Sometimes being a dad requires taking a step back, looking at the big picture, and doing what might feel wrong but is actually right. This is the way Muhammad Salaam approaches being a dad. For 47 years he has been a community activist in Wilmington, DE. He’s got seven kids: four young men and three young women. Two of them have served time, and the others have achieved real success. Five graduated from college, one of his daughters qualified for the 2006 Olympic track and field team, and one of his sons earned a spot in the Kutztown College Hall of Fame.

Muhammad is a proud man and has every right to be.

Recently, he attended a graduation ceremony of another kind. His son, Saeed, 27, has been in the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution for three and a half years and is due for release this fall. Located in Wilmington, Howard R. Young is a level 5 facility that houses 1,500 men.

From February to May of this year, Saeed attended a special university-level class given inside the prison. The University of Delaware’s Inside/Outside Program offers 30 students—half from the university, half from the prison—the chance to interact, trade stories about their lives, and create programs designed to keep the inmates connected to the outside world.

The spring 2017 class came up with several programs, two of which would help male inmates get to spend time with their kids, creating art and building connections that are so important to make for both the inmates and their kids.

Saeed and his fellow inmates, at least the ones in the Inside/Outside Program, are well-behaved, sincere men. They know they stepped out of line, and now they’re working to keep from doing it again. They’re polite and friendly. They offer warm smiles, and they’re eager to learn, achieve, and try again. One of them, Frank, worked as the teaching assistant for the class. He’s been in Howard R. Young for 23 years—two years longer than my oldest son has been alive.

Saeed has two kids of his own, a son who’s seven and a daughter, four. He has spent most of his daughter’s life in Howard R. Young, yet he is as present in his kids’ lives as he can be. He speaks with them every other day, and he’s taken advantage of the prison’s Read In Read Out program, in which he records bedtime books for them. The recordings are delivered home with a copy of the book itself. Saeed has been studying while he’s been incarcerated, with an emphasis on biotech and the culinary arts. “I’m a student of life,” he said. His goal is to own and operate a food truck.

Muhammad has every confidence that Saeed can do whatever he sets his mind to. He has seen his son twice in the four years he’s been in prison—once when he arrived and again at this graduation ceremony. He knows Saeed lost his way, and he only wants him to find it again—for his own sake and for the sake of his kids. Muhammad stayed away in an effort to give his son the chance to explore himself, to self-correct instead of letting the system correct him. “The choice you make in one second can affect the rest of your life,” he said. “True correction starts with the self.”

Muhammad has tried to create an environment for his kids so that the choices they make are positive ones. But at the same time, he understands that different kids are on different paths and have to be given the freedom to pave their own path their own way. “Prison is Saeed’s time out,” which he sorely needed after a robbery and an illegal gun purchase landed him behind bars.

Muhammad Saeed is a dedicated community man and family man. His lively eyes and easy smile surround a toughness of spirit as well as a focus on doing what’s best for his kids. It’s not always easy, but it’s work he knows is the most important he will ever do.

—Tony Buchsbaum