A free man
In prison, Sajad Shakoor helped write the law that got him out. Now he’s helping other ex-cons—and making great falafel.
Smiles come easy for Sajad Shakoor, talking with his employees at Falafel Corner in Natomas. It wasn’t always that way. “Over 20 years of my life were in prison,” says Shakoor, 46. “When you look at me, you don’t see that.” After growing up in Sacramento, Shakoor was locked up at 18. He earned his GED and Bachelor’s in incarceration and went on to earn his Master’s and PhD. Meanwhile, he helped reform California’s prison system, collaborating with prisoners and law professors to draft Proposition 36, which revised the three strikes law to impose a life sentence only when the new felony conviction is “serious or violent.” Shakoor was supposed to be in prison until 2022. Now, he runs five Falafel Corners around the city with his business partner, Massuod Rustakhis. “For me to give back, that’s a feelings words can’t describe: You are not a beneficiary, you are a benefactor. I tell my guys my story. Work hard and do the right things and the rewards will come.”
How did you get here?
It’s an interesting story, and it starts like this: I was 18 when I went to prison, a senior in high school. It was a different era in Sacramento with the gangs I got caught up in. I was there almost four years at first for robbery, burglary and gun possession. I stayed out a year and a half on parole. Then I was involved in instigating a fist fight—that was the charge. I wasn’t involved, except that I was there, was older and had a record. The judge said I was in a position of authority and could have stopped it. My priors turned a misdemeanor into a felony and I was sentenced 25 years to life.
I was sent to Salinas Valley State Prison, maximum security. I decided I had to change. I got my GED. Prison is like anything else: It is what you make it. There are tools to change your life there, but not when I was there. In 1994, Congress took away [federal student aid] funding for prisoners. Making 18 cents an hour in a factory, I had to get creative to fund my college education. But I was determined.
I began making clocks out of rolled up newspapers. I used shoe polish and coffee to color the paper. They allowed me to buy clock mechanisms, but not wood or glass, which could be made into weapons.
I finished my undergrad at Ohio University. I also joined self-help programs. All of it came together when I went to San Quentin, where I noticed the three-strikers had a lot of PTSD. It hit me: They can’t reconcile their stirkes even if they were misdemeanors. I saw myself in them, a decade before.
How did Prop 36 happen?
I started a weekly group therapy program under the name Hope for Three Strikers. Stanford heard about us when the buzz began on changing Prop. 36. Professor Michael Romano led the reform and brought the campaign’s funders to meet us prisoners. When they saw our transformations, they were convinced.
I told them my story and why I was really put away: For not telling. While I hadn’t been involved in the fight, the prosecutors wanted me to tell on those who were. At that time, if I told, my whole image would’ve been shattered. That’s what I realized after years of introspection and therapy.
They said, “You sound educated.” I told them how expensive it was. As a result, they funded the change.
How did you change your life?
I couldn’t stay with my brothers, who had their own families. I was back in the same environment that for most puts us back in prison. I asked my friend if he could find me a job in the Bay Area. He introduced me to Massuod, who opened Falafel Corner there.
For the next two and a half years, I worked on my PhD while living in my car and working. Why would I pay $2,000 a month to stay at a place four to five hours a day? That’s all the time I had anyway.
When the opportunity came up to come back to Sac, I jumped at it. I had my doctorate in education, but a good friend convinced me to go into business, instead. I couldn’t teach at public schools despite serving my time. And at colleges, it would take 10-15 years before I could get a living wage.
Was it hard to change focus?
[My friend] was an imam. When someone of that authority in the community speaks, you listen. He gave it a lot of thought and said he knew I loved education—I still edit his books today—but he cautioned that I couldn’t live on it or support a family. I’d just got married after living in my car. Not only could I provide a great service, he said, but one that wasn’t here with our quality.
The year after we started, we were voted the best halal restaurant in Sac. A year later, we had five locations, and a sixth is on the way. As a teacher, I made a manual where each employee had their role. If they learned and stuck with us, we helped them start a new location with all of us pitching in to help.
Do you employ ex-cons now? What lessons have you taken away?
I know an ex-con when I see one. I ask when they come in, “Where did you go in?” They look at me strangely, thinking I just look like an old Pakistani dude.
I judge people on their character and work ethic. I want to see these kids succeed and try to help them as a mentor. I have four with criminal records. I tell them, “Don’t let that define you.”
You’ll be pigeonholed by people and you have to rise above that. It’s possible to break the cycle, but you have to want it. And you have to look at life as a service to others.
When you start thinking like that, all of the universe conspires to make it happen.