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Solomon Muhammad prepares a hot dog at his cart on Wednesday afternoon in Carbondale. Solomon has overcome several obstacles, including two stints in prison, to turn his life around.

CARBONDALE — On Jan. 10, 2017, Solomon Muhammad was released from his second long stint in prison and returned home to Southern Illinois.

His 20s and half of his 30s were gone. But he had found clarity and purpose.

“I began to take my life seriously," he said. “I said enough. I’m not going to be this person. I don’t want to be this person. I’m really not this person.”

He returned to the workforce, determined to make an honest living in construction and manufacturing jobs. But those opportunities quickly began to look like dead-ends.

“It was never overt racism, but it was this sense that, ‘You can come aboard but you’ll always be the laborer, the toter of the wood,'” he said. “You’ll never be a carpenter because you’re not smart enough.”

Over and over, Solomon returned to the dream he had in prison: becoming his own boss.

“In prison I thought: ‘Would I rather work eight hours a day for somebody else, or 16 for myself?’"he said. "I always chose 16.”

To Solomon, entrepreneurship meant a chance to prove himself without the stigma of his prison past.

He also hoped it would allow him to schedule life around his priorities — like the disciplined regimen of diet, exercise and Islamic religious practice that now guides him.

In the year after his release, as his frustration at work grew, he found the man and the place that could help him set his own course.

Through his halfway house, Solomon was invited to the Center for Empowerment and Justice, a Carbondale community center focused on helping former prisoners.

There, he met co-founder Rev. Sidney Logwood, pastor at Rock Hill Missionary Baptist Church.

Like Solomon, Logwood, 72, had had run-ins with the law as a young man.

“I come from a background of hustling and being in the streets as a youngster,” he told the Southern. “I barely escaped. I was blessed with grace.”

After several arrests, he beat a drug habit and got educated, working as a substance abuse counselor and then a funeral director and embalmer.

Now he mentors men like Solomon, just as he was guided.

“I think of Ezekiel’s vision in the Bible, when he is shown this valley of dry bone, and he says, ‘Lord, can these bones live?’” Logwood said. “We have great potential all throughout our community, but these guys need someone that’s willing to offer them a leg up.”

For ex-convicts, especially in rural areas with few reintegration services, the challenges are especially acute.

“If they tell the truth no one wants to hire them,” Logwood said. “If not, it comes out in the background check.”

Nationally, 35.2 percent of all formerly incarcerated black men ages 35 to 44 are unemployed, a rate five times higher than their peers, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

Meanwhile, an experiment by a Harvard researcher found job applicants with criminal records got callbacks from potential employers at a rate up to 50 percent less.

Logwood’s reponse to the bleakness?

“If you can’t get a job, make a job,” he said.

In 2015 he opened a shoe shine parlor in the building that now houses the center, and invited former prisoners to learn the craft and set up shop.

After that initiative ended, he met Solomon and they began mulling new opportunities.

“We started talking about things that could be done that wouldn’t take a whole lot of initial investment but that could grow with a whole lot of commitment,” Logwood said.

They settled on a hot dog cart, to be placed in a parking lot along Emerald Lane, visible from Illinois 13 near the Murdale Shopping Center.

“At one time there was a woman who had a hot dog cart at that very location and she left,” Logwood said. “We went in 50-50, split everything right down the middle.”

Logwood, then the owner of Southern Que barbecue, brought restaurant experience and a valid food handler’s certification. Solomon put in the money he’d saved since his release, and committed to staffing the cart.

They formed an LLC, registered with the Secretary of State, and on June 16, 2018, put out the cart for the first time.

“Solomon has been diligent man,” Logwood said. “He’s the type of guy that really will tear to shred the stereotypes. He knows the path he ought to be on and is convinced and determined to stay the course. ”

Solomon, 38, was never intimidated by hard work, he told the Southern.

Born in the town of Pulaski, in rural Pulaski County, he grew up raising cows and picking vegetables on his grandfather’s farm.

