One man's journey through the criminal justice system to righteousness
It is December 1, 1996, and 15-year-old Anthony Stevens has been running from the police for five days. His life has been suspended. All he can do is hide, and wait.
A woman from a drug house he stayed in calls him. She is screaming that the police visited, kicked the door, woke up her babies. This makes him nervous, but he decides to stay put.
Soon he realizes that was a mistake.
* * * *
Fresh out of juvie, Anthony is feeling good. At age 14, he has already made a name for himself in the streets of Milwaukee. He has money, women, and power.
Until he is robbed.
Outside of a gas station on 27th and Burleigh, an older boy hits Anthony on the back of the head with his gun. Anthony is knocked unconscious. The guy and his friends run. But the boy pulls down his hood and Anthony recognizes him: an old classmate from Ethan Allen School for Boys.
Anthony promises himself he will get revenge.
He looks for days. His fifteenth birthday passes. Nothing. This only builds his anticipation. When he finally finds him, he will answer the hooded figure’s attack with vengeance.
* * * *
Finally. While driving down 27th Street, Anthony spots the boy waiting at a bus stop. He doubles back, parks, boards the bus, and waits. When the hooded figure finally steps onto the dingy bus, Anthony confronts him with angry words.
Things happen quickly. Anthony sees, or thinks he sees, the boy reach for a gun. He’s going to kill me, he thinks. Terror. He clumsily pulls out his own weapon. Shots ring out.
His mind is numb. He looks down. There is blood. He is on the bus but he is really somewhere else. Regret, sympathy and confusion wash over him. Then he runs.
Later, he learns that the other boy was not carrying a weapon.
* * * *
Anthony is hiding in another drug house when the police arrest him. At the age of 15, Anthony pleads guilty to first degree reckless injury with the use of a dangerous weapon. He is waived into adult court and sentenced to 15 years in prison. After days in purgatory at the Milwaukee County Jail, he is sent directly to Dodge Correctional Institution, a maximum security facility.
Prison is different than the streets. Anthony can’t conceal his lack of experience. He has to protect himself against adult men. He is angry and defensive at all times.
But the events of the 15 years in front of him will slowly erode these feelings, leaving a balanced person in their place. He will fight against the history of oppression, racism, violence and personal choices that led to this moment. He will channel the strength of his ancestors, adopting the name Caliph Muab-el in celebration of his heritage. He will find his voice.
This is his story, and his message to others like him, that they can emerge from the darkest moments of their lives even stronger than before.
Anthony was born into an eclectic family. His father, Armani Edwards, was a south-side Chicago native who grew up among the Black Panthers, Black P. Stone Nation, and the Almighty Saints. Armani’s mother was a Vice Lady, the girlfriend of an infamous Vice Lord gang leader.
Anthony’s mother, Deborah Edwards, was born to a Cuban father and Creole and Cherokee Indian mother in Memphis, Tennessee. She was the oldest of her mother’s children, and the second oldest of her father’s children. When the family moved to Chicago, she was charged with raising her younger siblings at the age of 12. She felt trapped by her new responsibilities, until she met Anthony’s father.
Anthony was born on November 15, 1981. His father was 17 and his mother was 15. Anthony’s grandmother kicked Deborah out when she discovered her daughter’s pregnancy. Armani’s gang-immersed family took them in.
“These are people that are way up there on the scale hood-wise,” Muab-el said.
Anthony was raised in Terror Town, a gritty part of south-east Chicago. Despite his surroundings, Anthony was a promising kid. He was intelligent and loved his family. But as he grew older, he became engulfed by the negative environment around him.
His first encounter with the police was at age five. He and a group of boys were stealing bikes and throwing them on railroad tracks. Someone called the police, and the boys were arrested.
“I remember my father being so furious that night when he came and got me, his five year old son, from jail. But you know, that’s when it started,” Muab-el said.
As he grew older, the negative influences in his life increased. The domestic abuse occurring in his home strained Anthony’s relationship with his father. His father beat his mother, and her pain haunted Anthony. Deborah would confide in him in the middle of the night, whispering words like trapped and hopeless into his ear.
“It was a large burden on my back, you know because my mother was my mother, and that was my heart, and still is,” Muab-el said.
When Anthony’s behavior continued to plummet, his father took action. The family moved to Milwaukee.
New city, new culture, new demographic. Anthony didn’t know what to think.
