Rahim Buford works with the Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Organizing Team, speaking locally and nationally about his experiences. As founder of the nonprofit Unheard Voices Outreach, he also facilitates classes and workshops at juvenile detention centers, implementing the SALT program (Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation), which he first experienced as a student when he was in prison. Upon his release in 2015 at the age of 44, after spending 26 years in prison, he was awarded a four-year scholarship to American Baptist College, where he’s currently pursuing a degree in behavioral studies.
In this interview, Rahim talks about his family and upbringing, his time in the juvenile system, his 26 years in the prison system, what it's been like for him since his release, and his current work in the community.
Click here to purchase Rahim’s book, “Save Your Own Life,” which shares anecdotes from his life in short prose and poetry, along with questions and reflections intended to help young people who are at risk of becoming caught up in the cradle-to-prison pipeline, those who are currently in the justice system, and formerly incarcerated individuals who are re-entering society. Proceeds support the work of Unheard Voices Outreach.
Click here for a Huffington Post article by Marian Wright Edelman about Rahim’s journey.
Interview with Rahim, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on September 3, 2017 in Nashville, TN.
Joann: "Could you read us the poem you wrote in the beginning of this book?"
Rahim: "I could definitely read it. I actually recite it by memory, but I could read it."
Joann: "Yeah, recite it. If you [crosstalk 00:00:12]."
Rahim: "Yeah. I could definitely recite it."
Joann: "Just recite it. That'd be awesome."
Rahim: "Yeah, yeah. You see how close I stay to the words, I don't know. You can hold it. I don't know, I may deviate from the words a little bit, but recite it now? So, here's how it goes."
"Who am I? Society doesn't seem to know. Representing the unheard voices, my name is Rahjahloe. You see us in the now, our prison condition. Blind to the facts of our mental afflictions. Past decisions made before our 15 second mindless crime spree, felony convictions. The money, the honeys, the madness. Materialistic sadness. 13 brothers, 5 sisters. Seriously drastic."
"Who am I? Who am I? Choking in poverty, the pain runs deep you see, and only as a courtesy. Yes, we smoke and drink Hennessy. Try being raised in a dysfunctional family. Mama's baby, daddy's maybe. We talking real life Rosemary's Baby."
"Who am I? Who am I? My eyes, my ears, my peers. No difference. 5, 10, 15, 30 years in prison. Environmental voices in me. Our life and death choices to be. Anger and stress forcing me, public defender coercing me. Crying shame, born with crime in my veins. Don't know my real name. Can you feel this freedom campaign?"
"Who am I? Who am I? No tears, no fears, we cry truth feeling the reality of hell. Hurts still in our youth, so if you hear me hissin', don't judge just listen. Mama didn't explain why my pops is missin'. N.W.A. my religion. Characteristics robbin', stealin. I'm just talking about my hip hop feelins'. But still beggin' for a new beginning."
"Who am I? Who am I? Africa or England of which do I claim motherland? America the Beautiful, America the Great. America, America, America it's not too late. Who am I? I am you."
"Yeah. So, the N.W.A. part, when I'm doing it spoken word style, I say "niggas with attitude" and then the hip hop part, I just say, "I'm just expressing my hip-hop feelings." I nuance sometimes because it depends on the audience. And I never know exactly how I'll come off, but I tried to make that a PG version, so parents and adults and authority figures wouldn't feel like somehow it's offensive."
"I deal with some real serious things, but I'm dropping ideas in it. In that particular poem, I believe, is what every juvenile or youth offender or youth person who gets in trouble, because even that's problematic when we label, fits into that thing somewhere. That's all true. Every single verse, every line, everything is a story behind it. Most of its anecdotal. I'm not quoting individuals, I'm not trying to get them to see something beyond what I've experienced. I just say, "Hey, this is what had happened for me. This is how I think about it." It's almost interactive as well, this is my main poem Who Am I? And that's what birthed me 'cause my artist name is Rahjahloe."
"So, let's see. So I'm asking questions and this kind of artistic ways too because I want them to get visual, not just the words. I want them to get images of me and what I think. And so, in this particular picture photo, I was actually in prison with two of my biological brothers. One is here, one is there. And I didn't ask them if they wanted to be in, so I cut them out. I really wanted them in, but I couldn't get their permission because I actually completed the copy of this while I was in prison."
"I composed this, put it together. Edited it as best as I can. I'm self-published and that's also picture of me as a child. I'm trying to create a idea in their mind, this young innocent individual became this person here. So, I put it all out there. I'm not hiding anything. That's a rooftop. It's simple, and then so Reflections of an Unheard Voice, so I'm asking questions so that they can actually write in the books to make it interactive. Yeah, I tried to be as creative as I could, and also introduce new ideas."
Joann: "There was one couplet when you did your poem, there was one line that you didn't say. When you said, "The public defenders tried to coerce," you didn't say the next line about friends and family?"
Rahim: "Oh yeah, so, yeah, so, yeah. I might have missed that but I should have said that. But yeah, so, that's when I said, "The public defenders coercing me. Family and friends divorcing me." Yeah, I missed that one and that is what happens when you go to prison. And you find out who's who. You don't really never, you never know in life, and this applies wherever you go in life, you don't know who's who. Family or friends, until you're in need."
"At the lowest point in your life, and that's when I felt the most alone when I was in prison because for six years I didn't see my mother. I think for about five years, I didn't see my brother, my brothers. One of my brothers who would come to see me. And so, that's where that came from. Divorcing me because it's a shame attached to people going to prison. And I understand it, but it's wrong. And society perpetuates that shame and that's one of the reasons interviews like this are important, it's one of the reasons why I'm public profile. It's one of the reasons why I'm not gonna hide because I want people to understand that I'm not the worst thing that I've ever done."
"America isn't seen as the worst thing that it has ever done. And you can't divorce me from America 'cause this is where I came into existence, here. And so, part of reclaiming the narrative, rewriting the narrative, reframing the narrative is to find yourself in it. And I know where I'm located, in America, and right now I'm located in the struggle. The struggle is about mass incarceration. The struggle is felonism. The struggle is to not allow somebody to put me in a caste system and make me less than what we have defined human to be. I think we're not done defining human, but for the most part there's a certain level of respect and dignity that comes with being born into the world in America."
"You have to understand that you have a right to be treated a certain way and until I'm enfranchised I'll be in this stripe, I'll be in this fight, I'll be in this struggle and I'll continue to do what I need to do to not feel like I'm divorced. To not feel separated, to not feel like I'm alienated, to not feel ostracized, to not feel like I'm different than you because I did something that you know about because of the system."
"'Cause you may have done something to and I don't know about it, and it may be worse than what I've done. But I don't know about it because you didn't have to get processed through it. Don't look down on me. Judge me by my character and how I relate to you and if you do you'll find out that I'm an okay fella."
"Every one of my poems, there's a story behind it, a real life event that happened that caused me to write it. So, all of that, save your own life is authentic expression. Yeah."
Joann: "What is your story?"
Rahim: "Wow. My story. I have a very, very, very deep story. Do you really want to know my story? I put a brief overview of how I came into the world in sense, but I was born to a teenage mother. I had two older brothers. I was born in 1971. I was born Arthell Lawrence Young. My name was changed in 1976 because my mother said my dad wanted my name to change. My surname is Buford. And, for the most part, the early beginnings were normal, it seemed. But I remember one, really I have two main incidents that really stained me in some sense, my memory."
"I remember seeing my dad hit my mom in a very violent way. And I was three years old, and I still have that memory because of what it obviously cause, trauma. And there was a particular incident when I was about six, six or seven, my brother had stolen some money from my grandmother and long story short, he went and bought a BB gun and my grandmother found out. My mom was told, she came back and she really whipped us like slaves. And I mean what you would see in the movies."
