In his early twenties, David “Dawud“ Lee was, in his words, “out on the streets living a criminal lifestyle.” He is now serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania state prison. But against all odds, David has transformed himself into a true leader and role model under the most difficult conditions.
David endured a difficult childhood in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood. “There was not an abundance of love in my household,” he recalls. He suffered a horrific head injury as a child, fracturing his skull on the playground when he was eight, and the response and his recovery were very hard. His life drifted along into adulthood. As he puts it, “Throughout my entire life out on the streets I operated without a sense of purpose, and I had no self-knowledge.”
In 1988, 22-year-old David accompanied a friend to buy a gun at someone’s house. His friend knocked on the door, then shot and killed the individual who answered. For his involvement, David was convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence. “I thought I would be gone for 15 minutes,” David says. “But I never returned home.”
David had a tough self-reckoning when he arrived at prison. “That initial look in the mirror was horrifying for me, because there was so much that needed to change,” he says. “My level of underdevelopment was unspeakable. I had to stop smoking and getting high. I was functionally illiterate, so I had to begin to educate myself.
“I had been told during my pre-sentence diagnostic test that I had the mentality of a fourth grader and that I was incapable of learning. That lit a fire inside of me that still burns to this day.” David put himself to work filling in the gaps of education and strove to understand the society and culture that had placed him behind bars for life.
“It took many years of healing and soul-searching to create a healthy mental outlook on life, and most of those years were spent in isolation inside of a state-operated cage,” he says.
“I do not hide the fact that I created harm in my community. And I am working hard to redeem myself, every day.”
Working from the core of his own trauma, David developed the empathy, ability, and desire to mentor those who find themselves in the same predicament he faced or are headed in that direction.
“We started one program called Dare-2-Care, which is a youth development program that not only mentors our youth but provides meaning for older prisoners. I use the skills that I have developed in here to mentor youth on the outside now, and they often express the value of being able to engage in honest and open conversations with someone who has spent decades in prison, but used the time to grow and continuously develop. We also started an educational program called ‘One Hood United,’ geared toward providing our youth with cultural, political, and economic enlightenment.”
He thinks people in prison have a perspective that can be of immense and unique value, both in terms of helping individuals and changing the system. “The most germane programs for me are the ones created by prisoners, because they are the most realistic, and they are culturally attuned with various backgrounds of prisoners.”
Within the prison walls and extending to the outside, David has almost legendary status – that’s how many people he’s helped. There is a social media campaign that highlights the positive effects David had on people both inside and outside, using the hashtag #Dawudtaughtme.
Returning citizen Antonio Howard, who made the portrait featured here, served time with David, and he has this to say: “Instead of just serving time, David has spent his time serving the best interest of the community by investing in the growth and development of those of us who, unlike him, are afforded the privilege of returning to society. I am an example of his investment, and I live by the wisdom he imparted: It is not enough to opt out of criminogenic thinking and behavior. Those of us who have contributed to the death and destruction of community must actively participate in repairing the damage. And we must do so with the same unapologetic commitment, and dedication we exhibited while destroying it.”
Despite all this, David will very likely die in prison. “There are no possibilities for human beings in this state serving life sentences. We will die slow and agonizing deaths inside of Pennsylvania prisons.”
David is now in his late fifties and in poor health, suffering from sarcoidosis. “My sarcoidosis has a major impact on my breathing and I am struggling with that as I write this,” he says. “My sarcoidosis is something that takes up a lot of my time and energy, because breathing is life, and there are days when I cannot walk up one flight of steps without being out of breath!”
As the decades have ticked by, his remaining family is supportive of David, especially his sister, Wanda Bush, and his niece, Waseme Wilson.
David “Dawud” Lee is an extraordinary man. It couldn’t be clearer when you look at his life’s journey that people are capable of change and deserve second chances. Just think of all the good that his perspective, energy, and experience could do on the outside.
David’s options now are clemency or compassionate release. And he was denied clemency and subsequent reconsideration, and he is nowhere near meeting the incredibly narrow standard for compassionate release in Pennsylvania – “only people who are dying, either those within 12 months of death or for whom death is ‘likely in the near future’ and who are non-ambulatory, may benefit.” His only hope lies in reform. Help FAMM, David, and thousands just like him by going here.