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Dropping the Flag: An Insider's Look at America's Prison System

Dropping the Flag: An Insider's Look at America's Prison System

Published: November 28, 2012
Wahid speaking to young men

AFSC intern Wahid speaks with program participants at the Eddie Conway Freedom School.

Photo: AFSC

Wahid was a participant in AFSC’s Friend of a Friend at the Maryland Correctional Institution – Jessup. While in the conflict resolution mentoring program, he shared his story with author and Friend of a Friend mentor Craig Muhammad.

The following story is taken from the chapter, “Dropping the Flag,” in the soon-to-be published book, From Jericho to Jerusalem: Organizing Street Organizations. It is one of several “testimonies” from young men who are former members of gangs, or what many refer to as street organizations.

In this narrative Wahid discusses his early life and his motivations for joining a street organization. He speaks honestly about his experiences and the conditions that set the stage for violence in many communities. Wahid’s story is a compelling look at the challenges facing youth in Baltimore and around the country – incarceration, poverty, violence and the pursuit of a “normal” life amid circumstances that are anything but normal.

Wahid’s story also speaks to the human spirit of resistance and survival. At twenty, his life is far from over and the challenges still remain, but men like Friend of a Friend’s Craig Muhammad, who remains imprisoned, have helped to prepare Wahid to better meet those challenges.

- Introduction by AFSC Friend of a Friend Program Director Dominque Stevenson

I am currently serving an eight year sentence for two counts of carjacking and two armed robberies. I bet you are wondering how I got an adult prison sentence as a seventeen year old young man.

I grew up in Baltimore City. My mother was a single parent who worked two and sometimes three jobs trying to make ends meet for her five boys. She is from Jamaica and she moved to the States to achieve the “American Dream” that she never found. My father is also from Jamaica, but the government deported him back to Jamaica.

My mother was with a number of men while I was growing up – trying to provide a father figure for her sons – but the first one started using drugs and when my mother found out, she put him out of the house. The next one was a no good candidate for the role of a father. He beat me and my brothers just to make us afraid of him. Living with that sorry excuse for a man broke my spirit and it severely damaged my relationship with my mother. When I was eight years old, my mother left him, and my brother’s father came to live with us. Even though he showed me the type of love I never knew existed, eventually he was gone as well.

I began to get in trouble because I was tired of being hurt and I was tired of being tired. By twelve years old I was out of control. My mother couldn’t control me and I had no plans of being controlled by anyone. I was robbing, stealing, smoking, drinking and doing whatever else a child should not be doing. Most people do not understand how I ended up in the streets. But, I will make it plain – when love wasn’t found at home, I tried to find it in the streets. When my mother didn’t have money to replace my shoes that had holes in them – I believed I could get some shoes in the streets. I turned to some brothers who were deprived of love just like me and we were down for whatever.

My mother got tired of my behavior and put me out. So, I stayed with one of my friends. His grandmother called me her grandchild and treated me as such. He and I were like “white on rice”. We got high together and ended up in juvenile detention together. I stayed in juvenile detention so much that I called it home and the staff that worked there called me their son. But, it didn’t have any effect on me. As a matter of fact I began to like it.

I dropped out of school in the seventh grade and took to the streets. The older guys who ran the streets were my teachers. I saw much at a young age in the streets – from junkies who had overdosed on drugs, to outright murder. The streets made me numb to the loss of human life and suffering. By the time I reached my thirteenth birthday, I was a schooled criminal.

When I was fourteen, someone I knew, who was also a gang member, insisted that I be recruited into the gang. So, I was jumped in. There is a belief that people often join gangs for protection. Protection is definitely a reason, but that is not why I joined. When you are deprived of love your entire life and someone promises you love and brotherhood – even if it is false – most people will take the bait.

I got deeper and deeper into the gang life and I spent most of my time doing what gangbangers do; robbing, stealing, selling drugs, fighting, stabbing and shooting. For a time I enjoyed it. The gang lifestyle made me feel needed. I felt powerful like a warrior. But, one thing that was missing was the feeling of true love, brotherhood and unity.

Eventually fear, anxiety and paranoia began to rule over my everyday affairs. I was constantly paranoid and in need of having a weapon in my possession at all times.

I did not like to go out with my family because I feared seeing someone I had harmed. The fear of being killed caused me to be a very lonely person. I even contemplated suicide. There is really no loyalty in the streets. You are only loved and embraced when you are useful and needed. Other than that, you are disposable.

One day one of my big homies got locked up and I was asked to get half of the bail money. I didn’t have a job, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know how I was going to get the money. I carjacked and robbed a man and eventually I got caught. But, before I committed the act, my intuition was telling me that I was going to jail that day. I was shown many signs that were intended to stop me from committing those crimes. But, my foolish loyalty couldn’t hold me back. I ended up in jail being charged as an adult. To this day I haven’t received one letter from the brother I was trying to help – even though he went home a week after my arrest. I ended up pleading guilty to the charges and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison with eight years suspended.

When I was in jail, I started reading the Bible a lot as I tried to find myself. I wanted to make a change, but I just didn’t know how.

Eventually I felt the love, unity and brotherhood I had been yearning for all my life when I started attending the Nation of Islam Worship service. At that point I didn’t know anything but the streets; and I had become so used to living my life in fear that it felt normal. But, all praise is due to Allah for finally giving me the courage to walk away from the gang.

Now, I can honestly say that I sleep well at night. I no longer submit to fear and anxiety. I submit to God. I changed my life for the better of myself, my family and my community.

- AFSC Friend of a Friend part-time staff member Wahid Shakur