"From welts on the body, red, purple marks and it changed me. It made me fear. It confused me because I had no understanding of why I was being harmed for something that really I was oblivious to. I had no knowledge of why it was happening. And those two incidents, I know changed me."
"And as we moved out into the North Nashville area, 'cause that was South Nashville, Providence area, my mom had married a man who she didn't really love in the way that you probably ideally would want a woman to love a man. It was a survival move. And this guy, he wasn't ready to be a father to five, well five kids. My mother had five kids at this time. Four from my biological dad, and my oldest brother's father we never really knew who he was until my brother was grown. So, it created a lot of situations."
"And two years into that marriage, the guy began to be violent, drinking. So, we were exposed to things that perhaps caused a lot of trouble for us on the inside emotionally. In the poem when I said, "Try being raised in a dysfunctional family. Mamas baby, daddy's maybe," that was for my brother, my oldest brother."
"It was a dysfunctional family, and some people say, "Everybody grows up in a dysfunctional family." And maybe they do, but it affects us all in different ways. And so, of all my brothers who grew up with me in that particular space, it was seven ... five brothers, five of us. Everybody has gone to prison. And one of my sisters actually was caged for a significant period of her life, in a jail."
"And just those, that snapshot there is what led us into a life of what has been deemed to be crime. But really the crime, in my opinion, was we had been exposed to some things that were wrong for children and to think that a child can recover from something without some aide and assistance, some psychological help, therapy, you missing the mark."
"We're still struggling today to make sense of a lot of it. And I do not blame my mother. I do not blame my dad because my education has allowed me to look at America and look at the world history of how my descendants arrived her from Africa to America and what happened in the dehumanization process of becoming another people, and so, I do not view my identity in the same way as most African Americans as it relates to who we are the narrative. I can consider myself a Black American, not because I have issues with having African ancestry because everybody, according to the anthropologists, have their origins in what we call Africa."
"And so, Africa had a name before it was Africa. America had a name before it was America. And so, we're talking about people who, go to places and say, "Hey, this is what this is." And so these are identity issues, nationalistic country, and so for me when I think of myself as a Black American, I see myself as this person who was birthed out of an ancestry of individuals who were enslaved. In some ways, much of who they were was, it wasn't that it was erased, but if you can't speak your language, you don't know really your full culture, whatever your religion may be. And your identification with the supreme force that makes this universe possible."
"I mean, your struggle to become is a different struggle because you're born not knowing in a different way than a person who is in a country and you're given these different types of beliefs and you just adopt it. But we come from something and we still trying to figure out who we are."
"Somebody else said we were Negros. Somebody else said we were colored. Somebody else said we were Afro-American. Somebody else said we were African American. I mean, so, I'm asking myself what do I say? And who gets to vote on who I am and what my identity is."
"And so, my name has been changed legally. And that's when I ask the question, when I say, when I make the statement, "Don't know my real name can you feel this freedom campaign." It's not just talking about coming out of physical incagement. And I like to refer to incarceration as being caged because when we say incarceration or when we say confined, and de-sanitized of a human being being encaged in a box, it almost makes it acceptable and humane when you say those words that are inaccurate because they really do not describe, or connote, the reality of that person, or persons, who are actually living in it. It's a total different dynamic."
"And so, I try to relate to it, as my mentor Janet Wolf, Reverend Janet Wolf would say, "Brother, you were caged. You need to make sure that you let that be known because sometimes people hear it different." And I agree with that. I try to be as accurate in my descriptions as I can be."
"And so, out of the madness of my environment, trying to fit in, the poverty, the misdirection, and I eventually had a fight with my stepdad. I left home at 17, moved in with a friend who I looked up to. The guy who was the coolest dude in the neighborhood to me. He wasn't a drug dealer. He wasn't any negative force. He was a normal person, played a organ at a church, but I knew him as Cool Bro because he had the first car. He was a cool, swift, smart type of guy. Helpful. Taught me how to cut hair."
"One day my stepdad was trying to abuse me in the backyard with a belt, and he saw it. He jumped five fences, grabbed my stepdad, manhandled my stepdad, and I saw that, and I was like, "Wow. This dude is Superman to be me." You gotta imagine who this guy was to me when that happened. And so, I moved in with him. Come and find out he had filed for Chapter 13. He was paying child support, couldn't really pay the rent. And there was a point in living with him, which was not that long, and this was in 1989, but I skipped over the juvenile experience because I want ... maybe I can work my way back."
"But, he said he couldn't pay the rent and the bills. And in my mind I heard, "You don't have a place to stay. You don't have a place to go." So, I became deranged in a sense I became confused and my mind started racing. But I could only grab from the information and knowledge that I had. And the knowledge that I had is that, "Well, you got a pistol. You might have to go do a robbery." I mean, I had done a robbery before, only one time. And so that one robbery that I had done happened while I was on pass at juvenile in 1988, when my grandmother had died, which was the first death in my family and I didn't know how to take it because she was more of my mother. She was the one we would go to when my mother was not right, or when we were sick, we with granny."
"And I was messed up in the head because I didn't understand her death. It was the first death. There was no process, there was no counseling. And it was the first time that I felt pain and nobody had hit me. And I didn't know what that kind of pain was. Outside of just ... 'cause once you get hit and you cry the emotional is a connection to that strike and that physical blow. And maybe even the combination of fear and whatever, but this death thing, when my grandmother died, I was like, "Wow. I don't even know what's happening here. I don't even know why she's dead." The ignorance of it all, and so, yeah, I had committed that first robbery and my stepbrother was with me."
"It was on Nolensville Road. I remember it like yesterday. It was a Kwik Sak, and I had a 22 revolver pistol and I didn't know what and how to do, but the music I had listened to helped coach me into learning how to commit crimes. And that's why I said, "N.W.A. my religion." Well, actually N.W.A. is also a group of rapper who, at that time, were just surfacing and they were saying things that I could identify with in terms of my feelings."
"And Eazy-E had a song where they went through the phases of a robbery. I just followed those phases and I carried it out. I thought I got away, I did get away but you don't never really get away from a crime in the sense of being human because you record it in your own memory. And I ended going back to juvenile after that theft and that experience and it was there, so it had happened. So, I had a memory of something."
"And so, fast forward out of juvenile ... I didn't learn anything in juvenile. I got worse. I went into juvenile without smoking, I left with a smoking habit. I went in, I hardly ever used profanity. I left, had a vocabulary that was way out of this world and a chip on my shoulder. And I really wanted to hurt somebody because I was hurting. I didn't really know why but I was hurting and didn't understand it."
"I was baptized in a swimming pool. I thought I was a Christian ... just a lot of things going on. So, fast forward to living with my friend. I made a decision, "I gotta do some robberies." Plural because after I committed the first one I gave all the money to him, we paid the bills. Well, it came up again. Another robbery. And the next thing you know, another one."
"So, it was about three, four, and on the last one there was an incident where I went into the place, I shot the gun into the floor, the bullet ricocheted and it hit a guy. And he died 72 hours later. And they found me because I left my prints on a sack, and I was already in the system. And eventually they would arrest me in 1989, May the 5th. The crime occurred April the 24th. From 1989, May the 5th to March of the next year it was some stuff happening. I got microwaved through the system. I ended up with a life and 20 year sentence, in less than a year after the crime, the offense had occurred."
"But from 1989 to 2015, June 25th, I was caged. Seven different prisons throughout the state of Tennessee. I was the cellmate with five of my biological brothers. Had a family reunion in prison, because then I met some of my other brothers who were my father's children. And I knew of them, I just didn't really know who they were. And they were Bufords as well."
"A lot of things happened while I was in that place. My sister was murdered while I was in prison, in 2000. I was taken to the wake with two of my brothers who were actually there, but from my dad's side, but that was there sister too and we were chained and shackled. Entourage of guards and there was a moment where I had a transformation. When looking in this casket and I'm like, "Wow. That's my sister, and I didn't protect my sister." And I had a moment of silence and then ... it's not a voice, but my interpretation of my feeling caused me to say to myself, "This is what you did to somebody else's family.""
