Talib Williams is witnessing what he calls “the convergence of two pandemics that would bring the nation to its knees” – referring to Covid-19 and anti-Black racism – from inside a prison cell in Soledad.
In a 17-page handwritten letter to the Weekly from the Correctional Training Facility, he describes his impression of recent events, criticizes the media and testifies to a radical political vision emerging from the incarcerated. It’s a vision he has been promoting from prison through a blog, several books and a podcast. These missives explore social justice from the perspective of an inmate who converted to Islam and became an imam – Talib, his adopted name, means student or seeker of knowledge in Arabic.
He is as likely to condemn the prison system as a racist institution as he is to critique toxic masculinity, a mentality he blames for having led him astray when he was only a teenager and charged with murdering another teenager.
In 2004, a Ventura County jury convicted Williams, then known as Marcelle Williams, in the murder of Joshua Pelaya. The court sentenced him to 50 years. Soon after, Williams arrived in Soledad.
“When I first stepped foot into the corridor of this place,” he wrote in a recent essay, “I was immediately reminded of the historical significance of where I was… I was in the home of George Jackson.”
Fifty years ago, Jackson wrote a famous prison manifesto, a collection of letters titled Soledad Brother. Attacking the injustice of racism, the text promoted Black power and revolutionary upheaval and formed the philosophy behind the Black Guerilla Family, today one of the country’s major prison gangs. Jackson himself smuggled in a gun and attempted an escape, which ended with his death and the deaths of five others.
“The mention of [Jackson],” Williams writes in the foreward to his book Annotated Tears: Vol. 2, Soledad Uncensored, “is guaranteed to cause fear and at the very least, raise suspicion in the minds of correctional officers, assuming that those who mention him are in agreement with the entirety of this political thought and are therefore promoters of violence.
“The culture that existed in the times of George Jackson no longer exists in the prison system. The relationship that the inmate population had with violence is quickly beginning to disappear, thanks to inmate-created groups such as Success Stories.”
An idea even more central to Williams’ transformation into a sort of prison feminist was Islam, whose texts he mines for lessons on contemporary topics like slut-shaming and intersectionality. The Quran helped Williams mature while in prison, enough that he managed to enter a relationship with a woman and marry her. Tasha Williams, herself a writer, receives pages of text that her husband composes on contraband cell phones, then edits and publishes them.
Inside prison, religion and solidarity again uplifted Williams as the pandemic hit. The uncertainty brought rumors of a lockdown, and the inmates at CTF whispered about launching protests and hunger strikes. “But in the middle of a pandemic, the reaction seemed misplaced,” Williams writes.
He tapped the Islamic network in prison to remind inmates of what Muhammad’s hadiths say about plagues. He used the saying “do not mix the sick with the healthy” to point to social distancing. In another hadith – “If you hear of an outbreak of a plague in a land, do not enter it, but if the plague breaks out in a place while you’re in it, do not leave that place” – was an edict to shelter in place.
“These sacred traditions brought not only comfort but a direction to a community that was beginning to panic,” he writes. “We were starting to see Covid cases rise, and if Americans in so-called free society were ‘freaking out,’ we in prison were past that by a thousand.”