JUROW LECTURE HALL, Silver Center, 100 Washington Square East
A public conversation about making, rather than doing, time and the critical and often misunderstood role religion plays in geographies of confinement and discipline, as well as in the everyday practices of incarcerated people. Presenters: Hakim ‘Ali (Reconstruction, Inc.),Tanya Erzen (University of Puget Sound), Robin McGinty (CUNY), and Angela Zito (NYU). Moderator:Laura McTighe (Columbia University).
Who makes time in prison? And how do they make it?
In this article, I speak with Hakim ‘Ali about Islam and black prison organizing in 1970s Baltimore in anticipation of the NYU event, “Making Time: Discipline and Religion in America’s Prisons” on April 10, 2015. More information about this roundtable conversation can be found here.
It is shortly after the Fajr morning prayers and snow is falling as big as fists. Hakim’s deep laughter punctuates the steady chug of the steam radiator in the corner, as he launches into another tale of a Philadelphia long since passed. I smile in knowing recognition. Hakim has an unparalleled gift for storytelling. We have been talking for almost an hour.
Colloquially, folks often speak about incarceration as “doing time.” What Hakim and I have been discussing is the idea of “making time.” Can we better understand the everyday work of building geographies of confinement, as well as the complex strategies for transforming our darkest of institutions, if we think about time as “made” rather than “done”? Who makes time in prison? And how do they make it? Hakim knows the world of prisons far better than most: he spent forty years of his life behind bars. “And it is only, ONLY by the grace of Allah that I am sitting here having this conversation with you,” Hakim reminds me, with a sudden somberness. “I am a Black Muslim man, 71 almost 72 years of age, and I understand fully what that means in this day and time, in this country, and in the world.”
Hakim and I met in Philadelphia more than a decade ago. Our connection was one of intention as much as coincidence: in 1978 – the year I was born – he had been transferred to the federal prison in Lewisburg, PA – the town I lived in as a teenager. Over the years, we have built a relationship of closeness and reciprocity, as beloved friends and comrades. Through our work together, I have come to know Hakim as a poet, an educator, a revolutionary, a father, and a confidant. He rarely talks about how he survived the hell of the local, state and federal prisons that held him captive, and I know better than to ask. Those silences in his life story have been built up because of too many small abuses to count, because of great and incomprehensible ones.
But this morning, under the guise of “making time,” with the snow showing no sign of relenting, Hakim began to speak about his conversion to Sunni Islam, his work with the Revolutionary Action Movement, and the Baltimore bank robbery that catapulted him into the caverns of justice in America. The year was 1972. The date was February 23rd.
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When we got popped, the Baltimore cops told us the folks in Philly were calling a citywide holiday. The “Philly 5” they called us in Baltimore. Of the five, three of us were Sunni Muslim and one of us was Nation of Islam. And the other one, because of his association with us, was sympathetic to Islam, even though he wasn’t Muslim. So Islam was our point of unity as we were doing what we were doing, existing before the trial, and even during the course of the trial in the way that we were referred to, you know.
So one day while we were in the city jail, we were in the yard – something had just happened, a dude had tried to escape earlier – and they had everybody out of the buildings and we were in the yard, with the police around us. I saw this brother walking down the yard, and he had this paper rolled up in his back pocket. And I saw different parts of words – something about Islam, and the some parts of the Arabic… So I approached him, and asked him, “You mind if I look at that?” and he said, “Man, you can have it.” And he gave me the paper. So I opened up the paper, I was reading it, and it was in fact a newsletter coming from this masjid in West Baltimore. It had an address and contact information, so I got together with the other brothers and showed them the paper and we decided to see if we could get some materials sent in for us to read.
Just to be clear: Sunni Islam was not in Maryland. Anything related to Islam was the Nation of Islam, or this little small group of dudes who were Five Percenters. At the start, we didn’t have intentions of establishing anything in the jail. We were just seeing if we could get some materials, something to read, or a contact. But eventually this effort on our part led to us establishing traditional, orthodox Sunni Islam in the Maryland system.
First, we started with the city jail, where we were awaiting trial. Eventually we got somebody to come out. The first visit was a personal visit – the Imam, Ali Akbar, came out and met with one of the people in our group. Then Ali came back again, and we created an opportunity for him to meet not only with ourselves but also with a couple of other brothers that we found out were there and were Sunni Muslim. They had been existing under the radar, you know what I mean? Because the Baltimore jail is transitional, and folks were focusing on their case.
So we got to the point – and I’m really, really, really summarizing this – that we were able to get this brother Ali from the masjid to come in and meet with the Superintendent of Baltimore city jail and we literally got jummah started there. It was the first time that the dude had heard about jummah, it was the first time that Muslims from the community had even entertained the thought of coming into the city jail. And from that, later on down the line, a position was created where Ali got appointed as the community Imam – the representative of Islam for the Baltimore jail.
That was sort of our first political/religious statement, with all the other stuff we were doing prior to coming to Baltimore and getting locked up. We believed that we were in the course of revolutionary action, taking from the government, supporting the people… It was the same sort of concept as what the Black Panther Party was doing, but we had not been building institutions. We mostly just focused on meeting the community’s immediate needs – helping folks with rent, paying their bills, getting food… So this was the first real thing that we literally did in an institution, and to this day what we started still exists.
I have always grounded myself through writing. It is one of the first things that my beloved mentor, John Horace Bell, figured out about me when we were launching Philadelphia FIGHT’s prison programs more than a decade ago. His journey to this work through ACT UP Philly is so beautifully captured in this oral history interview. As soon as we began our journey together, John started pushing me to document the truths we were discovering in our work. I was slower to put words to the transformation that was happening to me.
John, and all of the people we had the privilege of working with, changed my life. They are my friends, my teachers, and my family. They taught me what it means to fight for the world I want to live in. Everyday working with them, I saw this world take shape.
On this one year anniversary of John’s home going, I am remembering that honoring John means honoring the people he fought for us to become. It is with both humility and respect that I share this series of reflections that John loved so much, which I was prompted to write in 2007 while working with a group of seminary students and congregations who were providing mentoring support to incarcerated men and women in Massachusetts’ College Behind Bars program.