"And that's when I had a moment of realism and understanding that, "Aw, man this is what ..." And so, the guy ended up getting six years. He was trying to kill my brother, who almost went and did go insane for a lot, because he blamed himself for that particular crime. When we found out he received six years, he tried to kill ... that's when my mother woke up to racism because I was trying to tell her there was something wrong with the system."
"But she didn't want to have word of it because white people ain't in our family. My great-granddad, Daddy Will, I never met him but my mom did, pretty much was a white man. And I don't know the depth of it all, but I'm researching, trying to put this family tree thing together so I can help my brothers and sisters and everybody ese in this family have a connection to the past in a way we can understand."
"But, she didn't want to hear of it but when she saw what happened with my sister, it changed everything. And I didn't even mention the fact that my dad died even before my sister, in '95 and I went to a wake with one of my brothers who was there with me. But the experience, same experience, but a different emotional outcome. I didn't feel anything. I'm looking at this guy but I don't know because he wasn't my father. I mean, he was biologically but he wasn't a father in guidance, in aide, assistance, any of that. It was just I don't even know this dude. And maybe it was like Tupac said, "My anger wouldn't let me feel for a stranger.""
"But at the end of the day I had that experience. And there was so much death that when my granddad died my mom didn't even tell me. He died not long after my sister, and she didn't say anything. I guess she didn't want to have that experience of her son coming back chained up like a slave 'cause it's the realest thing you can connect to in terms of enslavement. And while I do not equate what happened with us now today in prison with what happened with people who did nothing wrong to be enslaved.
"But the trappings of the physical aspects, psychological aspects and even probably the intention behind some of the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration and the connection to the slavery. How we have built this system is the same to me and I mean, I ask this question, "Are we really criminals or have we defined things as criminal now." For example, when you look at drug abuse in the white community, it's a disease, with heroin. Crack was a crime. We took a whole country, we exterminated the indigenous people of this land. We kidnapped people from West Africa and other places, we sold them. All of these things are crimes today, okay, the way we label things."
"But no one as brought to justice for any of it. So, we have our problems today in society because we didn't really give justice to the people who have come into life born into a world ... I was born in '71, alright, and everything happened before I got here. And I had to learn how does it apply to me. And I'm still trying to learn that application. So, yeah, that's what, I mean, maybe in a nutshell, I mean, I don't know if I went to long or ... but that's where I am in terms of how I'm thinking about things. And I'm still thinking about things."
"Since I've been released from prison I went straight into American Baptist College. I received the presidential scholarship before I left Riverbend because I became friends with the professor, with a Vanderbilt professor who was also the president of American Baptist College, Dr. Forrest Harris, who was also the director of Kelly Miller Institute. And he is the first African American, black man, that I sat in a classroom with in my entire life and I was able to have an experience."
"And in that experience ... it started off wrong 'cause he came in and he referred to us as inmates and I'm like, "Excuse me sir. In here everyone is a student." And so, he even learned something in that ... but it was the best class that I've had, I think, at least one of them, it's in the top five that I've ever had. And I had over 13 semesters with Vanderbilt Divinity School, graduate level classes of which I was not supposed to be even be in the class because I didn't qualify because I had no previous college experience."
"But because of the way that I was groomed in prison, I went from al Islam, I been in the nation Islam, I study, I read thousands and thousands of books. I don't really know how many books I read. I can't even remember all them titles, no names or anything, but all I know is that's how I fed myself. That's how I tricked myself psychologically that I was in school, I was in college, I was not in prison because that's what it took for me to survive it."
"To get in that classroom, I was the president of New Beginnings Organization. And I would see the students and the professors come into the prison and when they get settled and everything, when they got settled and everything I would go look into the window. About the fourth time looking into the window, and I made sure that they saw me because I felt like it was an injustice for me not to be there, there was a white lady that came out of the classroom. Apparently she made a connection, I don't know, she said, "Young man why are you looking through this window?""
"I said, "Ma'am I believe that I should be in that room." She asked me could I write an essay, I said, "Yes ma'am." I didn't know if I could because I barely passed the GED. I failed it the first time in prison and had very low, bad writing skills. I still struggle with writing but that's part of the process."
"So, I worked on it for a week. I take it back to her and a week after that she got me into those classes. And that's Reverend Janet Wolf. So, me sitting here with you and talking about my life in some ways is a miracle 'cause I witnessed 13 murders while I was in prison. I witnessed and turned away from at least 10 assaults. I heard at least one person being raped in the late night, two actually. Been in a gang fight. Wasn't my fault, my oldest brother who was in prison was helping his friend, which he should have because that's the life. In prison it's not the same as out here. You gotta survive 'cause if you don't survive you gonna be taken advantage of."
"And they sent word from where we were up to the hill to the Bufords, plural, gang the Vice Lords because it was three of us on the compound at the time. Next thing you know, the next day I had to go to work because unlike my brothers I had a life sentence. And I'm a young man in prison. You can't be confined or caged inside of a 24, 24, 7 what they call check-in or administrative segregation, protective custody because that's no life. It's worse than ... I mean it's bad, it's terrible. And so, I went to work, Vice Lord gang member approached me, "What happened," I said, "I ain't got nothing to do with it." I already knew what was gonna happen. My heart racing a 100,000 miles per hour. I'm just trying to make sure, hoping to God that I catch or I can see when he's about to do what he's about to do."
"And as I felt it coming, I saw it coming, I'm trying to move and he caught me, he was swinging on me and took this side of my face and I was coming over, I had this book bag over my head and I'm banging it on top of his head and we going down these steps and we're fighting and I ended up in the hole. And I signed papers that say nothing happened because you just, it's just, you can't do that. "
"But my homeboys from my rival neighborhood, I lived in Parkwood, they lived in Golden Valley, sent word. They said, "Whatever you want to do is done because they violated you, we got you." We worked it out, the gangster disciples garnered the peace. My team or my homeboys made sure that whatever it was that I got in receipt, which was some drugs, which I never received because my brothers took it and that's what split my family in prison. They took the drugs. One of them went to a different prison, and the other one smoked the drugs and so I ... I mean, it was just so much I could tell you but long story short I survived it and I mean, that place, I mean, they had pictures of Nathan Bedford Forrest and General Lee on the wall."
"It's surrounded by the Duck River. 99 percent white employees, rural area, Hickman County, Centerville, this was Turney Center Prison and Farm. There was a metal plant, a wood plant, a sign plant. I mean, you made between 17 cents an hour to maybe 50 cents, a dollar an hour if you were in the plants. But for the most of my years while I was caged, I only made 50 cents an hour. I made about 60, 70 dollars a month for most of my life while I was confined."
"I'm saying I survived it all. I have a lot inside of me that helps me to reframe what happened. Even then and now, I find different ways to look at life to understand and be humbled by it. To have a different contrast. So what may bother the average person today won't bother me because I already went through the dehumanization from being awakened in the night from a loud kick on the door and telling us get naked, come out your hands behind your back, T-shirt, underwear, flip flops and sit on the floors in rows of five people, 10 back."
"And I mean, they search your cell. I mean, all the things that you have to go through to survive prison, I'm here now. So, I have to talk about this because if I hide this and pretend that it did not happen, I feel that's part of I'm complacent in the injustice that continues to happen. I feel like it's my responsibility to share my authentic narrative. I'm not an ex-felon, I'm not an ex-convict, I'm not an ex any system term that is given to those who are human beings and by circumstance and certain conditions become something that somebody legislated in a hall with others and said this is what this is. I'm not any of that."
