Caliph Muab’El is a well-built man, muscular and fit. He has a friendly face, and a ready smile. When I met Caliph, he was wearing a black shirt and his locks hung down to his shoulders. He wore a large ring designed to look like a crescent moon and a star. He also wore a chain around his neck that held a pendant shaped to look like the Arabic word for God (Allah).
I said to him, “Assalam wa’laikum.” (“Peace be with you” in Arabic).
He replied, “Wa’alaikum assalam.” (And peace be with you also”).
Caliph was a bit surpised by my greeting, and asked me, “Are you Muslim?”
“No, but some of my friends are.”
We sat down and I asked Caliph to tell me about himself.
He started off by saying that most people call him Minister Caliph Muab. He defines himself as a minister, as somebody who serves others both spiritually and physically.
I asked him, “Are you an imam?”
He replied, “I’m an imam… a sheikh…a minister. I am a Sufi (Muslim mystic).” Caliph went on to describe his spiritual journey, and how his mother was Christian while his father was Muslim. Caliph finds truth in all religious traditions. He has spent years, especially while in prison, seeking to understand God and to understand himself. Self-awareness and an awareness of God’s presence go hand in hand.
Caliph told me about his prison experience. He was a pioneer in a way. Caliph was the first juvenile to be sent into the adult portion of the Wisconsin penal system. At age fifteen, Caliph had shot a man. He hadn’t killed him, but that had been his intention, and Caliph had gone to prison for fifteen years. He didn’t get released until he was thirty.
I had to pause and think about all that. I view things through the lens of my own experience. Perhaps all people do. When Caliph spoke about shooting a man, I had to think about my eldest son, Hans. Hans shot and killed a man, but that was while he was a soldier deployed in Iraq. Hans didn’t go to prison. He might have even received a medal for what he did. I don’t know. I do know that killing another person changed my son. I wondered to myself how shooting a man had changed Caliph.
While in prison in Green Bay, Caliph had often responded to threats in a violent manner. Caliph had always survived by resorting to violence. This behavior eventually got him transferred to the supermax in Boscobel. It was there that Caliph spent ten years in solitary confinement. It was there that he learned through a mentor that violence solves nothing. It was there that Caliph became a jailhouse lawyer, a litigant. It was there that Caliph found God.
I asked Caliph about his time in solitary. He said that the system was designed to torture people, to break them. He described it as evil, and he gave me examples of how the guards and the administrators did their best to break his mind and his spirit. Once again, Caliph’s words made me think of my own experiences. Many years ago, I went through a version of Army basic training during which the people in charge relentlessly messed with my mind. However, there were basic differences between what I endured and what Caliph experienced. I volunteered to have somebody screw with my head. Caliph didn’t. I knew that somehow, some way, my pain would end. Caliph never knew when his suffering would end, or even if it would ever end. I had people tear at the core of my very being for two months. Caliph had ten years of that sort of abuse. After only two months of madness, I became a very different person. How does ten years of that change a person?
Caliph told me that years of abuse in solitary confinement destroys most people. If they had no mental illness problems before they went into solitary, they have them when they get out. Solitary confinement eventually makes a person incapable of functioning in society. Solitary confinement sets up a person for failure once they leave the prison system and return to the outside world.
I found all this to be irrational. Why would the Department of Corrections operate a system that all but ensures that inmates will fail when they get paroled? It makes absolutely no sense if the goal is for convicted felons to eventually re-integrate into society and become useful members of the larger community. Caliph pointed out that maybe that really isn’t the goal. Maybe the goal of the prison-industrial complex is for inmates to come right back into the system. Maybe the goal is to have a revolving door at the prisons, and to keep the cells full. Maybe this makes a profit for someone. Maybe it’s all about the money. If that is true, then the use of solitary confinement to break people makes all sorts of sense.
Caliph survived. He endured solitary confinement, and he made it out again. How? If the system is set up to destroy inmates, how did Caliph come out of prison intact?
Caliph credits his faith in God and his faith in himself for his survival. He also said that it was crucial for him that he was helping other inmates while he was serving in prison. While Caliph was in solitary, it made a huge difference to him that other people were depending on him. He kept going through a sense of obligation to others.
Humans have an overwhelming need to be needed. We are social creatures, and we wither and die if we only live for ourselves. We derive our sense of purpose from how important we are to the welfare of others. We can endure many things if we believe that we are somehow helping another person. We can keep going, despite all obstacles, if we know that somebody else is depending on us.
Caliph is still needed. He uses his own suffering to serve others who are hurting. He is an example that others can follow. He makes a difference.