“It was a lot of unanswered questions going through my head. I can remember thinking that I didn’t want to be milking no cows,” Muab-el said.
The adjustment process never seemed to end. His family was homeless for six months, relying on friends and shelters to survive.
“I just knew that I was around a bunch of people that looked sick. I didn’t know what they were sick from...I just knew that it wasn’t right. That the environment gave me a different kind of a feel, a gloomy type of dark feeling,” Muab-el said.
Even after moving to Milwaukee, Anthony didn’t know how to lift himself out of his negative surroundings. He didn’t know how to exercise his own agency in a world that kept putting him down.
The family finally found housing, and a sense of community. Despite the rough neighborhood, barbecues and boxing tournaments filled Anthony’s days. Stability and belonging were in reach.
Then they moved again.
The first night in their new place, a gang war broke out. Bodies writhed and lurched, chains and guns rang out against flesh and buildings. Anthony watched from his attic window. He remembers thinking it was like a scene from a movie.
“But it was my reality, it was my neighborhood, it was where I had to go to school at in the morning,” Muab-el said.
And school became even less of a priority. His parents’ abusive relationship drove him to look for belonging elsewhere. He found that belonging in unhealthy relationships, drugs, and sex. His mindset began to shift.
“Then I just got this insatiable desire to be somebody. Not somebody like Barack Obama or Bill Cosby or Michael Jordan, but somebody in the streets people would look up to and fear,” Muab-el said.
His parent’s relationship finally ended. His father moved out. His mother brought home boyfriends. And Anthony became engulfed in gang culture. Despite his new power, with his father gone, he felt alone in the world.
“As my household fell apart, so did my self-esteem, so did my self-awareness, so did my self-identity....When those things are in question, you are wondering about a thing called darkness,” Muab-el said.
The day of Anthony’s sentencing the first piece of his identity was restored. His father showed up and asked the unthinkable.
“I remember him coming to court, begging the judge to let him serve my time for me...that’s when I knew that my father really loved me, and it broke me down,” Muab-el said.
This was the turning point in their relationship. Anthony realized that despite his father’s struggle to be a good parent, his love for Anthony was unconditional. When Anthony entered prison, his father began to turn his own life around.
Caliph began his time at Dodge Correctional Institution, but was soon sent to Green Bay.
“Every hour of the day...ding!...bell going off. That means a fight, somebody getting beat up, somebody getting hit in the head, somebody getting stabbed...It was real brutal for a kid to be stepping into that,” Muab-el said.
He was angry all the time. And scared. He fought to protect himself. And despite his restored relationship with his father, he still had years left to serve.
Time passed. Anthony became hardened. One day, after he got into a particularly brutal fight, and older inmate named Black Moses approached Anthony.
“Young brother, what’s wrong with you, man? Why you so angry?”
“What’s wrong? I’m only 16 and I’m in here with all these weird men.”
“The only thing weird is you not having a sense of direction. You’ve got a chance and we don’t. How much time you got?”
“Well, I got life, and I ain’t never going home. Ain’t no hope for me, but there’s hope for you. What do you want to do with your life?”
This was the beginning of Anthony’s transformation. Black Moses was the first person who challenged Anthony to think for himself. He asked Anthony what his strengths and talents were, what his opinion was.
Every day Black Moses brought Anthony a book. He quizzed him on what he read. At first Anthony thought he was crazy. Then people began calling Anthony “The Historian,” and coming to him for information. This made him feel good. He had a new identity, one that he could share with others in a positive way.
Anthony could confide in Black Moses. He had found someone who encouraged him to do more with his life, and who believed in him.
With Black Moses’ encouragement, Anthony began studying history, then religion. He found knowledge addicting, liberating. He earned his high school equivalency diploma, then a college degree. He became an ordained Grand Sheik of the Moorish Science Temple of America. He spent his time reading, writing books and essays, and teaching other inmates.
And he adopted a new name. One that wasn’t tainted by misdirection and suffering, but rather connected to the spiritual leaders of the past who now guided his morals. He became Caliph Muab-el.
The Ultimate Setback
Caliph had gained purpose. He had a positive identity and was respected by the men around him. It was 2001, he had 10 years left to serve, and he was hopeful for his future.
Then his mother became ill. She had breast cancer and wasn’t expected to live more than six months. Again, Caliph’s life began to wobble on the edge of chaos.
