Illustration by Jesse Harp
Jabreal Muhammad only sees sunlight a few days a week. Most of his time is spent indoors, in the sprawling Calipatria State Prison in Northern California, where he is 12 years into a life sentence for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Muhammad, or Big TC as he’s known to people on both sides of the prison’s electrified “death fence,” is one of 2 million incarcerated Americans, tens of thousands of whom may have been wrongfully convicted, according to data cited by the Innocence Project. Though TC’s last appeal was rejected in 2008, his case earned some public interest thanks to a campaign launched by his older brother, the singer Ty Dolla $ign.
Ty’s 2015 debut solo album was called Free TC; its standout track, the eight-minute “Miracle / Wherever,” features a silken, repentant, surprisingly buoyant verse from TC. The cameo was culled from his extensive catalogue of jailhouse recordings, which he’s released as videos on YouTube and as a series of mixtapes with his cellmate D. Loc. TC has recorded and disseminated dozens of rough-hewn, beautiful prison gospel songs and freestyles, with themes like perseverance and self-betterment at their core.
TC says the source of his clear-eyed optimism is Islam, which he began practicing early in his sentence and in which he has become something of a scholar. Islam has one of the world’s highest rates of conversion, and its equality-and-mercy-premised doctrine is especially attractive to prisoners; the percentage of Muslims in the federal prison population is 14 times larger than that of the rest of the country, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Census Bureau. In a phone call from Calipatria, TC explained how finding faith saved his life.
What’s a typical day like for you?
A typical day is: wake up, pray fajr, and clean up the cage. We’ll have breakfast early in the morning, like around 7. I’ll go out and get a nasty-ass plate, come back and eat it in the cell. Some days we have yard where we get to go outside, like at school. You go out there and run and do whatever you gotta do and come back and just be caged up. That’s it. On Tuesdays, we get to go to the masjid and on Fridays, of course, for jumaa. It’s like a chapel, where all the different faiths go; when it’s our time, we put the prayer rugs down and turn it into a masjid.
How did you first come to Islam?
My dad came home one day and, I guess he’d just went to a meeting or lecture, and he was going in the refrigerator, the cabinets, snatching anything that he thought might’ve had some pork in it. He told my mom, “Don’t ever feed my kids anything like this. It’s haram. We been lied to. Islam is the truth. God is one. We don’t believe in shirk [idolatry].” And I’m just a little kid like, “Alright, whatever dad says makes sense to me.” Then my parents broke up and we never had any real lessons. But he had planted that seed in my ear.
Once I got locked up, I had nothing but time to study. When I was in [the L.A. county jail], we used to have a chaplain, a Christian lady. She got me a Quran. And I used to talk to her and ask all kinds of questions. Then when I got to prison, I got around a whole gang of other brothers — imams from the street. My first five years in prison, I used to study for, like, eight hours a day. I was only 19 when I came to jail, so I was like, I’m supposed to be in university right now. I wanna make it to where I’m studying as much as the people on the street are studying.
As an inmate, do you get treated differently for being Muslim?
Of course. A lot of police’ll be American soldiers, like they just left from killing Muslims [overseas]. So when they come here and see us, they walk around like, “Damn Muslims!” They don’t like what we stand for and what we represent. Being in the masjid brings everybody together under the banner of the deen. Dudes can be Crips or Bloods or wherever we from, but then once we get to the masjid, we’re Muslim. This dude, he could be a Blood but he’s my best friend because he’s a Muslim. And that is a threat to them. They’re like, “What’s going on? All the Muslims are grouping together.” And then there’s all the Islamophobia in the media, which they listen to and read, so they’re scared anyway.
When you’re not in the masjid, do those outside world structures come back?
This is still prison politics. Everybody has their tribes. Wherever you come from, that’s who you fall up under in here. There isn’t nobody that’s just alone. So if there’s a brother that’s a Muslim that comes from a different background, like a Blood background or something, I can’t support him if I see him in a fight. I can’t help him. That’s on him. And he can’t help me, because that’ll be crossing up other homies that aren’t [Muslim].
It seems like it would be difficult to see a brother in distress and know that you can’t step in to protect him.
