BY SEAN HECK Ali Siddiq is not your traditional stand-up comic. This Houston-bred funny man, writer, actor, and activist spent six years of a fifteen-year sentence for drug trafficking behind bars in the Texas state penitentiary system. For his 2018 Comedy Central special Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars, Siddiq returned to prison to perform stand-up and interview inmates and prison personnel at Bell County Jail in Belton, Texas. In addition to being a well-received comedian with stand-up appearances at Just For Laughs, The Tom Joyner Foundation Cruise, BET’s One Mic Stand, Bill Bellamy’s Ladies Night Out Tour on HBO, and the season finale of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, the New York Comedy Festival’s “Up Next” champion has also appeared on Showtime and AXS, as well as Ari Shaffir’s (and, later, Roy Wood Jr.’s) widely-lauded storytime show This is Not Happening.
Ali Siddiq is not just an entertainer, however. He is an accredited critic of United States culture as it relates to the school-to-prison pipeline, and has many honest and passionate opinions about how the glamorization of violence and the absence of a culture of personal accountability are to blame for the massive incarceration rates in the U.S. There is a seriousness to Siddiq, and I respect his lack of reservations when it comes to challenging his interlocutor. At first, as a 22-year-old white male with a suburban upbringing and no history of crime, Siddiq’s challenges to my assumptions about his time in prison were somewhat intimidating to me. As you will see, the mood was rather tense during first few minutes of the interview. Obviously, incarceration is a life with which I am totally unfamiliar, but it was a welcome culture clash that culminated with Siddiq’s common sense observation that you can’t keep the peace without the establishment of common ground with others, no matter how different they may be from you. You can catch his act at Punch Line Philly tonight through Saturday.
PHAWKER: So you found your calling as a comedian behind bars. If you don’t mind me asking, what was the series of events that resulted in your six-year prison term? What can you tell me about your life before prison?
ALI SIDDIQ: What resulted in my six-year prison sentence was…the Feds busted me and my partner for five kilos of cocaine at a hotel. Before that, I was just a regular kid in school…hanging out with my friends and all that.
PHAWKER: Presumably, comedy was a survival tactic for you in prison. Can you recall—
ALI SIDDIQ: Presumed by who?
PHAWKER: I’m just presuming that that would help you.
ALI SIDDIQ: Why would you presume that would help?
ALI SIDDIQ: I ask that question because…that whole thing came from a movie called “House Party.” At no time was Richard Pryor incarcerated to use that as a tactic to keep people off him. That wouldn’t work. I was probably a very formidable opponent with anybody before then. I don’t know why people presume that I would need to be funny to protect myself.
PHAWKER: So you didn’t use your potential to be funny as a tool in prison at all?
ALI SIDDIQ: Nah. Me being funny and me being sarcastic and humorous…that wasn’t a survival tactic. My survival tactic was that, if anybody were gonna try me, I would probably beat their head in or attempt to kill them. That was the survival tactic that I used.
PHAWKER: So I read that you have a really good prison riot story. Would you mind just telling an abbreviated version of that for our readers?
ALI SIDDIQ: It’s on YouTube [see below], so most people can watch it in its entirety but…it’s about me being in this prison called Torres. There was a riot between the blacks and the Hispanics. And they used their boots to kick you in shin before they stabbed you. That’s the abbreviated version.
PHAWKER: You did your 2018 Comedy Central special, It’s Bigger Than These Bars, from inside the state prison in Texas for your served time prior to your release 20 years ago, correct?
ALI SIDDIQ: I recorded it in Bell County. I never served time there. They don’t allow cameras and recordings inside of the actual jail…in TDC, behind the bars. That’s the thing. I think I said on the special that I never served actually there. That was the closet that we could get to me doing it in the state of Texas with people who had served in TDC or were waiting to serve in TDC. At first I thought it was horrible. But the beauty in it was that I got the opportunity to do the women and show the side with the women being incarcerated as well. And I think that’s a side that most people didn’t expect, or never even actually saw.
PHAWKER: Right. It seems like they give the male perspective more often on TV shows and in the media.
