Faith through Adversity: Reflections on Parole, Spirituality & Difficult Times

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Charles “Talib” Brooks and the Root & Rebound team!

Charles “Talib” Brooks, has been a volunteer with Root & Rebound since June 2014. Today, we share a guest blog post from this amazing volunteer with our readers.

In the news today, we often see cases of African American men and boys who died at the hands of police or whose cases never found justice in court—Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, brothers Henry McCollum & Leon Brown, Bobby McClelland. The public—especially those in African American communities—has grown wary of the very people entrusted to uphold the law and our constitutional liberty, losing faith in police, lawyers, courts, and the criminal justice system at large. Like so many others, my own trust in the system has been tested. In fact, my spiritual and personal faith has been strengthened by my experiences with the law and my sense of distrust and isolation—When I felt alone in prison or on parole, I looked to God.

My name is Charles “Talib” Brooks. I served twenty years in state prison for second-degree murder. Although my criminal case was later deemed a “miscarriage of justice,” in 1994 I lost out on my chance to appeal because of a late filing in court. I first went into prison in 1989 as a troubled and drug-addicted 22-year-old, and I stayed there until I was released onto parole in 2009. While serving time, I quickly learned that the “justice” system wasn’t built to support people like me: black, poor, illiterate, and suffering from addiction.

In May 2010, my mentally impaired daughter went missing and was trafficked through sex slavery. Despite years without using drugs, the trauma my daughter had experienced was too much for me, and I relapsed. Immediately, my parole officer ordered me to a six-month sentence at a residential drug treatment program. But after successfully completing one month of drug treatment, I was abruptly removed from the program and re-incarcerated. Consequently, I lost my publishing business, my home, my new wife, and my struggling child to the streets.

I paroled again in June 2011. Soon after, I was accused of turning in a second dirty drug test. Parole sent me before the Board of Parole Hearings for a “parole revocation proceeding,” and the presiding Commissioner offered me a deal—avoid prison and instead get “Credit for Time Served, plus six months residential drug treatment.” I accepted the plea deal and gave up my rights to challenge the charge. Unexpectedly, at the next hearing, I was sent back to state prison instead of the residential drug treatment promised to me, without a chance to challenge the allegations.

From that day forward, I spent an additional two and a half years in San Quentin State Prison’s Reception Center. At that time, I was assaulted and shot in the face with tear gas during a “chow hall” (cafeteria) riot between a group of Whites and a group of Mexican Americans. Others and I were also “gassed”—which, in prison terms, means that a mixture of urine and feces were thrown in our faces; I was “gassed” daily, for around 2 months. Racial divisions in prison are harsh and often encouraged. I brought complaints to the Corrections Officers and Counselor, but these were met only with retaliation (including a false report and write-up). By this time, I had completely lost faith in our legal system.

Despite the embittered feelings I had about how my initial criminal case and parole revocations cases were handled, my time in prison was not all bad. I spent years on the inside working to better myself—attending therapy, parenting classes, and teaching myself how to read and write. By 2010, through the grace of God, I went from a formerly illiterate prisoner to a Congressional award-winning author and self-publisher of a set of coloring books: Mr. President (Barack Obama): Educational Coloring Books. It was in prison that I had my spiritual re-awakening.

It was also in prison that I met “Al,” who, after spending 30 plus years on death row, had a successful appeal that overturned his death sentence and capital conviction; he was re-sentenced to 25-30 years time served, and is likely to get out on parole soon. Al told me, “Brother, I had the best attorney ever. His name is Michael W. Clough.” At the time Al told me about his great lawyer, I had no idea that a few years later I would be paroled and having coffee with this same attorney.

How My Faith in Attorneys was Restored

For the past few years, I have continued to pursue my legal case “pro per” (without an attorney), seeking relief for how my parole revocation was mishandled. I sought legal advice or an attorney who could help represent me. That’s when my friend, a fellow “ex-lifer,” recommended that I “check out Root & Rebound. Their attorneys are always trying to help people like us with parole issues.”

When I entered the Root & Rebound office in Berkeley, I was greeted with warm smiles and introduced to the Founder and Executive Director, Katherine, and the Deputy Director, Sonja. All the staff and interns listened intently to my story. When I was finished, Vanessa, the summer law clerk, patiently sat down with me and arranged over 500 pages in all my legal files.

Katherine and Sonja informed me: “Charles, we have a wait list right now for new clients. We need more attorneys to do this kind of work. We can’t guarantee anything, but we’ll review your papers to see if we can help in any way. You are welcome to use our resources here, and we can devote a few hours to help you with legal research at the very least.” They honestly informed me: “We don’t feel that we could provide the attention this case needs with the filing due date so fast approaching, and with one of our only two attorneys going on leave soon. However, what we can and will do, with your approval, is make calls and write emails to see if other attorneys may be able to help.”

I remembered the serenity prayer that I learned long ago, quietly said it to myself, and smiled. “Win or lose, thanks to you, I have gained hope and trust in attorneys again,” I said. “For many years, I have been misrepresented by lawyers;” I sighed aloud, “However, today my spirit rejoices because I know there are some good lawyers who really give a damn about the people they serve.”

Even though they couldn’t take on my case, Root & Rebound was relentless in helping me shop my case to others. They ultimately connected me with my attorney, Michael W. Clough, who is looking over case materials for me—the same attorney who helped my friend Al, the man I met back at San Quentin after he was released from Death Row. Through the help of these attorneys, the U.S. District Court issued me an Order to Show Cause.

That night, I thought about all the men still stuck behind prison walls: Good men of various faiths, gay and straight, with whom I sat and shared the same love and compassion I found in Root & Rebound. It’s the same spiritual love and compassion I found throughout Oakland Masjids and Options Recovery Services. I used to care so much about proving my legal case, righting the wrongs I felt had been done to me by lawyers, prison, and “the system.” But through my faith, I have arrived at a different place.

Regardless of the outcome for my legal battles and parole challenges, I have peace within. Finally, I can move forward with my life by continuing to commit myself to God and recovery, and sharing my story of faith lost and found.

— Charles “Talib” Brooks

Thank you for sharing your story, Charles! — The R&R Team

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