Wisconsin Resource Center
Muab-el tells inmates at a secure treatment facility in Winnebago there is a future for them.
On a cold Wednesday afternoon in January, Caliph Muab-el sits on a stage at the Wisconsin Resource Center next to male inmates in green prison garb. Each is here to describe his path to prison as part of a healing process. A 23-year-old shares painful details of life with his mother, a crack addict and prostitute who abandoned him at age 11. A 38-year-old explains how drugs and gun violence killed scores of family and friends -- including a best friend whose face was shot off as they sat together on a front porch. Hesitantly, one man says that he and his sister were repeatedly raped by his mother's boyfriends as payment for her free crack cocaine.
Muab-el speaks last, noting that pieces of each story fit into his own. But he focuses on the future: How he entered Wisconsin's adult corrections system in 1997 a 15-year-old child but left in 2012 a free man. The message to the hundred men in the audience is that they, too, can one day live with dignity.
"Today marked the biggest challenge in being free, which is coming face-to-face with my past," Muab-el says after leaving the center, a secure treatment facility in Winnebago. "It was humbling to reflect on how far I really have come and how far I have to go."
Less than two years after his release from prison, Muab-el is in high demand around Madison. As a Sufi minister and scholar of Moorish Science, he is called upon to give talks about universal spirituality. Through conscious hip-hop, he shares his message about strength and self-preservation. And as a young urban leader, he speaks about removing racial barriers.
Muab-el speaks knowingly about one of the pressing civil rights issues of our time: the mass incarceration of African American men.
He was a teenager when sentenced in Milwaukee Circuit Court to 15 years for reckless injury with the use of a dangerous weapon. He served them all, including 10 consecutive years in solitary confinement. He has seen the inside of every maximum-security prison in the state, including the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel (formerly Supermax Correctional Institution), where he served seven years. There he was confined to a single cell with one eyehole to the outside world.
According to a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study, which is based on 2010 U.S Census Bureau data, one in eight working-age black Wisconsin residents is in state prison or local jail. That is double the national average. Since his release from the Oshkosh Correctional Institute, Muab-el, who now lives in Madison, has made it his life's work to change that statistic.
"After my release, I walked around for 30 days with a bracelet on my ankle," he recalls. "People in the community looked at me with automatic judgment and distrust without knowing my story. I went on numerous job interviews where people looked at me like, 'Are you kidding?' For people coming out of the system, I want to help change that reality so I can help change their reality."
Everett Mitchell, who is active in prison reform, says Muab-el brings a needed voice to this issue.
"Caliph is a wonderful, passionate young man who brings a different perspective on how to build relationships and work to solve complex issues regarding our people and young ones who've gotten caught up in the system," says Mitchell, UW-Madison director of community relations and a pastor at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church. "He has a willingness to work across racial, class and gender boundaries to figure out the best path in moving forward."
'Fix things for ourselves'
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, inmates who serve time in isolation can suffer a number of mental anomalies and are prone to suicide. But Muab-el refused to break under the brutal conditions.
Muab-el protected his mind by developing it, spirituality and intellectually. He began by getting his high school equivalency degree. While studying for a divinity degree and a paralegal certificate, he formed a plan to help others out of destructive life patterns. He did exactly what his mentor and friend Jerome Dillard, human service program coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, calls "turning his cell into a classroom." Upon his release, he put his plan into action.
"Because of my ability to speak effectively, I was immediately given a voice, something I had never had before," says Muab-el. "It was time to tell my story and empower others through my experiences."
With help from Dillard, who was then the director of reentry and advocacy services for the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership and Development, Muab-el received permission from the Department of Corrections to relocate to Madison, where he has family, instead of returning to Milwaukee. Muab-el's dad, Armani Edwards, who also turned his life around in prison, now lives in Madison and is active in prison reform issues.
Once in Madison, Muab-el hit the streets to keep other African American men from entering or returning to the system.
This is no small task. According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, 31% of black men released in 2009 were back in prison by 2012.
"Moving to Madison was a huge blessing for him and a huge blessing for our community," says Dillard. "Caliph is excellent at reaching young men and scaring them in a different direction. There's a generational gap in our communities, and we need young leaders youth can identify with, feel they are their peers. He's been there, he's had their experiences and has come out the other side in his right mind."
