As one of the elder statesmen of the Massachusetts prison system, Ramadan Shabazz shows little trace of the man who was sent away for life in 1971.
Since his conviction for murder, Shabazz — born James Hall — has changed his name and his religion. He has earned two college degrees. He has built a rock-solid reputation behind the wall as a model citizen. He has been a soft-spoken mentor to generations of prisoners hoping to build a better future for themselves.
And on Tuesday, Shabazz hopes to take a long step toward freedom himself.
The Parole Board will hear his petition to reduce his charge from first-degree murder to second-degree murder. If they do that, Shabazz, 72, would become eligible for parole, after 51 years behind bars.
If successful rehabilitation is the premise behind being a good candidate for parole, it’s hard to envision a better candidate than Ramadan Shabazz.
This is a man who has availed himself of every opportunity to demonstrate that he is not the person who participated in a double homicide in the summer of 1971. And he has done that with the utmost remorse and humility.
“I really believe that clemency is so important and plays such an important role in our system,” said his attorney, Mia Teitelbaum, of Shapiro and Teitelbaum. “If we believe in clemency and the possibility for people to change, that’s him.”
Shabazz was born in South Carolina; his family moved to Boston when he was nine. He enlisted in the Army after graduating from Jamaica Plain High, at the height of the Vietnam War.
Like many veterans, Shabazz returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a serious addiction to heroin.
None of that excused what happened on Aug. 14, 1971. That was the day Shabazz and another man, Raymond White, shot two security guards to death during a botched robbery at the Freedom Foods supermarket in Dorchester. At the time of the murder, Shabazz was high on LSD, hoping to steal money to pay off his drug dealer. A jury convicted them after just three hours of deliberation. The Supreme Judicial Court vacated his death sentence in 1976, and his sentence was reduced to life without parole.
I met with Shabazz at MCI-Shirley in 2020, not long before the pandemic shut down state prisons. Before I could even ask a question, he expressed his deep regret for the murders he had committed.
“I was young, stupid, returning from Vietnam and strung out on drugs,” he said. “Two men lost their lives that day, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am. If I could do anything to bring that day back, I would. But I can’t.”
After being incarcerated, Shabazz got busy. He became a student. He was part of an acclaimed program in which prisoners provided support to mentally ill patients at Bridgewater State Hospital, earning a reputation as someone especially good at dealing with volatile and violent patients. He completed dozens of work release assignments successfully before that program was abolished.
While Shabazz was studying for his undergraduate degree, he connected with Dr. Richard Parker, a distinguished physician who has made a years-long crusade of helping Shabazz win his freedom someday. Parker and his family corresponded with Shabazz at least weekly, and has pledged to take him in if he wins release, and to help him find employment.
If Shabazz is released, he is interested in working with the mentally ill and those in hospice care. As Shabazz had aged himself, he’s become drawn to people facing their mortality, Parker told me.
“He’s a full human being who I think will cherish freedom and the opportunity to look up at the blue sky and experience the world as most people experience it,” Parker said.
His release would mean something to Parker as well.
“I will feel a tremendous sense of gratitude if he is successful and the Parole Board finds it within themselves to release him. I will feel that we have done something right for one human being.”
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is among those who have written letters in support of Shabazz’s eventual release.
Gates described clemency as an opportunity to recognize the disproportionate impact of the carceral system on Black and brown communities.
“Mr. Shabazz is one of those prisoners — a truly exceptional individual who has consistently worked hard over many years to rehabilitate himself.”
Even if the Parole Board votes to commute his sentence this week, Shabazz will not be free. The governor would have to approve the commutation. And then — at some unspecified point — it would still have to vote to release him.
But the process would begin. And Governor Charlie Baker has recently commuted the sentences of two longtime prisoners. That has raised hopes that Shabazz could be next. If his sentence is commuted, the path to parole could be relatively short.
And I believe it should be.
Shabazz is guilty of a heinous crime. But he is also a man who has served more than a half-century behind bars, doing everything in his power to repent.
If that doesn’t qualify him for parole, what would?
Parole is not about sainthood. It’s an acknowledgment that people can change, and can contribute to the world.
Ramadan Shabazz entered prison as a troubled young man, and seeks to leave it as a wise old man.
There isn’t one good reason why that shouldn’t happen. And an unforgiving clock is ticking.