ALI SIDDIQ: Yeah. It kinda worked out for the best for me to be in that facility with those people. And people who see the special that actually served time at TDC and those who are waiting to go to TDC will like that. TDC is a gateway. You are awaiting trial or you’ve already signed for your time, and you are getting ready to go to TDC. And you mix with people who are first-timers and people who have been there multiple times.
PHAWKER: As someone who has experienced the criminal justice system firsthand, I’m sure you have a lot to say about mass incarceration and inequality in the American justice system. I wanted to ask you, as I am someone who is unfamiliar with these experiences…What do you think is necessary to break the chain of the school to prison pipeline?
ALI SIDDIQ: You gotta socially change. I know a lot of people make this big thing about prison reform. But you gotta reform society, not keep reforming the prisons. You gotta give people an opportunity not to even glorify prison, or even think that’s even an option in their life. People should be comfortable in this country. If they took the money that they waste on food in a day, and put that toward actually increasing education…not just teachers and their salaries, but the quality of education, and filtering good examples into society…that’s the reform that they need. Society first, then you can reform prisons. Canada has a prison system as well, but what do they have…1,400 people locked up in the whole place? And 75% of those people are chemically imbalanced, with something wrong with them? 15% of those are people who just kept commiting crimes, and so they gave them a sentence. So, in this country, it’s a cattle system. The more cattle you have, the more wealth you have…the better off you are. You gotta change the desire for people to want to hurt each other and enslave each other for profit, if you are going to actually reform prison.
PHAWKER: In Philadelphia we have a new DA that is trying to reform the criminal justice system in Philadelphia, specifically eliminating cash bail for nonviolent and first time offenders. For a time upwards of half the prison population in Philadelphia was people who couldn’t afford bail awaiting trial sometimes for years, because they were unable to come up with $200 or whatnot. As an advocate for reforming the system, I am curious what your thoughts are on cash bail reform. Does it not criminalize poverty?
ALI SIDDIQ: My bond was $150,000 starting out. Then they gave me $75,000 more. Now, I could have made the bond at the expense of incriminating myself. And then I would have had to put up collateral, someone would have had to come and sign for me. There are people that have a bond of $1,000. Ten percent of that is $100 to get out. But they don’t have any collateral, they don’t have someone to come get them who has a valid ID. Say someone’s bond is $200. You should be able to work and get out on your own recognizance. You should be able to pay ten percent of that. That’s twenty dollars. You should be able to get out on your own with those numbers. What is the crime that you committed for a $200 bond? Jaywalking? A traffic ticket? What is that crime, and can you work that crime off in four or five days and not even go to court? Not even acquire a record? That’s the process for those types of petty crimes if it’s $200. What crime could you be committing? And then you gotta ask: why is that person committing that crime? I’m gonna ask you a question just to make my point: Have you ever heard the term “lyin’ ass Chinese?”
PHAWKER: Never, actually.
ALI SIDDIQ: How old are you, sir?
PHAWKER: I’m 22.
ALI SIDDIQ: You’re 22? I’m 45. I’ve never heard a Chinese person to be considered a lyin’ ass person. That’s not even promoted in their culture. That’s not even honorable. But I’ve heard “lyin ass white man, black man, Mexican, Italian…” I’ve heard all of that, but I’ve never heard “lyin’ ass Chinese” and I’m 45 years old. I’ve heard everyone else! We’ve never heard them. I’m 45 years old. You’re 22. ‘Cause it’s not promoted. If we promoted a culture of honor, we wouldn’t even have a $200 dollar bond. People would be ashamed to even do a crime, because you don’t have to. You ain’t gotta steal nothing from me — I’ll give you that, just give it back later. We need honor in this country so we don’t have a prison system. I’m still beating this drum that THAT’S how you reform prison.
PHAWKER: So you think we could learn something from East Asian culture? You think it starts with the culture?