But moving forward has not been without its challenges. Even in a community where support resources exist, access can be difficult and people become defeated. This makes repeating old patterns for fast cash a real temptation, and opportunity abounds.
Immediately after participating in a UW-Madison panel on mass incarceration last February, Muab-el was approached by a man he knew from Milwaukee who offered him $14,000 on the spot to run a drug deal. He says it's this kind of carrot that turns the formerly incarcerated into the chronically incarcerated.
"Race to Equity: A Baseline Report on the State of Racial Disparities in Dane County," a 2012 report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, found that blacks in Dane County are worse off than African Americans in the country as a whole. This includes a 25.2% unemployment rate, compared to 17.7% nationwide; and a 54% poverty rate, as opposed to 28.1% nationwide. Still, Muab-el is hopeful. He sees great potential for the African American community to move itself in positive directions.
"Some think the fight is too big to win so they get self-defeated. But there are those among us who get it, and together we have to do the groundwork to raise awareness," says Muab-el. "We can do anything once we start to define our own realities about who we are and stop allowing everyone else to do it for us. We need to take back that power on our own and fix things for ourselves."
Humanizing the problems
As a social justice leader, Muab-el has made his mark. He and fiancée Belinda Richardson, a caseworker for The Road Home, a nonprofit that finds housing for homeless families, have co-founded Breaking Barriers Mentoring.
Their nonprofit is housed within Zion City International Church on Applegate Road. It is nonsectarian and aims to prevent youth from joining gangs and entering the correctional system. Breaking Barriers is seeking outside funding but for now is run by a volunteer staff of 10. It juggles numerous initiatives, including a preparation program for young adults seeking apprenticeships. It also provides mentors for at-risk youth and helps people coming out of prison find jobs, housing and education opportunities. Advisory board members include Lisa Peyton Caire, founder of Foundation for Black Women's Wellness Day; Michael Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club; and Mitchell and Dillard.
Muab-el's plan upon release from prison was to surround himself with positive people. He joined MOSES (Madison Organizing in Strength, Equality and Solidarity), a local affiliate of the statewide interfaith organization WISDOM. Made up of 20 Madison-area congregations ranging from First Unitarian Society on the west side to Fountain of Life Church on the south side to Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, the group advocates for the rights of incarcerated individuals. Projects include the 11x15 Campaign, a statewide initiative aimed at reducing the Wisconsin prison population from 22,000 to 15,000 by 2015.
Muab-el is vice president of the group. He received training as a community leader and now organizes other activists in efforts to create fair policymaking on criminal justice issues.
Jerry Hancock, director of the Prison Project at First Congregational Church, says Muab-El's voice has been effective at getting people to understand the human issues involved in prison reform.
"He is able to take people from the big-picture social-policy issues right down to the very human scale. That helps motivate people to work for change," says Hancock, a former Dane County deputy district attorney and administrator in the Department of Justice.
Carol Rubin, a retired attorney who is now president of MOSES, says she has a newfound appreciation for those who have been caught up in the criminal justice system.
"All of the formerly incarcerated men I have known who are active in MOSES have tremendous potential that isn't recognized, and a desire to give back to their community," says Rubin. "We tend to associate highly intelligent and motivated people with those who have the traditional university education, or who are from the middle class. But one of the gifts from working with these individuals is seeing how much they bring to the table in terms of their own inherent aptitudes and the knowledge they have about what prison is like."
Entrenched in gangs
Muab-el openly talks about his own path to prison.
His father's side of the family was entrenched in gang activity, including drug and gun trafficking, racketeering and prostitution, among a long list of illegal activity.
"Our father was a notorious gang leader in Chicago," says Muab-el. "All my uncles were crime bosses -- Black Stones, Vice Lords, Black Panthers. They were always high up."
He grew up in Chicago and Milwaukee using his birth name, Anthony Stevens.
Muab-el says his mother's challenges as a single mother were typical for women living in crime-ridden neighborhoods. She worked three jobs to care for Muab-el and his siblings, which left little time for oversight. A move from Chicago to Milwaukee to find a better life made little difference. Once again surrounded by poverty and gang violence, Muab-el says he was drawn to the risks, like the others in his family.
