Roshan Muhammed Salih is 5Pillars editor. You can follow him on Twitter here
Roshan Muhammed Salih reviews Out of the Box, a fascinating new book by the former criminal Leroy Smith who found Islam in jail and is now trying to atone for his sins.
Out of the Box by Leroy Smith is the fascinating life story of a man who served decades in prison for shooting two policemen before he found Islam in jail and vowed to atone for his violent past.
Smith is brutally honest about the life of crime that he used to lead and the destruction that he left in his wake. And he details how Muslims are beginning to have a major influence over high security prisons, leading to a huge number of conversions inside.
But first and foremost this is the story of a man trying to atone for his past sins and warn those who may be contemplating a life of crime that it really isn’t worth it.
Life of crime
Leroy Smith’s life story is something out of a Hollywood movie.
At the age of two his mother was murdered and he grew up in a deprived Brixton council estate where he gradually drifted into a life of crime. It was the kind of place where everyone was obsessed about getting money because nobody had any, apart from the drug dealers and other criminals.
As he got older Smith began to do small-time burglaries and ended up in a borstal for his troubles. But the strict regime didn’t reform him; it just made him stronger and more determined to be a criminal.
Eventually Smith made it to the big-time when he got hold of a gun. The weapon was his route to power because it made everyone scared of him. Don’t forget this was a time in London (the 1990s) when guns were not as common as they are today.
As he explains in his book, he didn’t scare people by his physical presence; rather, his power was psychological – he had a gun and he had the heart to use it. Gradually he became a monster and was quite happy to sell drugs and shoot people, including two police officers.
He then spent a few yeas on the run in Jamaica and the United States, living the high life as a drug dealer. The girls were readily available and the weed was plentiful. During this time Smith led a violent, high-risk life, as he explains:
“That was my life – fast and very reckless – a road that I would not advise anybody to go down, because it is very addictive and it always ends badly. It is a matter of time – you may get five years as a run, but after that … the odds will be stacking up against you. It hurts me to say this, after 20 years, a large majority of black guys still think this road is paved with gold. Let me tell you brother, from the heart, you’re only fooling yourself. These are not the words of a broken man; these are the words of a wise man and, just like me, you can find something that you can do to enhance your life in a positive way, that makes your family proud, rather than leaving them in tears.”
Smith’s luck eventually ran out and he was arrested in America and deported back to face trial in Britain. He was sentenced to 25 years in jail.
“Judge Lowry did not waste too much time in dispatching me. He gave me 67 years in total and stated how dreadful crimes must get dreadful sentences and he could not foresee any time in the future when there would be anything positive for or about me. In other words he gave me that sentence thinking that it was destroying me as I wouldn’t be able to complete it. But the opposite has happened and I have served my sentence and now I’m in the process of redeeming my own self, understanding my own self, so I can give something back to the people that are closest to my heart – poor, underprivileged people, living every day in pain.”
Smith gives a fascinating account of his time in jail. Violence and drugs were part of everyday life inside and inmates played out petty and violent feuds among themselves and their guards. He says that prison eventually destroyed his ego.
Moreover, the influx of Muslim inmates into high security prisons during the 1990s (many of whom would consider themselves political prisoners rather than violent criminals) seems to have changed the culture there. First of all, it has cleaned up the drug problem which was rife in these institutions; and secondly, it has given prisoners the solace that they need to get through their lengthy sentences, as Smith explains:
“From the mere fact that a Muslim prisoner did not need drugs or drink to function inside the prison system and only needed food and exercise in the gym, it was clear from the start that brothers could adapt to anything. Slowly but surely inmates started to convert, some for inner peace, others for their own ends, or to seek personal power.”
But while it is a fact that Islam and Muslims are becoming predominant in high security prisons it isn’t clear why so many inmates are converting. Reading between the lines it seems that many do so out of conviction but some may do so out of pragmatism as you need to be part of a gang in prison to protect yourself, and Muslims are becoming the most powerful gang.
The media headlines that we read about Muslims in prisons may focus on radicalisation but Smith says that if anyone is to blame for that it is the politicians and authorities who drive people into that state.
Smith himself did not convert immediately he was asked to because he says he’s not the type to “jump on a bandwagon when it comes to God.” Instead he took his time and eventually, in 2007, came to the conclusion that Islam was for him.
Smith was released in 2011 but was soon up on a robbery charge again and back in jail. But this time he was found not guilty and since that day has vowed to atone for his past life.
Daughter’s poignant thoughts
Out of the Box is not a great work of literature. The chapters are too short and Smith sometimes skirts too quickly past momentous events that have happened to him. The book, which can easily be read in a day, has not been produced by a major publisher and will not have a huge marketing campaign. But in my opinion, any shortcomings are entirely understandable and we should support these types of publications all the more for them.
This book has not been produced for the general reader (although he/she will still find it fascinating); it has been written for young kids who may find themselves walking the same path as a young Leroy Smith. It is written in a clear, straightforward style devoid of flowery language; it’s an easy and quick read; it gets straight down to the point. And that works just fine.
It is also not a book with an entirely happy ending, because life is much more complicated than that. Yes, Smith is now on the straight and narrow. Yes, he’s doing his best to atone for his sins and pass his life lessons onto younger generations. But his past has not necessarily been forgotten or forgiven, even by those closest to him.
Accordingly, one of the most poignant parts of the book actually comes right at the end, when Smith’s own daughter gives her candid thoughts:
“Growing up I think I’ve lied to almost every friend I’ve had about my father and his role in my life. I once told an employer my father was an artist in the 1970s… Other times he’s been a business man or an accountant… anything than who he is, the cop shooting drug seller and Cat A prisoner. For the first time in my life I can proudly say my father is an author… I’ve made peace with myself by letting go of what I cannot change and doing everything in my power to be the best mother ever… My relationship with my parents is estranged but I wish them both well and… by writing this book my father has finally done something I can be proud of and my child can reflect on without stigma or shame.”
Out of the Box is available to buy on Amazon Kindle or on paperback here.