Ra Chaka had two strikes against him before he even got up to bat. Orphaned at an early age and jostled through foster care, he entered the “corrections” system by the age of 10. By the age of 20, in 1976, he was facing a 20- to 60-year sentence for armed robbery. Seemingly defeated, his future prospects dashed, he reached bottom with “why me” resignation.
The answer, however, soon came to him: “Why not me?” And he realized that he
could choose between giving up and making something worthwhile of the rest of his life.
“It was a matter of becoming conscious,” he says, “a new level of awareness.” Fortunately for Chaka, the Illinois DOC policy still included educational opportunities for prisoners – long since unfortunately curtailed or eliminated entirely due to budget cuts resulting, in part at least, from the legislature’s aversion to the “soft on crime” label.
“When I was coming up,” he explains, “the educational ethic was instilled in us. We had good teachers, and we tutored each other. That’s gone now.” Motivated by the threat of his own unrealized potential, he seized the opportunities available at the time and earned several college-level degrees.
“From kindergarten to college, I really grew up in the system,” he recalls. That was when the system’s policy of rehabilitation stressed the importance of education. He also became an ordained minister and, even further, earned a reputation as an astute legal practitioner. Most importantly, along the way he developed a deep-seated philosophy of helping others, a philosophy that evolved into his life’s work. He began instructing fellow inmates on their rights to humane treatment and peaceful organization, and petitioned prison authorities to protect and reinstate threatened education opportunities and successful development programs.
“We’re using our abilities to do for ourselves. People in prison need to know that we have ability to create.”
Chaka assumed he would have to serve out his full sentence, especially after 11 unsuccessful appearances before the Parole Review Board. But his tenacity never flagged, and there was no organized outside effort opposing his release, and he was pleasantly surprised, even somewhat shocked, to gain his freedom in 1996. He speculates that, in the final analysis, his notoriety for making waves fighting for prisoners’ rights while in prison worked both against him and, ultimately, for him.
Although frustrated by the demise of the DOC educational programs and the influx of youthful inmates, he continued his work on the outside, particularly focused on youth in his beleaguered South Side community – without complaint and ever optimistic. His work continues as a community organizer, mentor and counselor. He participates at every opportunity in conferences seeking social solutions, and assists prisoners and ex-prisoners and their families through his non-profit agencies. He heads the Justice Center, a civil rights law center he founded in the heart of the South Side with the help of several attorneys, and works to right wrongful conviction cases and to pursue justice for inmates who have been abused during their incarceration. And recognizing the prejudice of employers, he knows the “don’t call us; we’ll call you” obstacles that force many young people back to life on the streets. The work is unending, and Chaka hasn’t taken a vacation since his release from prison.
His advice to them: “Find the commitment to people. If you do that, you can stay on the straight and narrow.”
His life is an expression of faith, perseverance and self-realization based on selflessness. “By helping others,” he states simply, “I’m helping myself.”