"I'm a human being first. Yes, I'm formally incarcerated returned citizen. But for me to take their language and identify myself as such is for me to do an injustice for myself. So even the language we have to be careful with and how we tell the real story. And I'm trying to make sure that I'm as authentic and accurate as I can be as I share with opportunities like this because you never know what your words can do to help someone else."
Joann: "You said you had life plus 20, how'd you get out?"
Rahim: "So, in the state of Tennessee at the time that I was convicted a life sentence was 60 years at 50 percent. Once I served 30 years I qualified for a parole hearing. There's no right to a parole in the state of Tennessee. Also in the state of Tennessee there's a thing called good time credits and behavioral credits. If you work, you get the good time credits. If you don't get into a lot of trouble, you'll get behavioral credits. You get up from four, six, eight to 16 days a month and I was able to get quite a few because I tried to do the right thing most of the time."
"I maybe was given 22 infractions over a 20 year span, 26 year span, so that's pretty good. And I met the parole board in 2013. I was denied for psychological evaluation. That was in October of 2013. I went back before the board in April of 2014 and I was denied because of the seriousness of the offense. In 2015, I went back before the board again and I was given four votes out of seven, and I think two people still voted against me although I had a resume from, a rehabilitation resume from here to the floor, literally."
"Because I started programs in prison. I co-founded a school in prison, SALT, School for Alternative Learning & Transformation, which were undergraduate classes. And I actually facilitate and taught classes with professors because I disliked the Vanderbilt experience in what happened. They didn't want people like me, not Vanderbilt, but the prison hierarchy did not want people like me, and so-called gang members and whatever. In SALT, we had Aryan Nation, Gangster Disciples, Crips, Bloods, all under one. And what I learned, and there's an interview in my book, that I talk about it."
"I was able to get those votes that I needed. It's funny how even in the process of trying to be released physically because I was not free, I'm not free as I talk to you today, I'm not free. I'm on parole for the rest of my life. It's a unsettling thought from time to time because you never know what people do. I can't deny an officer to search me, to search my car. I signed off on that. I'm disenfranchised. I'm as close to a non-citizen, what they call an illegal immigrant, I'm as close to that as you can get in terms of my rights as a citizen. So, that's pretty much how I got out of prison on a life sentence with parole."
"They have a life sentence without parole. Today, life sentence in Tennessee is 51 years. You will not survive. You'll have to go in probably at two years old, three years old, four years old, five years old maybe and then you'll still be 60, 59, 58. It just really depend, 55, I mean, I don't know. No one has survived over 42 years in the state of Tennessee being confined."
Joann: "You mentioned that, you kind of skipped over some of the juvenile experiences that you had. Could you talk about the first time that you got into a situation where you were in trouble with the law, where you were arrested as a young person?"
Rahim: "I remember it. Think I was about eight. Me and my brothers were stealing at this store, Woolco, Nashville, Dickerson Road, Ewing Drive. And we got caught. And the guy was a security person but I guess he had mercy or whatever and he didn't do anything."
"But boy did we get beat, like slaves, but I ended up running away but that was the first time. The second time I was on a motorcycle and it was five of us and the police got behind us and for some strange reason, because we didn't have a license or whatever, we went to juvenile for that. And my second time-"
Joann: "How old were you that first time?"
Rahim: "First time I was 12 or 13. Something like that, 12, 13, 14, I don't remember. 12, 13. The second time I was 15. It was a receiving and concealing stolen property. My friend had stolen a car and I had possession of it and they arrested me."
"The third time of course I ended up going into the system for a burglary and fleeing the police. I been in a few high-speed chases. And I've always gotten away. I'm not happy to say that but I'm just being honest 'caus people think that you don't know what people go through, what they do to try not to go to prison or jail or juvenile. So, I ended up, yeah. Those times."
Joann: "So, ho old were you the first time you had to actually spend an extended period of time in a detention, in a ..."
Rahim: "What's considered extended?"
Rahim: "Five, 10 days? What?"
Joann: "Yeah, more than just couple days overnight kind of thing."
Rahim: "It was always only a couple of days until I ended up serving time when I was 16. It was always a couple of days. I mean, I spent Christmas Eve in juvenile one time. Yeah."
Joann: "So, tell me about that time when you were 16 that was-"
Rahim: "Burglary and auto theft."
Joann: "Mm-hmm (affirmative)."
Rahim: "Yeah. Yeah."
Joann: "When you think about now, I know you're working with juveniles now and you talk about how still now there's a lot of unconstitutional treatment, tell me I guess you have the perspective of your age and your experiences to be able to say, "Okay, as an adult when I look back at this, this is what was messed up about that situation." But try to, from the point of view of a child at that time, how did you feel that you were treated unjustly or that you were being hurt."
"Did you ever feel there were times that you were being hurt. Were there ever adults that were trying to help represent you or support you or was it just, "Man, this is unfair. This is messed up." Or did you even have an awareness of the procedures of being charged with a crime and what options you had other than being locked up."
Rahim: "As a juvenile?"
Joann: "As a juvenile."
Rahim: "So, first of all, let me just say this, and this is the case for every juvenile, I don't care who they are. I mean, and some people say you can't, yes I can because I know and I talk to and it's the same. You don't know what's going on. You're ignorant to the process. You don't know your rights because it's just not something that is a everyday thing. And I just thought that I was supposed to be punished and when that punishment was over with I'd get out. That's it."
"And it's still kind of like that now for many of the young men that I see every Thursday, some Fridays, some Saturdays 'cause I do mentoring as well."
Joann: "Did anybody ever tell you that you had a right to an attorney?"
Rahim: "As a juvenile I don't know that that is the case, that I was told that a right. I may have been told that. I just have no memory of being told that but even in saying it, what does that mean? You have a right. What is a right? You don't even know what a right is. What is a right? Right from wrong? You don't really know."
"And so, I would imagine maybe somebody said that but even your parents are still kind of responsible, a little bit, as a juvenile. At least in Tennessee. It's nuance. It just really depends."
Joann: "Did you ever have an attorney and at the age of 18 did you ever have a public defender or somebody who was helping you other than your parents?"
Rahim: "I remember a public defender, matter fact her name, she had the same name as you, first name. And yeah, I remember it 'cause that's how I remember it, that. And I think maybe she probably did the best thing that she could do. And I see that's that happening now. It's really take low and go. It's really what's the least amount of time we can ... if we can get you out on probation we will but if we can't get you out on probation we're gonna put you in the least amount of time that we can. That's it."
"It's not restorative, transformative justice. It's retributive."
Joann: "How long did you spend for the auto theft burglary?"
Rahim: "February to July 1988."
Joann: "After that did you spend any more time in juvenile before you had adult-"
Rahim: "No. I was out for nine months. Within a nine month span of my release I was charged felony murder and I was actually facing the death penalty."
Joann: "What was that whole process? You said it took about a year and a half, within a year and a half you had gotten a conviction, you had gotten sentenced. Tell me about that."
Rahim: "Yeah. So, my characterization of it is I was microwaved through the system. The first attorney I talked with, his name was, I forget his last name but I remember his first name was Lonnie something. He said, "You'll be lucky if you get out of this just with a life sentence.""
"And then I ended up with a public defender, her name was Christine Freeman. She was a beautiful, spirited person. She said, "I mean, I wish that I could help you but I'm not gonna be here long enough. I've been assigned to your case. I don't really know what it's gonna, the outcome will be but I'm gonna do whatever I can. But I know I'm not gonna be your attorney because I'm going to New York." And she left and she went to New York."
"And then I ended up with this guy who, for whatever reasons he's looked at as a good guy in the eyes of public defender people but to me based on what I learned is that he set me up for the death penalty. What do I mean? There's certain characteristics that have to occur, or certain things, criteria, that has to happen before you can get the death penalty."