ALI SIDDIQ: Yeah. In some tribes in Africa, the whole village puts a person in a circle if something’s wrong. And for three days, the whole village (one by one) gives them positive affirmations about how good they are. Now, I know that tactic…I could probably get about fifty people telling me about how good I am. In China, as an elected official, the first trip you take is to prison. The whole entire family gets taken to prison. And they show you what will happen if you abuse your power. And they let you talk to other politicians who thought it was a game! And they are serving time…so you understand. You do this quarterly to reinforce what happens if you decide to abuse your power. Your whole family has to go to prison with you! So what’s wrong with this country in our promotion of the bad guy? Why do we promote the villain? And then we try to act like we don’t know why people are going to jail? Because you got them so bad and so ornery in their life that they think someone’s gonna make a movie about them. You gotta change the culture of these people.
PHAWKER: So instead of glamorizing violence in this country, maybe we should take kids and tell them there is nothing cool about violence?
ALI SIDDIQ: Exactly! Why is it OK for society to push violence and criminality onto you? Why is it OK for them to sensationalize it? Are we more savage than any other culture? These things don’t happen in other places. Women don’t get kidnapped in Canada. There’s no racial violence in Canada. Nobody carries a knife or a gun on them in Canada. So why? What’s the difference between Canada and the United States? They’re human beings there. Ya know? Why is Greece so relaxed, ya know? Why are so many other places so relaxed? Why do they have free healthcare? Why is college affordable? Why do they want their citizens to achieve? People ask about the flag. We are the only people that are gonna have a flag controversy because the flag doesn’t stand for each person equally. Blacks and whites in London don’t have a problem saying they’re British under one flag. Because there’s no racial divide between them. Black Canadians…they have no problem being under one flag, rooting for one team, with no racial division. So we gotta look at ourselves and see what is wrong with this country. What is wrong with its citizens? What is wrong with the setup, the dynamics? Something is wrong, but we are so arrogant that we think we are the best country in the world. How so?
PHAWKER: I agree. American exceptionalism does a lot of harm.
ALI SIDDIQ: You lock up nonviolent offenders with VIOLENT offenders and you force them to protect themselves WITH violence. So what you put back on the street is a new violent person, regardless. Post-traumatic stress! I come from a neighborhood where we hustled. That’s what we do. We hustle! Whatever happens in these streets happens. Whatever weapon you use on somebody…that’s what you are on the streets. So when you go to prison, convicted of a nonviolent crime, you are in a situation where you gotta defend yourself no matter what. And eventually you get to a point where your reputation supersedes you. That’s not a tree he want to bark up again, ya know? And then when you’re a regular hood kid, you snap on people and you’re very socially conscious. So you’re sarcastically humorous. People always wanna be around you because you make fun of everything. You try to make time pass faster. It’s easy to do time with me because I’m talking and having fun with it instead of being depressed about it. We’re already here. Ain’t nothing to be mad about, because you’re already here! What’s the point, ya know?
PHAWKER: So what’s the secret to making people laugh?
ALI SIDDIQ: Man, the secret to making people laugh is to have something in common with them. When you have something in common with people, you cross all racial and cultural lines. You hang out with people. No matter if they’re 22 and Irish or 55 and Polish…you hang out with people. You find what’s common between y’all instead of what divides you. And you go onstage and say “So I was hanging out with this guy name Hungarian George…” *laughs* “I knew he was Hungarian because…his name was Hungarian George!” So, ya know, that’s what you do as a comic. And you talk to people who were locked up with you. They were on corner stores but locked up in the gulags in their country. And they escaped twice and came to your country. And he was locked up in dire straights! But he’s in your country as an escaped person from another country. But he’s on the corner store. And he put all his kids through college. So he doesn’t understand someone not makin’ it. You don’t understand it either. And that’s what y’all have in common. You came outta two different types of prison, and you don’t understand people without determination. I’d have someone who’s determined over someone who’s educated. Their determination is gonna get them to the top.
PHAWKER: Yeah. You could have three degrees and do nothing with them.
ALI SIDDIQ: Exactly. Nothing with them. You could be a mule with tools on his back, with no idea how to use any of them. You’re just packing knowledge but don’t know how to utilize it.