Prison, Paradigms, and a Prodigal Son

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Taj and his Mugshot

I began my career as an incarcerated individual in 1989, after I committed a car-jacking and was arrested and convicted for aggravated robbery. I was summarily sentenced to 16 years in prison. I was 19 years old.

I ended up serving 7 years before I was released early for good behavior in 1996 – first to a halfway house, then on monitored supervision. I was granted parole in 1997, and finally discharged by sentence in 2001.

While I was in prison, I became determined to turn away from the very obvious path of career criminal behavior and gang membership. When I was 23, partly because of self-study and searching for spiritual meaning, I converted to orthodox Islam.

Upon my release, I landed a job conducting phone surveys for a company that was expanding an office temporarily to Denver in order to conduct polling for President Clinton. I was quickly promoted to floor supervisor and then to Operations manager. Here I was, in a matter of months, in charge of the polling for the head executive of the country, all the while with a nightly curfew and having to report my whereabouts to the halfway house.

I married in 1995 and began raising a family of three step-kids, one of which who struggled with autism, and then eventually the birth of my daughter in 1997.

After 9/11, I found myself constantly recruited to participate in various activism campaigns. As an American Muslim with a very American/Western perspective, my voice was tapped to articulate my faith and its diverse culture against a backdrop of fear and anger. One of the interesting things about that time was how many doors opened for me in terms of interfaith. A ­group of us (Muslims) linked with churches and synagogues and established programs like the Ansar Pantry food bank, which feeds needy families, which continue to this day.

As the years flew by, I did not speak much about my prison past, nor was I very involved in prison or criminal justice reform – other than serving as a volunteer chaplain at the county jail, and I was one of the go-to employers for people getting out to jail.

Fast forward, and it’s 2012…

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Ashaheed Taj (Author)

I’m divorced and remarried and 2 years deep into a tumultuous marital ordeal with a spouse scarred by her own deeply troubled past. Before I knew it, I was facing domestic violence charges of harassment and stalking falsely levied by my wife. In part, to save my career (I had just forayed into the lucrative field of executive recruiting) and in part to save my wife from doubling down on her lies and having to face false reporting charges, I took a plea for a lessor, made-up charge in order to get probation.

Before my probation officially started, my wife and I had another meltdown-argument, and more charges that are false ensued. This time, I made the same mistake – taking a deal I thought would result in probation. Yet, instead of getting 4 years on probation, I was sentenced to 4 years of prison.

As you can imagine by now, I am a pretty vocal person. So, after serving time, I began speaking out about my ordeal – much to the chagrin of my ex-wife. Next thing I knew, I was arrested, for cyberstalking and facing up to 24 years in prison.

Of course, the common assumption was that I was now an unrepentant and obsessed harasser. I insisted differently and resolved to fight my case with my last breath. I sat in jail for 10 months nursing a resolve to not only stand up to my ex and her false charges, but to stand up against a court system that expected me to buy into its process of economic efficiency over actual justice. I refused to waive my rights to procedural hearings and I refused to accept a plea bargain. My stance drew the ire of the DA who tried coercive methods and manipulative strategies against me (like hiding evidence) but I refused to budge.

Eventually I prevailed in my case – charges were dropped in the midnight hour just before trial, with the DA admitting there simply was no evidence to prove any guilt on my part.

The 10 months I spent fighting and winning served to strengthen a determination in me to be more of a social advocate against mass incarceration. I observed too many weak or false cases being prosecuted, and too many inmates setting themselves up for lifelong entrapment into a system whose only interest was to create a whole society of disenfranchised pariahs. These days, while I am working in security, consulting, and teaching jujitsu/MMA, I am also steeped back into social activism.

I fought and won the good fight, and now I intend to share my experience, viewpoints, and strategies for both reform and redemption.

Taj Ashaheed is a Forgive Everyone Contributor. To learn more about him visit our Contributors page.

Forgive Everyone is dedicated to raising awareness and understanding for the full human experience of formerly incarcerated men and women across the United States. 20% of all proceeds from our clothing line are donated to non-profits working to empower, employ, mentor, and house formerly incarcerated men and women reentering society after prison.