"One is you have a prior felony. The second is the crime is so heinous that it deprives the mind what, instead of him moving forward with everything, which was hard 'cause I mean, I was, robbery is a serious offense, a person had died. But he sat for the case and he said we were going to trial. Because I really wasn't guilty of what they charged with me. I didn't do it."
"There was nobody pointing finger at me. They said if it was him, he didn't go into the store. And that was it, I was not the one in the store 'cause I had some homeboys who were involved in some crimes with me too. So, and that's probably why I ended up with so much time because I didn't snitch. But I ended up pleading guilty for 10 years to that robbery. That robbery prevented me, or precluded me, from going to trial on the felony murder because I already qualified for the death penalty 'cause I had a prior felony."
"And so, from May the 5th to March, it's not a year and I already get time. I had by April the 9th I had all of my time. That was fast to end up with a life sentence, a 20 year sentence and you really didn't even know what happened. I didn't even know what happened. All I know is, and I remember it like yesterday, I'm in a orange jumpsuit, I'm at a round table with all of my brothers and sisters and my mom and I'm trying to hold in these tears before I go into the courtroom."
"I got a feeling on the inside, right here, and I'm trying to hold my face. I wanted to cry so bad because I'm afraid, I'm scared. And my family, my brothers and sisters they looking at me and they crying and I go into this courtroom and the only thing, I had to say, "Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Yes, sir.""
"And I didn't even know what I was saying but I said it because that's, my mom said well, "You know son you did this and they said you'd be out in 19 years and you'll still be young." And I'm like, "Yeah, I did it. And I guess so." I mean, I'm just going along with it. And it wasn't true. I was not out in 19, I wasn't eligible for parole in 19. It was a lot of lies were told. And in the backdrop, the victim's family had been talking to the district attorney and they had told them that I would do 30 years so it was a big old conflict. And I found this out at the parole hearing when they were protesting me getting out. "We agreed that he was gonna do 30." And I'm like, "What." I had no knowledge of this."
"They just microwaved me through the system. It's still happening. 80, what, five to 90 percent of all cases are plead out. Yeah, it's still happening. I mean if people went to trial the system would have to change but you can't even go to trial because you're afraid to go to trial because the idea of going to prison is just such a scare. And it should be. You'll say, "If I could just get out, I can get back home so I'm gonna take five years. I'm gonna take 10 years." And you don't even know if you gonna get home. You don't even know if you're gonna survive prison. You assume such. But you're not guaranteed to get out."
Joann: "So, you've been out for two years."
Rahim: "Yes, ma'am."
Joann: "Tell me what the reentry process has been like."
Rahim: "Wow. See me smiling now, okay. It's been sweet for the most part, but I wanna say bitter sweet to coin some term. I heard that somewhere. Because first of all I still have family members in prison. Second of all, I left prison to walk into the lives of people who were in prison. My mother, my brothers, sisters, many of them are confined mentally because of the ignorance that creates these bars where they can't seem to leave the block, the neighborhood, to get out of debt, to find ways to live a fulfilling life, to have a spirituality that delivers empowerment in a way that you feel waking up is a good thing."
"I went back to that and my mother, bless her heart I don't even know how she still alive behind all of what she has had to go through. 'Cause obviously she was involved in things at a young age that a young girl should not be involved in at that time because she had a child at 16. She ran away to Florida to have ... So, when I think about and I come back and I see, it's like "Damn. This is bad.""
"But because of what happened to me in prison the lights turned on for me. And so, I don't see what they see. I'm trying to bring the light and so I'm doing everything that I can do to be an example of not just resiliency, humanity and strength and perseverance and ... I want them to see that you to some degree can control the narrative in your life if you'll be more intentional."
"And so, that's what I'm trying to be. Prior to prison I'd never been on a plane. I've flown to D.C. twice. I've flown to Texas. Been to Atlanta. I've been to Nebraska, flew to Nebraska. And I'm using my story and my knowledge of the system to help disrupt and hopefully dismantle the system."
"I'm a consultant organizer for Children's Defense Fund Nashville team due to Janet Wolf's involvement in my life and meeting Marian, who is the founder, Marian Wright Edelman, who is the founder of Children's Defense Fund, and cradle-to-prison pipeline and bringing awareness to what is happening at a very young age to these kids."
"This is the fulfillment to me, to be able to represent being one of these kids who could not read. Who thought he as dumb. And I didn't know I was being aligned for the prison. Third grade reading scores, they know that the illiteracy is going to affect whether or not you're gonna end up in prison."
"The number shave changed over time but certain communities and groups are targeted for prison. This is just the reality that we know about, because we can look back through sociological imagination, we can see what's happening. And so, to be involved in trying to frustrate these opportunity for people to capitalize off the lives of people who don't really know what's going on I try to plug in the gaps."
"That gives me a certain level of fulfillment. Being a student at American Baptist College, this is my junior year. Behavioral studies program, social justice emphasis, and being in the energy of that, the struggle ... John Lewis, who graduated from American Baptist College – he’s one. Feeling some type of mandate from prison to represent, not just be an advocate but to be an activist and to be an organizer."
"I founded Unheard Voices Outreach. Half of our board members are formerly incarcerated return citizens and our mission is to empower formerly incarcerated persons to be leaders in the community. We're not just talking about getting out and going through a system even the non-profit industrial complex is profiting off of the bodies of individuals leaving prison in a way that we made mass incarceration, social justice, almost fashionable, fad type terms."
"And there's a lot of abuse happening, people leaving, going into the transitional houses, getting in debt and struggling just to transition. And working and identifying, putting language on certain things is part of what I'm doing. So, it's worked for me but I feel like it's work that matters and so it makes me happy that my life is possibly saving the life of somebody else or I'm raising awareness of someone who may be wanting to participate in changing the way that we define justice. Working against felonism, which is the legal discrimination against former incarcerated persons. Putting faces ... I'm not hiding. I'm at risk."
"But I'm not gonna hide because I was hidden for 26 years of my life. And somebody said that I was something that I wasn't and because I had no language to explain, as I said in the poem, "Mama can't explain why my pops is missing." I had no language for that."
"I had no language for why the anger and the stress is forcing me to do what, commit crimes. Forcing me to hurt somebody because I'm hurting. I mean, that's real stuff. That's not made up. That's not just a choice. You can't tell a juvenile or a young person who is 25 and under whose brain is still forming, the frontal lobe development and newer pathways are still forming. They aren't the same as an adult. They're gonna make bad choices and it's wrong to criminalize some and to make a case for Affluenza for others, or for somebody else who does a kick door who has the money and can afford it. In the state of Tennessee, a country music musician's son did a kick door and he never went into a jail. He went straight into a mental institution."
"A kick door is home invasion. So, to be able to put language to things that only those who have gone through it can really make it, you can feel it when they say it, it's what we have to do so there's a certain fulfillment coming from speaking the truth."
"I also know historically truth bearers are assassinated or murdered. I mean, I'm not saying I'm a Malcolm X or a Martin Luther King or a Huey Newton or Medgar Evers, but I think about them and their struggle and I'm like, well you know the struggle continues. I'm here, so I'm mindful of what happens sometimes, but it's like this, my life doesn't even belong to me anymore. My spirituality tells me that either I was loaned to the world to be a vehicle for the life force that is responsible for all life and I'm a part of that, or I'm this soul having a human experience and I'm learning things to that I can become expression of myself."
"I like Gandhi when he said that, "Be the change that you want to see." I'm becoming, I'm being the change that I wanna see and so, I know it's a long answer but it's a lot to my life and the struggle to be free, my colleague Ndume Olatushani he said, "How do you be free?" He went to prison innocent. He did 20 years on death row and six in population, and he's still struggling to be free."
