Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming a Man

I arrived on Death Row at night, November 14, 1997. I wasn’t worried about my survival, nor was I afraid, though I didn’t know what type of environment I was entering. One of my cousins who’d been locked up since the late 1970’s schooled his nephew and me on Sunday visits. He told us that because of the way we were getting down in the streets, sooner or later one or both of us were bound to come to prison. We were advised that as soon as someone tried to come at us in prison we should make a very convincing example out of them.

So while I was being transported to the prison for my very first bid, that’s what I had on my mind. I reasoned that I was going to be surrounded by nothing but convicted murderers with death sentences, so I set my mind that as soon as anyone disrespected me they were going to be punished severely, according to the level of the offense. I refused to be handled in any way. I was determined to return home to my mother in the same form that I left her.

The Row was locked down for lights out when I arrived. I was assigned to a bunk of 1-F Block – Westside. The first two men that I met were Lil’ Chris and Bro. Frank. I developed an immediate relation with these two men because of our commonality to Charlotte. Because Lil’ Chris was from Gaston County, he was basically my homeboy. Bro. Frank told me that he used to live there, too. They embraced me like a young brother though I really didn’t trust them just yet. But my instincts didn’t detect any reason to fear them.

The third man I met with Keith. He introduced himself to me from behind his cell door by dropping his food trap and informing me that he had the canteen if I needed anything. I quickly developed dislike and distrust of him because he was trying to hustle me while I hadn’t been on the Row for an hour, much less on that block for less than fifteen minutes. I was from the streets, so I recognized game when I saw it — most of the time, anyway.

I made mention that I had to perform Salah (prayer). Lil’ Chris asked me if I was a Muslim. I told him yes. He asked me what kind, and I told him that I was a Shiite Muslim. He pointed to a brother lying on the top bunk behind mine, saying that he was a Shiite Muslim, too. This was the fourth man I met on the Row. He held up his head a little and his right index finger in greeting and said, “Assalamo Alaykum.” (“May peace be upon you.”) I heartily returned his greeting with, “Wa alaykumus-Salam.” (“And may peace be upon you.”) This brothers’ name was Bro. Dawood, may Allah have mercy upon him.

Lil’ Chris also told me that in cell 16 there was another Shia brother named Fareed; I’d have to wait until the morning to meet him. (He became my best friend that morning by the Grace of Allah. I was directed that I could perform my Salah in the block bathroom, so I proceeded that way.)

This was my first night on Death Row. I’d been cheated of my freedom with lies and sentenced to die. But on my mind, despite my anger, was to worship my Lord. No matter what, I must worship Allah and turn to Him alone. I didn’t care much about everything else. I already knew that this was all a test, a trial from Allah.

What! Do people imagine that they will be left off on their saying: ‘We believe!’ and they will not be tried? And indeed we did try those before them, so Allah certainly knoweth those who are true, and certainly knoweth He the liars. - Holy Quran Surah 29 v. 2-3

I had complete faith in Allah. I just had to use this time to perfect myself for His Cause. I wanted to get out of prison so that I could do the good which I’d left undone, but I’d learned something about myself: I can’t change anyone nor anything until I first change myself. So I gave myself to self-reformation.

I learned to practice something very valuable from my Brother Fareed: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything; but if you stand for just anything, you’ll fall for nothing.”

I wasn’t on The Row for three days when I was engaged in a conflict with a Christian brother in the hallway outside of the kitchen. I had arrived here during a time when there were Christian-Muslim tensions, so I fell right into it. I got 10 days on lock-up for fighting. After all was said and done, we eventually reconciled. We realized that surviving prison was our common goal so there’s no need to bite at each other’s throats. We would rather be part of the solution than continue to contribute to our shared suffering.

In the summer of 1998, our chance to stand united presented itself. Once again, the locale was the kitchen. This day they served fried chicken, and when fried chicken is on the menu almost everyone goes to chow. When there’s a kitchen full of inmates wearing the same color clothes and similar shoes, things are bound to get blurred for the meager staff. They can’t see it all. So a chicken tray was boosted — someone doubled back and got another tray. Since the tray lines’ garage-like door was down to about six inches, the staff behind the line could only see pant-legs and shoes. This caused confusion.