Of course. But I understand the bigger picture so I can’t sacrifice everybody just for what I feel. That’s the main thing that I really hate about prison: no one is in control of our [own] lives or our destiny or our tomorrow. Right now, I’m sitting here talking to you and a guy can just start getting stabbed up outside my cell. And I don’t even know what it’s about — it could be that he’s on drugs or he owes money or he did this or he did that. But based on me being black, I have to support anybody that’s black. Based on me coming from a Crip background, I have to support anybody who’s a Crip. We all have to support one another whether we like it or not. If a brother gets into it with a Hispanic and they start to fight, it’s gonna be an all-out war. And the police are gonna start shooting.
I’ve always struggled with my own faith because when I look around and see people suffering, I have a hard time reconciling that with a God that’s supposed to be benevolent and merciful.
When we look at it like that, we’re looking at it on a small, personal, selfish perspective. We’re not really looking at it on the scale of Allah and how He sees things. Really, when we go through certain things, it’s a blessing for us. If I wasn’t right here, if I didn’t go through everything I went through, I coulda died young. I coulda went straight to the hellfire from the things that I was out there doing as a kid. But then we get another chance. It could be like, “Why would you put me through this? Oh Allah, I didn’t even do it. How could you do this to me?” But then He’ll say, “If I didn’t do this to you, you’d be surely condemned. So go ahead and take this slap on the wrist, compared to the hellfire, and this should get you through.” I have to take this as a part of the plan. I make decisions but Allah is the best of planners.
“Dudes can be Crips or Bloods or wherever we from, but then once we get to the masjid, we’re Muslim.”
Do you ever get angry?
Of course. Every day, probably. The frustration builds but that’s what we have salat for. The deen is set up so we can always bounce back. I can wake up pressured but by the time I make wudu and the call to azaan, my anxiety comes down a little bit. By the time I come out of salat, man, I got a different perspective. Then I go out and go through things and start to snap, but then it’s time for dhuhr. Like you said, our faith wavers, but as long as we are always staying in remembrance of our Lord and always trying to strive for better, then success is guaranteed to the believer. I’mma just focus on that rather than the worst of this shit.
Have you been able to introduce anyone else to Islam?
Absolutely. All my bros. They see everything that it’s done for me. They go, “I remember he was wild, look at him now. How are you like that?” And I go, “Alhamdullilah, the deen.” In the masjid, I studied a lot to where I now teach certain classes. So I take young brothers and young bangers and I’m like, “Yo, come let me teach you salat.” And then in the midst of me teaching salat, I’m gonna teach them the whole deen as much as I can. I’m always giving advice. Even with our music, people send me messages all the time, like, “Oh, I’m so inspired. I wanna learn. Can you help me? I’m thinking about converting.” My whole family is leaning towards the deen. If they’re not already on it, then they identify with it, based on how they’ve seen my evolution. Like, my brother, I’ll tell him all the time, “Man, you gotta let that drink go. You always smoking weed. Try to restrain from as much haram as you can.” I try to put everybody on that will listen. Even you.
How tough is it to maintain your relationships with your family and loved ones on the outside?
Man, if you can get a cell phone, it makes everything way easier. Consistent visits, that makes things way easier. But most of the time that I’ve been in prison, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve been years from having been able to talk to my folks. I’ve been in prisons where we’ll just be on lockdown — no phone, no food, no nothing — for a long time. We’ll just be sitting in the cells and then when we come out, another riot happens, more violence, go right back on lockdown. Come out, more violence. It never ends in here.
Can the sociopolitical cycles of violence that have landed so many black men in prison ever be broken?
Man. Can it be broken? I can’t see it. It can be broken within your own self, as individuals, but on a larger scale, only Allah can change it. We in prison. This is a billion-dollar industry. They make so much money off of us being in jail that of course they want to keep us in jail. However their pockets can stay on, or however they can maintain the establishment that they stand on, that’s all they really care about. Always, there’s people who are fighting to keep things the same and there’s people that are fighting for change. And then even the people that are fighting for change, they still have their motives
How important has Islam been in getting you through the past 12 years?
It’s been the defining thing. The deen has gotten me through. In a place like this, you’re surrounded by savages. All the people on the news, all the people who committed the most heinous crimes, all the worst things that’ve happened in California — these are the people that’s here. So that type of environment and community has you in a state of mind of [being] on edge anyway. The deen is the balance. The deen is what can make or break you.