He had a supportive mother and a good home life, but struggled in school.

‘“I always enjoyed learning, but there was nothing that engaged me to where I enjoyed being at school,” he said. “It was just: ‘don’t do this, don’t do that.’”

He dropped out of Meridian High School and enrolled in Job Corps, where he got his GED and learned to work with his hands. Later, he would do a short stint in the Marines, dropping out to return home to a girlfriend.

In between all that, he hung out on the streets. At 20, he was arrested for drug trafficking, and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

There, he found Islam and shed his birth name, Sullivan Young, which he considers a vestige of the slave owners that held his ancestors. He took college courses, and worked to surround himself with men on a path to betterment.

But, within a year of his release, he was again arrested, this time for attempting to rob a Southern Illinois bank with a relative.

“I could see things progressing, but I think I was just getting impatient with the process,” Solomon said of his decision to re-offend. “My internal fortitude broke down.”

His second sentence was spent at Menard Correctional Center.

“It’s the worst place I’ve ever been,” he said. “They’re just warehousing people. Men are there to die and rot. There’s nothing there you can even avail yourself to, to better yourself.”

At Menard, he deepened his studies of the Quran and Bible and taught GED courses to fellow prisoners.

“What they don't show about prison is you’ve got a whole lot of men and women working to reform themselves on a daily basis,” Solomon said. “The problem is some of those places are not centers for reform.”

This winter, as he prepared to begin his second year in business, Solomon bought out Logwood, who was ready to retire.

“It was a friendly thing,” he said. “He is still coaching and mentoring me.”

A month ago, Sidney and Solomon’s opened its second location, inside the main entrance of the Lowe’s on Carbondale’s east side.

It’s staffed by his girlfriend, Jerri Locke, a playwright, actress and singer, who first met Solomon when he lived in Pulaski, and she in Tamms. Fifteen years later, when Solomon got out of prison, they reconnected.

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Solomon’s girlfriend, Jerri Locke, works at the couple’s hot dog cart they opened earlier this year at the Carbondale Lowe’s.

Most mornings, the couple rises around 6 a.m. to set up both carts by 10:30.

They serve Polishes, Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beefs and jumbo dogs — exclusively all-beef products because of Solomon’s faith— plus chips, sodas and Little Debbies.

On Saturdays, when they work the Farmer’s Market, Solomon breaks out breakfast food: sausage and cheese biscuits and biscuits and gravy.

“The reputation is building,” said Locke. “If people taste it, they come back.”

After lunch service, the couple break the carts down and Solomon gets ready for his night job, ferrying factory workers to the Gilster-Mary Lee plant in Chester for a transport service.

Through it all, the biggest challenge he’s overcome, he said, is a psychological barrier.

“If you're treated like a criminal for so many years, day after day, it’s not long before you begin to believe certain things about yourself,” Solomon said. “People need to learn to believe in themselves again.”

Going forward, Solomon’s ambition for the carts is not about wealth. He sees them as a stepping stone for other former prisoners looking for a fresh start.

“The idea of the carts is a larger idea of the center,” he said. “Even if you can give someone a hundred bucks in their pocket, it can get them through, keep them stable, keep them productive. Those types of small victories excite me.”

Ten years ahead, he imagines a network of small businesses, from a lawn care company to a cleaning service, all unified in that mission.

He wants to help the center provide small loans, and get people's credit fixed.

“I’m hoping we can find a lot of other Solomons,” Logwood said. “But they will need to be willing to put some skin in the game.”

“We want to see work and effort,” Solomon agreed. “The center doesn’t have all this money, all these grants and vouchers. But if you come in with an idea and a vision, we will attempt to help support and facilitate that.”

Solomon is already identifying other former prisoners who could join him, as the business grows.

His legacy, he hopes, will be reflected in them.

“I just want the person who comes after me to have a better shot,” he said.

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Reporter

Gabriel Neely-Streit is a reporter for The Southern covering higher education.

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