Kevin "Bilal" Chatman: a Vision of Redemption at the College Football National Championship Game
On Monday night, I sat in Levi's Stadium witnessing Clemson pull away from Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. In the row behind me, a Tigers devotee gloated unabashedly, irking and prodding nearby Bama fans by pointing out the scoreboard. One Tide enthusiast confronted the shit-talking Tiger- a verbal jousting laced with expletives and challenges to throw blows ensued. Nearby attendees tried to intervene but the brewing scuffle continued. Eventually, a stadium security supervisor arrived to diffuse the tension; I looked back and saw a familiar face- my friend and fellow Muslim, Kevin “Bilal” Chatman.
As of 2012, Bilal sat in a prison cell, without any hope of living in free society, serving a 150 years to life sentence under California's 3 strike laws for a non-violent, non-serious 3rd “strike” conviction. That year, California voters passed Prop 36 requiring that a 3rd strike be violent or serious crime to trigger a life sentence. Bilal's case came under review and was assigned to my colleague Jessica Delgado to advocate for a modification of his sentence and his ultimate release. Jessica, cited, among other virtues, Bilal's record of stellar performance in prison, and convinced a judge to reduce his sentence and release him after serving over 10 years of his life sentence.
Jessica, aware I was Muslim and involved in the local community, asked that I meet with Bilal prior to his release so that he could connect with another Muslim to ease his transition back into the community. One 2013 day, I walked to the Santa Clara County jail for a blind date with Bilal, a man whose name and story I knew but hadn't met yet. I asked the correctional officers for Bilal and nervously waited in the jail interview room. A few minutes later, Bilal, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, arrived with a huge smile. I stood up and introduced myself to him; he yelled “alhamdullilah!” and wrapped me in a big hug. He was so so happy to meet a brother in faith. We talked for about an hour about faith, his transition plan, his hopes and fears. I gave him my cell number and urged him to contact me upon his release. Days later, my colleague picked him up from prison and Bilal texted me, using technology that he only imagined ever using.
In the several years since that memorable first meeting, Bilal has remained free, been a model of redemption and an advocate for criminal justice reform, all the while working multiple jobs including as a staff/security member at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. We've crossed paths at the local mosque, had a few meals together and actually ran into each other at Levi's back in 2014 where he was working as staff for a Cal v. Oregon football game. Bilal even joined me and my friend Avi on our podcast, our first ever guest, to talk about his story and criminal justice and prison reform. He had transitioned from office client to a beloved friend.
On Monday, I browsed Bilal's instagram and saw that he was working the championship game and knew he would be in the stadium. I imagined it unlikely that I'd run into him among the 70,000+ people in attendance but thought of him and hoped for the possibility nevertheless. And then miraculously, our universes aligned and there he was in the 4th quarter of the game, all the way up in the top deck in section 413, just a few feet from me, breaking up a fight with his calm words, soothing smile and dignified manner.
As I watched him intervene, my heart became full. Just 6-7 years prior, Bilal sat confined in a prison cell, wearing a state issued jumpsuit, condemned to spend the rest of his life in a cage. We, the people of the state of California, had decided that this man, because of his past crimes, was beyond redemption, that he was incapable of living amongst us, that he served no purpose in free society, that he was only worthy of breathing breaths in prison. And now, he stood before me, adorned in a blazer, tie, official name tag and security earpiece, a free, working, managerial man, a dignified peacemaker making the night safer and more enjoyable for the rest of us, a living, breathing model of redemption.
After he pacified the situation, we caught each other's eyes and embraced in a full, brotherly hug, expressing joy that the night brought us together again. He eventually left the section and went about his other duties. As I exited the stadium, I saw Bilal at the gates, reveled in his presence and shared my reflections with him- the contrast of the depths and darkness of prison, how the state had perceived and treated him, with where he was now, in the open air shining as a bright light of our community. He responded by sharing that he now earned 52 dollars an hour at his day job, compared to 8 cents an hour for his labor while in prison. I lamented to him that there must be hundreds and thousands of others locked away and forgotten in our prisons on lengthy and life sentences, like he once was, that are fit, mature, wise, qualified and ready to rejoin, enrich and beautify our communities. Bilal exclaimed in agreement- he said, “I'm not an outlier, I'm not special… there are so many like me…all they need is the opportunity like I got.”