"He's been out for five years now. Relationships are hard. Negotiating your desire to be 'cause you have to ... today was a negotiation. It's a struggle. It is an ongoing struggle. I have to avoid certain thoughts. Thinking about my brothers who are in prison 'cause it makes me want to cry because I feel they never had a chance because they could not see past the fog and the weed and the alcohol. And they made very bad choices, and they been criminalized. And they good people. When they sober they make you laugh, so it's a lot of things about my family people don't know."
"I want the narrative to be accurate. So, I fight for the people that I came from. I consider myself birthed from prison 'cause that's how I became Rahim. From prison. My name wasn't Rahim before prison so I'm always somehow connected to that. And that's how I connect to my ancestors who struggled to be human in a country that still doesn't seem to understand that all lives can't matter until black lives matter because we never have mattered outside of our economic worth. Outside of the physical worth of our bodies, and it's still like that today."
"You shouldn't be worth more money in prison. 25, 30,000 dollars year than you would be if you were here today. I have yet to make $25,000 'cause I have to pay taxes and if it weren't for the Children’s Defense Fund, I wouldn't be employed. So felonism is a deal. I mean, I got to work on that. We have to do prison reform. We have to find a way that prison has to be about changing the individual in a transformative way and not rehabilitation. There's a difference."
"You can fake rehabilitation, act like you changed but if there's no inner transformation that individual is still in prison. He or she's gonna go back because that change really didn't happen. Change happens when you are awaking to the fact that you can have critical thoughts about life, that you can ask questions, that you have a community that you return to, that welcomes you which is not the case right now. That you have the resources available to you that if you want to go to school from prison, you can go to school. If you want to work in a area that you are already proficient in, that you will not be turned away because somebody is saying we can't trust you because society says we can't trust those who we have labeled infamous."
"That's a problem in a society that claims Christian. That's a problem in a society that claims to be American. Why? If being an African American, if I felt like some white people feel about us, black people, we'd be in a Civil War today. So, I'm saying the second chances have to be connected to being an American, from England, many more criminals who came so called to the ... you got a second chance.”
"Some went to Australia. And it's strange that now they don't want to or even allow former incarcerated persons in the country. That's very hypocritical... Penal colonies. When I think about America and what has happened ... how can you any American today who reads history, who knows history, not give a second chance to its own citizen when they make bad choices. I'm not Hitler. I didn't exterminate the native people here. I didn't enslave Africans. I didn't create Jim Crow, the new Jim Crow. I didn't do the night raids."
"I mean, I messed up a lot of stuff. But don't apply different standard of justice to me that you don't apply to this country because I'm a part of this country. So, that's why at the end of the poem I asked a question, "Africa or England. Of which do I claim motherland?""
"I know I got European in me. You can tell. But predominately African is in me. But who am I? I'm America. So, nah, I'm not gonna let them get away with that. I go to theology school. Paul, who was once Saul, is responsible for we don't know how many people who believed in Jesus were murdered because Paul was a part of that. He was Saul then, but he became Paul. He changed."
"I mean, a third of the New Testament is written by a man who was a murderer. And it's sacred. Words in this book and you mean to tell me that somebody who has changed, literally, living the life of what you go to church and read about and pretend to be happy about, there are people in society living this life and you frown upon them. They're the modern day lepers. I got a problem with that."
Joann: "How old were you when you went in, and how old were you when you came out?"
Rahim: "The adult system or the juvenile 'cause-"
Joann: "The most recent, the longest period of time that-"
Rahim: "The longest period of time, I was two months turn 18 when I went in. And I was released at 44. So, all of my 20s, all of my 30s, part of my 40s and I was caged."
Joann: "When's your birthday?"
Rahim: "February the 10th."
Joann: "And that particular crime occurred in April?"
Rahim: "It occurred in April, 24th but I was apprehended in May, May the 5th."
Joann: "Could we talk about language? How do you feel about the word juvenile?"
Rahim: "Well, personally I do not like it but I understand that the system has to have language to classify individuals who we want society to be afraid of or to identify."
"I mean, and maybe it doesn't have a negative connotation in its origin of the word. Maybe it doesn't have a negative connotation, I really don't know. I don't like the term. The etymology maybe, won't be too ... I don't know. Something I would have to look at, but I don't like the term at all because it freezes a person into a certain moment of his or her life. And it does not define who that person is. And it's a label that is so limiting that it's harmful."
Joann: "So, what do you think of when hear the words juvenile justice?"
Rahim: "Well, the problem is when you a part of a system that you need because it provides you with your livelihood, you're less likely to introduce different ideas about how to frame things."
"Juvenile justice, I mean, to even say age appropriate crime or sentences almost says that it's okay to cage a child. It's okay to exile a child and try to fix him or her."
"I just think that there's different way. And I'm not saying that I have the answers but if you're going to remove a human being from society, you better have something in place that will address their issues internally. Because I'm saying a hundred percent of the people in juvenile have mental disturbances and if being mentally ill makes you not guilty than we got problems because I say most people in juvenile are innocent from mens rea perspective."
"Simply put, a guilty mind ... maybe actus reus they call guilty act or a act of offense. But yeah, the offense on the surface is wrong but what's the mind behind it because really that's what happened. So, we not really dealing with justice 'cause the lady that represents justice, and I like that it's a lady, but the fact that she's blindfolded in a way I understand the symbolism of it, but it might be a problem."
"Because you really don't know who's putting what in. And maybe that makes it prejudice but it's hard to get justice when you have really not defined it in a way that we all can agree upon it."
"Retributive justice is not my idea of justice. I believe in transformative, restorative justice. A justice that, who was harmed, who was hurt, how can we facilitate the healing process. So, this incorporates who we call victims, I say survivors of offenses, and how do they play a role in justice that community say what should happen."
"It shouldn't be a situation where the so-called state, which is an abstraction is representing people who may not agree with what they wanna do."
Joann: "When you are working with young people who are in the system, you've mentioned that you've worked with kids who are currently in detention facilities or other children who have some sort of system involvement, what do you see? What are those young people like? What are you learning from them about how they see the world?"
Rahim: "Well, my primary group of guys they believe that people don't care about them. I see a lot of pain. I see myself in these kids. I see a struggle to be part of something ... many of the young men and I've actually connected with young women who are the inside as well."
"They've joined what we call gangs, I call tribes. And they just want to be able ... They want their lives to matter. And so, I facilitate critical reading, writing and dialogue sessions at Juvenile Institution here in Nashville. And most of the time I let hi, I don't let him the idea is for me to partner with them and so they're free to help become who they are."
"It's a lot of engagement and discussion. I get upset sometimes when they don't seem to pay attention but I remember where I'm from and then, I'm always paying attention to them because I know who they are in the sense that they just like me. And how I was. And I try to do what I can to connect their families to the Participatory Defense so that their families could participate and do creative things to help humanize them."
"Create these bios and their childhood pictures and show that these are human being first. Not juveniles. I love them just like they love me, and I don't play games with them in the sense that if I say something it's true, it's real. And if any opportunity that I get to testify for them and who they are as human beings I will do that. Whenever their family members call me I try to do whatever I can to help aide and assist them."
Joann: "You mentioned Participatory Defense and now that you, you've been involved with that as a board member, mention some of the other things. How do you see some of these different organizations and individuals and leaders who are involved, how do you see progress coming and what are your goals, specific goals in terms of policies or specific reforms that you'd like to see."
Rahim: "Oh, yeah, definitely I'd like to see policy change in the area of how who is involved in not just programs, but transitioning process. Right now, the system is broken and it always probably will be broken because it really wasn't designed right."
"I think when you exclude the voices of those who have actually gone through the system and despite the system they found a way to survive. They have good ideas, and our ideas are not being listened to. I personally have issues with particular organizations and offenses that send kids back into the same environment."
"I mean, we definitely need social reform, cultural change as well because these kids are going back to the same thing and you saying, "Well, they don't wanna change." How you gonna change if you gotta go back to the same thing."