"The people who were in my life to give me direction gave me misdirection," he says. "I was surrounded by infested areas, drugs, prostitution, impoverishment. The schools either weren't effective or didn't care about progress of the people in that environment. I remember thinking, 'How can we have so many schools in every neighborhood and have so many who are illiterate, so many churches but so many people who are spiritually blinded, so many hospitals yet so many people sick?'"
Muab-el's early insights about his surroundings did not insulate him.
"When I was 11, I was walking to school and watched two guys shoot at each other, one from a window in front of me and one on the street behind me. The bullet went through my hi-top fade, making a hole I could see through," he says.
Rather than running for help, Muab-el ran to school to show where the bullet had traveled through his hair.
By the time he was 12, Muab-el was a gang leader and had fathered one child. He had his second at 14. His two younger brothers followed suit, both also landing in prison.
One brother, Jeremiah Edwards, now lives in Middleton. Last year, Jeremiah was allowed to leave prison through the Huber Release Program to attend a trades training program at the YWCA. Jeremiah says his brother's support during this time was invaluable. Jeremiah will be honored at the 2014 YWCA Circle of Women event for being promoted to foreman within six months of starting work as a mason at Fahrner Asphalt in Middleton.
"The only way to explain his help is love," says Jeremiah of his older brother. "He was positive and motivating. He just kept telling me I could overcome any obstacle or any battle, and he'd repeatedly say, 'Just keep it moving, little baby brother.' It would have been a lot harder without him."
Patterns of incarceration
According to the UW-Milwaukee study, 13% of Wisconsin's black residents are incarcerated. That's double the national rate.
Behind this alarming statistic are such factors as racial profiling and environment. According to the Race to Equity report, black adults in 2012 were arrested in Dane County at a rate of more than eight times that of whites. And while black men made up only 4.8% of the Dane County population, they accounted for more than 43% of new adult prison placements.
As with Muab-el and his brothers, following family patterns of incarceration is another factor. Human rights advocates call having an incarcerated parent the greatest threat to child well-being in America.
Probation and parole are also rife with pitfalls. Individuals can be returned to prison for such things as unknowingly riding in a car without a licensed driver.
The enactment of Wisconsin's Truth in Sentencing Law, which abolished parole for those convicted after 2000, has also contributed to the state's incarceration crisis, says David Liners, state director for WISDOM. Though the law was not supposed to be applied retroactively, Liners says the Department of Corrections has stopped holding parole reviews for potentially thousands of legally eligible Wisconsin inmates.
Joy Staab, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, says in a statement "there is no validity" to Liners' comment. She says the Parole Commission follows the procedures set out in "PAC 1" of Wisconsin's administrative code.
Raw realities of prison
In December, Muab-el joined Liners and other members of WISDOM in calling on Gov. Scott Walker to order a review of every parole-eligible inmate in the corrections system. They also asked for the appointment of an ombudsman, selected by the chief justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, with the authority to ensure that individuals eligible for parole are not "lost, lingering and overlooked in an expensive and unjust bureaucracy."
"We want to know how many people there are in this situation," says Liners. "Everything we have is anecdotal because the Department of Corrections says it doesn't keep those kinds of statistics. There needs to be a review of this."
These and other advocacy activities consume Muab-el's time. He meets weekly with the New Beginnings, a group that helps soon-to-be released men and women acclimate to life outside bars. And he volunteers as a legal advocate to help people in the court system make informed decisions.
Robert Agnew, a training and employment specialist for the state Department of Workforce Development, partners with Breaking Barriers Mentoring to find jobs for reentering ex-offenders. He met Muab-el after being charged with a drunk driving offense that resulted in an injury.
"I didn't even know him. That was the amazing thing," says Agnew. "Yet he was at my side through all the hearings. He provided emotional support and legal guidance. But looking at his life, all he had overcome, that was the backbone I needed to go through that. If he could go through all that as a kid, I can go through this as a man."
Muab-el says his own suffering compels him to help others.
"I know the raw realities of being in prison," he says. "I don't want young children to lose their life in the system the way I lost my mine. If they are willing to throw away the life of a 15-year-old boy, what makes anyone think they care about anyone who comes from where I come from? We must change the way we gauge 'justice' as a mere formality, a fountain that only the privileged can drink from while the disadvantaged suffer."
[Editor's note: This article was changed to correct the spelling of Caliph Muab-el's birth name, which is Anthony Stevens.]