Penn students had the chance to gain a personal perspective on incarceration at an event featuring a documentary about a man adjusting to life outside of prison and a question and answer session with the film's subject.
The event Thursday night was hosted by Penn Sapelo, which is Penn’s black Muslim student group, as well as Beyond Arrests: Re-Thinking Systematic Oppression, also known as BARS. The groups showed the film “The Honest Struggle,” which follows the life of Sadiq Davis when he was released from prison in 2013 after spending over 25 years behind bars. Davis, who was incarcerated at age 18, was present at the screening and answered audience questions at the end of the event.
College senior Kelly Porter, the BARS communications director, said Penn Sapelo had reached out to BARS earlier in the year about the collaboration, which BARS accepted because it fit the club's mission of bringing awareness to criminal justice reform.
“A lot of people have negative stereotypes about people who were incarcerated or are incarcerated," Porter said. "I think that this film will broaden their idea of what incarceration means for a person."
While Davis said he converted to Islam while in prison and tried to live a moral life, he expressed his frustration at the lingering hold his past as a gang member seems to have on him.
“No matter how much good that you do, people already know you and saw the things that you’ve done wrong," Davis said. "So when you think you’ve gotten away from something, every step you take there’s always a reminder."
Davis also talked about struggles he faced with the Chicago police force during his time on parole. In one instance, Davis was standing on a corner talking to a friend when a police car patrolling the area decided to bring them to the station even though they had been searched and found to not have any illegal substances or objects on their person.
“It has been so hard and so rough, I begin to think that the best place for me to be was back in one of them cells because it’s the only thing it is that I know," Davis said. "And years ago, I would have made the decision to go back in."
Sadiq added that throughout prison and the reentry process, Islam helped give his life meaning.
“Islam teaches you, sit down at the table. If the table is dirty, when you get up it have to be clean. It have to be better than what it was when you found it,” he said.
In the question and answer session, Davis said prison saved his life because it distanced him from the dangerous lifestyle he lived as a teenager. He, however, did not downplay the difficulties that come with incarceration and implored the audience to offer help to individuals re-entering into society with dignity and compassion.
Rikeyah Lindsay, who heard about the event through a co-worker who helped produce the film, said she found inspiration in Davis' story because she has a friend who is incarcerated.
“It’s impactful not just to watch the documentary, but more so to have Brother Sadiq be here and share his story and share just who he is as a person, because it gives me hope for the reality,” Lindsay said. “You can transform from what was expected to be your life and [take] a hold of your life and really [live] it fully and completely the way you choose to.”
College senior and Penn Sapelo Co-chair Mona Hagmagid said she appreciated the intimate conversation that took place at the event.
“I think there’s something meaningful in offering people a space to share their story. And people can take from that what they want, take the lesson that resonated most with them or the aspect that spoke most to them," Hagmagid said. "I think for somebody like Brother Sadiq, who might not necessarily find the opportunity to speak to students at an institution like this on a casual basis, I think it’s important and meaningful for us to offer a space for that story to be shared.”
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