"We need policy change in the treatment process, and seeing human beings who have been harmed how do we heal them. It has to be a community approach to how we bring people back into the society but even how they leave society. And I think the formerly incarcerated should be everywhere involved and right now you have people who are using their position and the resources, which we are cut out from to do things that are not working."
"So, I think this is just a waste of tax payers' money, a waste of donations and all of these things, but right now I don't foresee real change happening until we can change the conditions that bring people to places like juvenile and prison. And that has to happen on the outside. Society has to own some of its culpability for poverty. Society has to own some its culpability for spending less on education than incarceration. Society has to own some its culpability in the cradle-to-prison pipeline and zero tolerance and kicking kids out of school. And next thing you know they're in juvenile."
"I mean, we got a lot of policy issues that we have to address. And they need to bring more teachers who care about these kids. And what I've seen is the people who are like myself, who really care and we not just there for a paycheck. We really there to do see change occur."
Joann: "Well, what are your personal goals, what next for you?"
Rahim: "Personal goals. The first personal goal is I want to get my associate's degree in the Humanities. Just so I could get my paper started. I'm pursuing a bachelor's but that's one of the things that I wanna do."
"Second, I'm looking, I want to work as an employee of the organizations that I found, Unheard Voices outreach, because that would give me more freedom to work on the issues that I care about. For example, Felonism. I want to put in some more worth. I want to talk to companies. I want to get outside of the system, quote on quote, and kind of have some real listening sessions with people and try to help understand it's in their best interest to give us opportunities because of the people who are gonna be getting out."
"I wanna do a parole board reform here in Tennessee. The parole board is a scary experience because they have 18,000 hearings a year and you mean to tell me that less than 5,000 people are released from prison in Tennessee every year. You have a 30,000 people confined. That's a problem for me with 18,000 hearings."
"I want to help former incarcerated persons be empowered in a way. We don't have to jump out into the system, get a resume, get a job, live happily ever after in hiding. I want them to feel empowered enough that if you have a dream, a goal, a vision, it can be real. But you have to be willing to share it so we got to do away with the stigma a being a former person who was in prison."
"So, that means I want to connect with the churches. I wanna do this project, it's called Portable Reentry Solutions, and I wanna get churches to take some ownership in how we help people. We want to build some bridges back to prison, go into the prison, don't go in talking about saving souls, save lives, meaning you wanna help people."
"Get your congregation involved. If you really wanna be like Jesus then help the people who Jesus was most inclined to be next to and walk with. And so, I wanna do that, build those bridges. And I have a personal thing about one day I want my family to have a first reunion because my sisters, who I only met not that many times, but they were telling me how my dad always talked about he wanted to bring all his children together and so that's one of the things that I want to do."
"And I guess the last thing, I can't see one of my brothers who is in prison and I wanna find a way to see him because I been denied two times to see him and they telling me I have to be out of prison for seven years. I think it's wrong to keep people out from their loved ones."
"On another level is that it's hard to get back in the prison to show that people do get out. And they need to see this and so it's hard to get back in. So, that's something else that I wanna change. So, yeah. Those are my goals."
Joann: "Tell me the name that your parents gave you, and then what-"
Rahim: "So, in 1971 I was born Arthel Lawrence Young. Young is my mother's maiden name. Her name was Flora Ann Young. Because of the arrangements of what was going on at that time, she was not married, so it was a lot of stuff happening."
"But in '76 she said that my dad wanted my name to change. And my name was legally changed to Rodney Neal Buford. And that was the name I was known by for most of the years of my life up until the moment I became Abdullah Rahim."
Joann: "Do you go by Rodney?"
Rahim: "Yeah. And most of my friends still call me Rodney. They don't go Rahim. And they knew Rodney, I'm Rodney to them so I'm always gonna be Rodney to them. But then there are some who are they like Rahim and I noticed that women like Rodney. A lot of the women like Rodney. I don't know what that's all about, but I think Rahim is a little exotic almost like, "Yeah, Rahim. That's Rahim the dream." And so, I liked that."
"Yeah, so I was at Fort Pillow. I was 19 or maybe 20, and I began to study with the Muslims because I was intrigued by what I saw. These guys were always glowing and seemed to be walking with smiles on their faces."
"And I would just strike up conversation with them and ask a lot of questions about God forgiveness and what does it mean and different things and one of the selling pitches was it that you can be forgiven."
"And my soul was troubled because of what had happened. What I had done, I felt so much guilt that it was just overwhelming. And Islam had offered a opportunity for that to be removed. And one day, I was in the law library at Fort Pillow, as I just explained. You got these sails, the barge, you can look into other people's sells."
"They're residents there. They shower together. You might be a shower with 12, 13, 14 people. The history is that Nathan Bedford Forrest had slaughtered several African American black men, there was a massacre and I was in that law library that day just sitting still and just thinking this name Abdullah Rahim came to me. And I said it verbally, I said, "Abdullah Rahim." That's my name. And Abdullah Rahim is an Arabic name."
"Abdullah means servant of God. Rahim means merciful, compassionate and the deeper meaning is love and Rahim is actually an attribute of Allah, which is in Arabic the God in Islam. It's an attribute, it's a expression and that's been my name ever since. And that's what I go by, Rahim."
Joann: "What does your girlfriend call you?"
Rahim: "Rahim, but she calls me Rodney when she wants to get a look, make me to look at her a second time, she'll say, "Rodney." But she's playing and I'm like, "Oh.""
"Yeah, Jerri Holland, she's a sweet beautiful, strong, I'm saying a perfect mother, struggled, she understands my plight. She had a similar plight in her life and she's a inspiration. Hopefully, she'll do her own book. She has these prayers on her wall in the bathroom and they're so fascinating to read and I'm looking like this is a place where people wouldn't think was a sanctuary, but that is really a sanctuary 'cause realism deals with real life in every moment wherever it is."
"I been with her since July of 2015. This is the only woman I've ever been with since I've been so called free. And as long as we getting along and we moving forward and progressing, I'll continue to be with her."
"I believe in monogamy and so if I can do it, I'll do it."
Joann: "How did you two meet?"
Rahim: "That road you were coming up, I was out had these little round things that I was doing pushups in because I carried that practice of working out from being enslaved, encaged, in prison, in whatever you want to call it."
"Used to work out a lot and I was working out and she was driving up and she saw me and she pulled over and she said, "Hey, you know, what kind of weights are those? And they weren't weights, I said, "Well, these aren't weights. These are push up machines." She said, "Oh, I'm sorry they look like weights.""
"And I saw that she had a yoga mat in her jeep and I had done yoga from 22003 all the way up to now I do yoga. And I said, "You do yoga," and said, "A little bit. Not much." I said, "Oh okay." And then so, I said, "Well, look I gotta get back to this but I'm gonna give you my number so you don't have to give me yours." That's the best I could come up with."
"And so, I gave her my number and she gave me her number. I called her the next week because I was going out of town to the Knoxville Haley Farm, first time I would be out of town. Came back we were gonna met but she couldn't meet for whatever reasons and maybe the next the week."
"So, I'm still asking her, like, "You must have liked what you saw right." And she done said that's not her reason but I'm saying, well physical attraction usually is the first attraction because you're gonna see that person. I had on a tank top and I'm out there and I'm working out and I'm swole a little bit, and so she likes to work out. If you notice all of that stuff she has, that's her dream, is to be a physical trainer. And obviously, she was interested in what attracted her and that could have been either way but I like to think it was me. That's it."
Joann: "Tell me about Haley Farm. We didn't cover that."
Rahim: "Oh, wow. Haley Farm was one of the most amazing experiences I had getting out of prison because there were so many trees and I have this fascination about trees for me because you don't see trees when you behind those walls and things. You just don't get to see trees, at least close up and personal."