I was fifth to last in the line. Behind me were four Christian brothers. After I’d received my tray and moved ahead, the guy behind me, Lee, moved to get his tray. He was immediately accused of coming through the line again. This was a total mistake, because he’d been behind me the entire time. He argued his case with the kitchen staff and an inmate that was serving. Most of us stood bearing witness to what had happened and waited to see how this situation would resolve itself. The kitchen staff became angry, decided to shut the line down, effectively denying Lee and the other three men behind him their food trays.

Lee stood up for himself. As they were shutting down the garage-like blind on the serving line, Lee reached through, grabbing the chicken pan. What ensued was a tug of war, Lee versus the kitchen staff and the server inmate. This short, stocky weightlifter held his own with just on arm! The commotion invited the Sarge and lieutenant from the hall outside the kitchen to come in and sort this out. We’d found our opportunity to stand together.

Since I was a direct witness to this man’s innocence, there was no way that I could stand by without saying or doing something. The other men were being denied their right to eat, too. It did not matter that Lee and the other three men were Christians and I’m Muslim. It was a simple matter of right opposed to wrong. Many of the Muslims and some of the Christians in the kitchen came to these men’s aid. This in turn led to my first time on Unit One (Segregation) for inciting a riot with Bro. Fareed and Bro. Jibreel. They let Lee off after a few days of lock-up, but the three of us had to do at least 18 months.

O ye who believe! Be always upright for Allah, bearing witness with justice, and let not hatred of a people incited you not to act equitably, Act ye equitably that is nearer to piety, Fear ye Allah; Verily Allah is fully aware of what ye do. – Holy Quran Surah 5 v. 8

My direct appeal was denied in 2001. That dashed my expectations of going home in the two years, at least. Disappointment washed over me. But as quickly as it arrived, it disappeared. It was not my time. I wasn’t ready. I still had things to work on within myself and much more to learn.

In the time that I’d been on The Row my paternal grandfather died, my only brother was murdered, and my favorite aunt died from complications of AIDS. It seemed as if I was losing more than my freedom. My family was beginning to fall to the grave, and I couldn’t be there to help the survivors.

Naturally, anger and resentment entered my heart and mind against everyone who caused or aided in my incarceration. Still I didn’t curse Allah. I continued to worship and strive to better myself. I submitted to the facts that Allah has control over everything and that my grandfather, brother and aunt didn’t belong to me, they belong to Him.

I spent my second time on Unit One (Segregation) from 2001-2004 because another prisoner violated me by laying around with his private parts exposed. After I had a civil conversation with him about covering himself and respecting other people, the third time it happened I referred back to the advice of my cousin who told me what to do when someone disrespects me – I punished him.

For the second time, I was blessed with the opportunity to spend some time with one of my best friends and Brothers, my Brother Alim. We came to The Row round about the same time, but we didn’t get to know each other until my first go around on Unit One. Although under unfortunate circumstances, this turned out to be a blessing to be able to learn some more knowledge and wisdom from him.

The first lesson that I learned from him is from the Holy Quran, that we should compete with one another in goodness and righteousness. This was a serious contest that not only brought us both closer to Allah, but closer to each other. The second great lesson that I gleaned from Brother Alim is the art of organization. If I wanted to help my people as I desired, I had to harness the ability to think through every pro and con of a situation in order to get the best result. The third lesson that I learned from him is to be very careful about my friends and associates. I had to swallow the hard pill that some of those whom I’d held close to me from the free world and the prison were not my compatriots. We didn’t share the same views and values, not did we have the same passion for reformation. If I sincerely had aspirations for success, many of my past and present friends had to go.

