Leon El-Alamin is the founder and executive director of M.A.D.E. Institute in Flint, Michigan, a nonprofit that serves formerly incarcerated individuals and at-risk youth.
I deal with a lot of different types of people. I’m always me regardless of who they are. Whether it’s the governor or mayor, I’m still going to be honest and tell you the truth of what's going on, and the things that you can do to help.
Often people have stereotypes and prejudices about people who come from the inner city or have been to prison. I tell people I have three strikes against me. We know our country is founded on racism. So, I am of African descent, first and foremost. I have that on me. Then, converting to a religion that is not the dominant religion is a barrier. Next, I’m a felon. I have a number on my back. So, not only do I have to struggle with just being a black man in this racist country and society, but I’m also a former felon, and I practice Islam.
So—be inspired, surround yourself with positive people, always educate yourself beyond what's being taught in classrooms. The world and life around is just one big classroom; you can learn so much from it. Never look down on anyone. You can learn from a child. You can learn from the homeless. You can learn from anyone. Always have that mindset that is an example of our Prophet, peace be upon him.
Some of my greatest mentors are lifers. They are never coming back to the free world. I have over 40 people on my JPay service for correspondence, and they inspire me every day. I keep them up by doing the right things that I said I would do when I was in prison with them. That’s how they stay alive.
Mubarak Ahmed is from Detroit. He caught his case about 15 years ago. He’s the first [man who] drew my attention to Allah and Islam.
We were in a 22-hour lockdown during my first four years of incarceration. So only having two hours of outside time, you take advantage of it. I used to watch this man on the yard—humble, calm. You wouldn’t know he's on the life—you wouldn't think this man is not coming home.
I observed his behavior. If your words aren't followed by actions, it’s not much to me. But this man’s actions and words were matching, so I started asking him questions, like why he would at certain times put a curtain in his room. He was praying. Things like that attracted me.
Another gentleman who used to walk the yard with me and constantly shared his story of how one bad decision caused him to spend the rest of his life in prison. That resonated. This is something that I speak to the youth about every day. The decisions and choices that you make have consequences.
So, make sure you’re thinking things through before you carry out an action because there are individuals who would take those moments back in a second to do things over differently. But they can’t.
I made several attempts to repair broken relationships while I was incarcerated. I realized how drugs were destroying my community. So, I started writing letters to people apologizing for selling them drugs, for the addiction and the trauma that it had on them.
To this day when I see people from over 12 years ago still getting high … seeing families I helped destroy … the young people who are trying to emulate what I once did. I know the end of that road. I try to reach out to those people.
The last piece would probably be the relationship I never had with my dad. I can’t say father because a father is someone who is [present], guiding their child regardless of what he and the other parent may have gone through. If they can’t get along, you don’t abandon your child.
I started selling drugs in 2000. I hadn’t seen this man in my life since I was 12, and here I was about 18 when he pops up. It wasn’t to say, “Where have you been? I’ve been here, and I love you.” It was to buy drugs from me. So, the reality of what I was hoping for at the back of my mind was crushed.
Fast forward to today, it’s easier to talk to him. If he wants to be involved with his grandchild, then there are things that my son will never grow up around. This is my duty as his father. He can’t grow up in that culture and that reality. I would love them both to have a bond. Maybe that’s how we can mend our relationship.