"And just the serenity of that place and so many people in one place all wanting to do the same thing, community, worship and just being in a hidden, secluded place. I mean, it was just surreal for me. I been recording my life since I was released from prison and I been posting on Facebook, Rahim Buford, since 2015 and Sharon pretty much everything I've ever done, every state I've went to, everything I've done and my first post on a out-of-town level were on the Haley Farm and I been there three times since. And every time it gets a little better. And I'm looking forward to it next year, God willing if I'm still alive. Life willing, universe willing. I don't know who but if I'm alive I wanna go because it always feels good to get away for three or four, five days."
Joann: "How did you get there in the first place?"
Rahim: "Well, Janet Wolf, who is my mentor is the Haley Farm director. And one of the things Janet does is to give opportunity to people who were in prison and she felt that would be a good place for me to go to kind of get out, and then I could Marian again. I met Brian Stevenson there. We got pictures, I got his book. He said he'd be willing to work with me. I'm sure Alexander has been there, many others have been there. But, yeah, Janet is the reason. Janet Wolf is the reason why I was able to go. Yup."
Joann: "I don't know if you've touched upon this, but talk about the day you were released. What was that like?"
Rahim: "Oh, wow. The day I was released, God. And I got it like yesterday, and I actually I posted ... and I'm gonna show you something before I go so you can kind of see how I thought about being released and what my life is in a snapshot of photos ... but I was nervous but it was time. Inside I was feeling like, finally. You have arrived."
"I had to hold my tears back because leaving the unit that I lived it, which was unit 6, I was the cellmate of my biological brother. He was born right before me, we have the same mom and dad. So, I'm feeling like, "Dang, I'm leaving him." And I've felt that feeling before when one of my other brothers was leaving me and getting out."
"But for the most part I was happy. And I planned it because my life has seemed like it's been a series of plans 'cause I've always believed that I can think it into existence. And so, as I was waiting there seemed like it was a problem with me ... something was wrong. And it's usually a 45 process, and might took a two hour thing were I'm in the holding cell. And it was just really scary."
"And I was thinking, "I hope everything goes fine because I'm nervous." Maybe it's something happening, eventually I got out and my friend Melinda was there who I had met in Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2007, and she was really a big help in my life. And the reason, I need to put some backdrop to the story is because when I was in prison in 2007 a reporter did an article on me because I had a Myspace, my little sister was running for me because I was trying to get out of prison and I was trying to get support."
"And I said no to that article and he ran it anyway. He had touched, contacted the victim's family, angered the victim's family. Used me to say, "Did you know he was doing this and doing that and blah blah blah." And create a big conflict, so what Melinda did was contact the victim's family and explain to them that was not my intention and we just became friends."
"And she helped to encourage me, and she was there when I got out. I have video footage actually of the day I got out of prison. Live video footage and I went to Jay Alexander's that day, had her drink some wine, went back to my old neighborhood ... not Parkwood, but where I was born ... I went there and saw my homebody, my best friend who I ... we still been friends ever since, for 40 something years."
"And my mother didn't know I as getting so I surprised I was getting out because she thought it was gonna be a week after and I intentionally did that. And yeah. It was a happy day. And the high lasted for six months to a year. And sometimes I still feel it because it seems so unreal but that first day was, it was a dream really. It was a literal, it was surreal. I mean, I knew it but I didn't know it. And it was cool. Just waking up smelling things and the aromas of society is different than being on the inside."
"The fast pace was strikingly weird. My equilibrium was not adjusted to the way that you live out here. It's a difference and I could feel that difference. Yeah. That's what it was like. It was a great day."
Joann: "Alright, now that you've shared your first day out, what was your first day in like?"
Rahim: "A scary day. A very scary day because I really didn't know but I had two. One was jail and I mean, I was abused by the police officers. I mean, I remember they had put a book on my head and was hitting me on top of the head with the book on my head so it wouldn't bruise me to try to get me to say things that I didn't wanna say."
"And now knowing what my future was like. And I didn't mention this, but I'm gonna mention because you never know what ... but because I was so overwhelmed by what was happening in my life when I was in jail in 1989, at a certain point I tried to kill myself. I used to go get everybody's medication who didn't want it and then keep it. And I took about 40 pills one day. I just didn't wanna face what was happening. And I went to sleep and I slept for about 24 hours and when I had awakened, I didn't know if I was alive or if I was dead but I did the thing in the movie, pinch myself. And I was like, "Dang, you still here." And so I said, "Well, you know maybe God has a reason." And then, so, I said, "God, I don't know what it is but I'm gonna try to do whatever I can to make you proud of my life and my existence. And I'm gonna do the best that I can do.""
"And so, I just kept, kept, kept fighting. So, when I finally went into prison, my first day in prison was a scary day. I was at MLRC [Mark Luttrell Reception Center] in Memphis, the Reception Center and you go in, remove all your clothing. You're naked. It's like the thingification process. Place your garments with the TDOC [Tennessee Department of Corrections] stripes and blues. They give you two bags, green bags, gold tags, prison number."
"And four pair of underwear, four T-shirts, four pair of socks and in orientation you carrying this stuff in a cell and you going to a cell with no TV, no radio, nothing. Just into a cell. And then shower time, you gotta shower with everybody around this little boy and everybody's naked. And they have these windows in the top of MLRC where the officers could just be up there looking at you while you naked and stuff. Yeah, it was crazy. And it was scary. That occurred every time I went to a new prison because every prison is different, except for the fact that you're confined."
"And the worse time was when I went to Four Pillar because I was really scared because they told me that's a really bad place to go, and fresh meat and all of that kind of stuff they were saying. People looking at you, and you're young and being young and attractive is something in prison that can be problematic because people in prison do look at young men as young women because of the sickness that happens from a result of certain things. And sometimes it's the way it is, but yeah, it was scary."
"But, I come from the streets so I always knew that if worse came to worse I'm gonna defend myself and if i die, I die. I mean, I just really accepted that and so, I was able to overcome my fear. I had it every time, I still experience fear. I don't like it, but I do and I overcome."
Joann: "What advice would you give young men?"
Rahim: "Young men, no matter where they were or are, my advice is that you have to read. You need a dictionary. You need to understand what words mean and you can't be afraid to challenge yourself to become a better, grater expression. Because many of us come into this world seeking an identity. We really don't understand what we are so adopt all these different titles that I think get in the way of what we're trying to do and one of the things that the "Who Am I" poem is about is continue to keep asking yourself this question, who am I."
"And that's not for society to define, that's for you to define through how share yourself in society. And I would just say educate yourself, be true to yourself, give back to the community, give back to the needy and give back to anyone who is in need because what I found to be true in my life is that giving sets you up for something greater."
"And that's one of the big thing that I do. I do a lot of charity work. I actually give a lot of money away, and I don't even have a lot of money but I understand money is a tool. So I would say educate yourself, keep asking the question who are you, study, observe, interpret, and understand that life is a journey and that no one knows what the truth is. We interpret life, religious life is a narrative, you can adopt that as a belief but don't confine yourself there. Science is a narrative, evolution is a narrative. We're trying to guess at this thing, we don't know what this thing is but we live on one planet among countless other planets and this planet lives in the universe and we live on it so we don't really know what life is really all about."
"We're just trying to figure this thing out so do the best that you can do. That's what I do, and it's working."
Joann: "Is there anything that we didn't talk about that you want to speak on?"
Rahim: "Well, I really first I just want to say thank you for even caring enough to put issues like this in front of society to look at. That's very important that we have activist minded persons who are creative and understand that we have a problem, that's number one."
"I long for the day that justice will be a community issue and not this abstraction called the state of pitting people against one another and bargaining for outcomes. So, really I mean, I'm just participating. I really appreciate this opportunity and I'm humbled by it and I hope that the listeners will really take it to the heart we need help in this endeavor to redefine justice. So, thank you."
Joann: "Thank you."