And say thou: “O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge.” – Holy Quran Surah 22 v. 114

Is he who was dead, then We raised him to life and made for him a light by which he walketh among the people, like unto him whose similitude is that of one in utter darkness whence he cannot come forth? Thus hath been made fair seeming for the disbelievers what they did. – Holy Quran Surah 6 v. 122

Disappointment reared its head again when my MAR (Motion for Appropriate Relief) was denied in State Superior Court in 2008. I just knew that I was going to get a new trial that would have led to my release from prison.

During this time, I met Bro. Mumin, who wasn’t a Muslim yet when I got off segregation, but shortly afterward came home to Islam. My brother Fareed told me that I needed to save him from being miseducated in Islam, so this is how I began to be close to him. We were an odd pair because of our different races, but we discovered that we had a lot of common interests. Islam brought us closer.

This Brother has a very analytical mind which he employs to assist him in study. This is what I learned from him — how to be analytical. Although I am a little older than he, we became compliments of each other. Sometimes, when there are two people that are very much alike, they are bound to be butt heads. And this occurred from time to time. Though we would get frustrated with one another for whatever the reason, always Islamic, we’d immediately amend and continue on without skipping a beat. So from this man I really developed a virtue that is essential to success in this life as well as the next - that is, patience, especially with my beloved Brothers. Sometimes we won’t agree on everything, but as long as we agree on the main things – the Fundamentals of Islam – then we’ll always be united.

This period was the longest that I’d spent on Death Row general population. I’d served most of my time up until then on segregation. During this period, I had to live around the other men more, so I had to deal with the multiple personalities, unbalanced emotions, and moderate-to-severe mental health issues. Already angry about my situation, having to learn to live with these different men, some of whom I really didn’t like, was difficult at first. But gradually I learned to use my wisdom and this new gift of patience in order to navigate the conflicts that arose. This practice elevated me to another pinnacle in my life. I began to find my inner peace and also learned to forgive and overlook the faults and shortcomings of other men. Allah humbled me, for the most part.

This experience was a blissful adventure. I am a very proud man. I can be very arrogant at times, looking down upon those whom I consider beneath me. Being proud in the sense that I won’t allow someone to mistreat me or trample upon my rights is never a negative. So I learned to nurture this quality. But as for my arrogance — my feelings of contempt for those whom I consider lesser than me — that had to go. I had to crucify this negative characteristic, especially after I realized that this type of pride and arrogance is characteristic of Satan. It was this type of pride that caused Satan to disobey Allah’s Command and to become a disbeliever after he’d worshipped Allah for 6000 years in the company of the angels.

And indeed We did create you, then We did fashion you, then said We unto the angels, ‘Prostrate yourselves unto Adam,’ so they all did prostrate themselves except Iblees, he was not of the prostrating ones. Said He (Allah): ‘What preventeth thee that thou didst not prostrate when I did command thee?’ Said he (Satan), ‘I am better than him, me hast thou created of fire while thou didst create him (Adam) of clay.’ Said He (Allah): ‘Get thee down hence for it doeth not befit thee to behave proudly therein. Get thee out, verily thou art of the despised ones.’ – Holy Quran Surah 7 v. 11-13

Allah had already told me that Satan is my avowed enemy, so why would I want to exemplify my enemy, Satan? He stated that he was better than Adam (May Peace Be Upon Him), Adam is me and I am Adam – Man. So I would be Satan to believe that I am better than my fellow man, except where piety or God-fearing is concerned. I had to eliminate this pride from myself, and I have graciously embraced this continuous struggle. Now I’m feeling better about myself, free even.

I may never get my freedom. This prison may be my lot. But I have to keep living life, no matter the circumstances. I could have lost or abandoned faith, throwing away my Quran, prayer rug and kufi. I could have said I’m done with this way of life called Islam. I didn’t though, and I’m not. I have been blessed to persevere, even though things may not go my way. Perhaps Allah has something better for me that I don’t or can’t see, or He is protecting me from something that is harmful to me. Nevertheless, I still have to live my life in Islam (Submission to the Will of Allah). Everything else is vain.

Now I’m finally becoming a real man. I now know that my ultimate objective in this life is to live and die as a righteous man, whenever and wherever that may be.

by Elrico Fowler

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