Tribute For Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz, Texas Prison Chaplain, Dies at 70

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Throughout his four decades as the first Muslim chaplain in the Texas prison system, Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz somehow found a way to instill hope in inmates who were often without it.

In 1995, Charlesetta Myers of Dallas was, in her words, “spiraling out of control.” After violating parole, she was sent back to prison for a third time. She picked up a copy of the Quran and decided to go to a Muslim service, where she met Mr. Shabazz. She soon converted to Islam and took the name Rashidah Muhammad.

Mr. Shabazz “just had a way of encouraging people,” Ms. Muhammad said, crediting him with turning her life around. Twenty years after leaving prison, she is a small-business owner and an active figure in Dallas Muslim circles who travels to prisons each month as a volunteer teacher.

Mr. Shabazz died on April 23 at a hospital in The Woodlands, near Houston. He was 70. His daughter, Rabiah Shabazz, said the cause was Covid-19.

The disease, caused by the new coronavirus, has taken a particularly heavy toll on prison populations. As of June 25, Mr. Shabazz was among eight staff members and 72 offenders in the Texas prison system to succumb to the virus, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Shabazz, who lived in Huntsville, Texas, was one of more than 100 chaplains in the prison system, including five Muslims. He provided pastoral care, led prayer services and worked at about 25 prisons, often counseling staff members as well as inmates. He was credited with expanding the practice of Islam in Texas prisons and with cementing Muslim traditions like Friday prayers and the observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

Mr. Shabazz was well regarded among inmates of all faiths, said Bryan Collier, the executive director of the criminal justice department. “Anybody who had been here for a while knew who Chaplain Shabazz was,” he said.

Several former prisoners said Mr. Shabazz had remained a close friend long after they left prison and helped guide former inmates toward receiving college degrees or starting businesses.

He had another skill inside the prisons: “He knew how to de-escalate conflicts,” said his daughter, a mental health manager for offenders and a former correctional officer. “He had so much patience and calm.”

Mr. Shabazz, whose story was recently told by The Houston Chronicle, first served as a volunteer chaplain and began working full time in 1979. In 1982, he was present as a chaplain at the nation’s first execution by lethal injection and was one of two chaplains who escorted the condemned killer, Charles Brooks Jr., into the death chamber, according to Texas Monthly magazine, which chronicled Mr. Brooks’s final hours.

Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz was born Robert Lynn Williams on March 20, 1950, in Monroe, La., the second oldest of nine children of Robert and Matheal Williams. His father owned several small businesses and was a truck driver; his mother was a nurse. The family converted to Islam after moving to Flint, Mich., in 1951, and adopted Muslim names in the mid-1970s; his parents became Omar and Matheal Shabazz.

The family moved to Texas in 1959, and Robert grew up in Dallas. He attended El Centro College there before becoming a research employee at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

Mr. Shabazz married Mary Smith in 1972; they divorced in 1981. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his second wife, Janice Shabazz; a son, Akbar Nurid-Din Shabazz II; and five stepchildren, Ira Mosley, Janice O’Guin, Shirley Kamau, Vickey Shaffer and Janiece Burns.

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