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Dear Family: An Open Letter to My Supporters Over 20 Years of Incarceration

Aug 16, 2022

The perspective of

Muhammad Abdul-Rahman

Incarcerated at

FCI Butner
in North Carolina

Year incarcerated


Home State


Editor’s note: The letter below was written to family, friends and other supporters by Muhammad Abdul-Rahman, a candidate for early release thanks to Washington, DC’s Second Look Amendment Act.

Eighty degrees, warm it up for me
Finally free, found the God in me
And I want you to see, I can walk on water
Thousand miles from shore, I can float on the water
Father, hold me close, don’t let me drown
I know you won’t…

–Hurricane, by Kanye West and The Weeknd, featuring Lil Baby

I want to thank everyone who wrote letters of support on my behalf—from my brothers behind the wall in maximum- and medium-security prisons, to business leaders and university professors, to one of my former sentencing judges. [Editor’s note: The latter is unusual to get. When Muhammad had a hearing for his compassionate release petition, the judge went out of his way to say that while he could not grant it on medical grounds, he was extraordinarily impressed by Muhammad’s efforts to improve and develop himself.] Your heartfelt words moved me to tears! Seldom does one get to hear such praise while still alive. I didn’t know how much I have impacted you through our simple phone calls.

I noticed a common thread in your letters: that most of you (the younger generation in particular; my little sister Nila was only 6 when I was arrested) have no memories from when I was home due to the length of my incarceration (20 years). You expressed your sorrow that I haven’t been able to properly grieve the death of close relatives, including my beloved mother Anita in 2012 and my little brother Yisa, aka Ark Gwalla). [Muhammad wrote this in a recent essay (page 6 of the Free Minds magazine): “Someone once wrote that ‘Revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.’ I can sincerely say that I have forgiven my brother’s killer. I hope that this in turn will allow them to forgive themselves and foster within them a greater appreciation for human life. I will write a letter to his judge advocating for him and have urged my family to go to his court date and sit with his family. We’ve all lost something, but we can choose to use my brother’s death as a legacy to promote life.”]


Fortunately, when beloved relatives died, they came to me in spiritual form, giving me the strength, courage and wisdom to do the internal work needed to keep progressing forward. How else do you think I’ve endured so much grief, heartbreak and suffering—even transcending it—for all these years? And found the courage to “lean into love”?

Sadly, on the flip side of that coin, I’ve felt dead to the world all these years, severed from my family tree in the physical sense. I’ve held for dear life onto each daily accomplishment you’ve shared—the birth of new children and the small joys and tribulations of your occupations (small business owner, first responder, U.S. Capital employee, U.S. Armed Forces, Supreme Court photographer, nursing student, corrections officer, Incarcerated Lives Matter board member, baker…)

I’ve discovered that personal growth and evolution are easily talked about, but require hard, painful work! Metaphorically, I had to shed many skins and die a thousand deaths to attain it. It wasn’t until I stopped fearing others who are not from the same race, religion and geography that I found the will to put my knife down and arm myself instead with more superior weapons, love and diplomacy. I realized that the other inhabitants of the federal Bureau of Prisons weren’t my greatest enemies (which I’d been led—incorrectly—to believe); rather, that role was reserved for myself. All of us are haunted by traumatic experiences, craving love instead of isolation. Our souls weep for a higher purpose.

I had to learn that what’s important isn’t “like numbers” (the 007 at the end of our BOP identifier that signals we’re from DC), but like mindedness. That we must care not about “homies,” but humanity. And I needed to stop looking elsewhere for escape and realize that I could become the savior I was waiting for!

My motion for release will be filed just months from now, and I’m writing this at the completion of a group yoga session. Exhaling deeply, my shoes are off as I stare off into the distance, facing Washington D.C. My sister Imani once said, “Reentry doesn’t start the day you’re released. It has to start now.” So, I’m mentally transitioning NOW!

Life should be cherished and valued. I won’t let it slip through my fingers again. And I caution YOU not to either.

Editor’s note: Muhammad was recently accepted into the prestigious Duke Project TURN prison ministry program, in which 10 prisoners are paired with 10 Duke students and a professor. He also is an artist, and his collages are displayed in the gallery of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop.

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