Harvard University offering him a faculty position serving as imam, a Muslim chaplain. He accepted in 2015 and left the institution in 2017, finding his work dull and unfulfilling: “The students have a lot of the same social and psychological problems that the prisoners have, but you can just see that they had better choices and a better support system,” he says.

At Harvard, Abdur-Rahman began to realize that his better off counterparts were not the people that could benefit the most from his teachings. So he left to start a podcast about convicted felons who have changed their lives titled Exconversations.

“I just wanted to create a platform where we can humanize these people,” he says. “They’re so resilient and they’re brilliant, but know one knows it, and I felt compelled to give them the voice they deserved. These people have been thirsty to tell their stories and I was more than humbled to be part of that process.”

But while Abdur-Rahman is doing his best to help prisoners in any way he’s able, he recognizes there’s a lot of work ahead of us when it comes to prison reform.

When asked the one thing he would change about the way the criminal justice system works, Abdur-Rahman zeroed in on sentencing laws: I’m seeing guys come in at 17 years old who get 40 years. So if you’re 17, you were born in like 2001; you’re a baby. The brain is not even fully developed enough to always make sound decisions.”

Read More: The Trouble With Women In Prison

He also stresses that these laws can be much more stringent when color and class come into play.You get a second chance if you’re somebody with a social status,” he explains, meanwhile blacks and Latinos are shown the prison door. Forget about rehabilitation. “The exaggerated sentences, those laws need to change,” he says.

Some of the exaggerated sentencing laws that Abdur-Rahman is referring to stem from the so-called “tough on crime” sentencing policies “that are now being recognized as harsh, counter-productive, discriminatory, and fiscally irresponsible,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.A legacy of lynching via the prejudiced continuation of the death penalty “remains inextricably infected with racial bias and error and has proven to be extraordinarily costly and ineffective at reducing crime.”

Other laws like the popular “Three Strikes, You’re Out” contribute to the severity of life imprisonment without parole (even for nonviolent offenses), while the so-called “war on dugs” perpetuates “mandatory minimum sentences that have contributed to massive overcrowding in federal and state prisons.”

On Thursday (Oct. 18), Exconversations launches on TIDAL, while Abdur-Rahman – for his part – continues his education as a doctorate student in psychology at William James. There, he also has the unique opportunity of mentoring at-risk black and brown youth with his organization, Young Merchants Club, a program wherein kids make clothes and sell them. “The kids make money for themselves, so they don’t have to resort to robbing and stealing,” he says. “We teach them how to make better overall choices in their lives.”

The chances of Abdur-Rahman’s mentees ending up on his podcast one day are considerably lower, and we for one, have to celebrate and honor that.

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