Deborah went through chemotherapy. Seemed to be doing better. Caliph breathed a sigh of relief. Then, out of nowhere, she scheduled a visit to see him.
She died on the journey to Green Bay.
Caliph had never been this low before. He was numb. Shocked. No one could console him. Throughout his life, his mother had been his only consistent source of support. Now she was gone.
A week after his mother’s death, a guard confronted him while he was discussing religion with other inmates. The guard began harassing him, putting his hands on Caliph’s face and spraying spit.
“I am not in the right frame of mind to be dealing with this,” Muab-el said.
Caliph punched the guard, knocking him out and almost severing his ear. The guard received 36 stitches, and Caliph was sentenced to ten extra years.
As punishment, Caliph was moved to the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, then called the Supermax Correctional Institution, a super-maximum security prison outside of Boscobel, Wisconsin.
His transfer to the supermax was never approved. He was lost in the Department of Correction’s system for almost six months. Legally, he did not exist. He was taken from his cell and transported in the back of a gutted truck that smelled like urine, feces and vomit. But what awaited him at the supermax was much worse.
“I had never experienced this type of evil in the world. Even though I was in the streets with people that shot people, killed people, beat people up...See that was an evil out of ignorance, out of lack of opportunity or not being able to see the presence of opportunity, or misunderstanding, or disconnecting from a larger cause or a larger environment, the social stigmas and enigmas...that came from a deep post-traumatic slave syndrome...But in this environment, the evil was different. It was a more hierarchical type of a evil. Like, ‘we know, we gonna dominate you. And you gonna submit to us, or we gonna make your life a living hell’.” Muab-el said.
The next seven years were a test of Caliph’s character on the deepest level.
His hygiene products were kept in a bag outside his room, only accessible to him with permission. His bed was taken from him, forcing him to sleep on concrete. His friends were beat up in front of him. He was deprived of food for days at a time. His cell was searched. His personal belongings were stripped from his room. He was put under 24-hour surveillance, naked, and forced to eat with his hands.
His last photograph of his mother was declared contraband, and ripped to shreds.
“I never talk about the raw realities of being in supermax to anyone, but, it’s not like I went through those experiences without any type of effects. I just took those effects and channeled them into positive energy and reinforcement,” Muab-el said.
Caliph measured all of his suffering against the pain of his mother’s death. Everything came up short.
He knew that his mother would want him to get out of prison, turn his life around. To do so, he had to stop taking out his frustration on others. He had to let go of his bitterness and anger. He resolved to turn his suffering into positivity.
Caliph studied the law. He spent all of his time trying to find a way to leave. He finally made it in 2009.
Although Caliph was free of Boscobel, the Department of Corrections was afraid to put him in general population. Caliph was seen as a powerful religious black man, who other inmates would listen to and follow.
“I was a different kind of person. You couldn’t tell me to do something and I’d just do it. It had to make sense, it had to be morally correct,” Muab-el said.
Caliph’s final stop in the Wisconsin prison system was Oshkosh Correctional Institution. When a guard began cussing at an inmate whose pants were sagging, Caliph confronted him. The guard asked Caliph who he was. He responded that he was the guard’s moral voice.
“He’s a human being, so am I, so are you,” Muab-el told the guard.
Caliph came away from his years in prison and solitary confinement with a new outlook on life. He saw it as his duty to help others see the humanity in every person, no matter their past actions.
Caliph left prison in 2011 with a certificate in paralegal studies, a pastoral license, a theologian degree and an ijazat for sufism as an Imam. The real world felt surreal, and Caliph wasn’t sure how to use his talents. But he had a clear goal: help others who have suffered like him work towards a better future.
“It was like a never-ending story finally coming to an end. And I just knew that no matter what, I would do everything I possibly can, to stay away from that place. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it at the time, but I was gonna make sure that I reached back to those brothers that I left behind,” Muab-el said.
Now Caliph sits in an office on Applegate Road in Madison, where he manages his nonprofit, Breaking Barriers Mentoring. The program helps at-risk youth avoid the school to prison pipeline that robbed Caliph of his own childhood. At home he has a loving wife and son. He has achieved happiness, peace and forgiveness.
Caliph will never go back to prison. Except when he speaks to current inmates. He shares his story, encourages them to work for something better. But most importantly, he acts as a living example that it is possible to survive the inequality, violence, and suffering they have experienced, and emerge on the other side a righteous person.