From mandatory minimum sentences to solitary confinement and the rights of citizens re-entering society, criminal justice reform is a major topic for many. Author Shaka Senghor explores all of this from a personal angle in his book, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison.
Senghor, who is also the Director of Strategy for Cut-50 – an organization fighting to reduce the prison population by 50 percent by 2025 – recently joined Roland Martin on the set of NewsOne Now to talk about life in prison and his new book.
About Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison from Amazon.com:
Shaka Senghor was raised in a middle class neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. An honor roll student and a natural leader, he dreamed of becoming a doctor—but at age 11, his parents’ marriage began to unravel, and the beatings from his mother worsened, sending him on a downward spiral that saw him run away from home, turn to drug dealing to survive, and end up in prison for murder at the age of 19, fuming with anger and despair.
Writing My Wrongs is the story of what came next. During his nineteen-year incarceration, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement, Senghor discovered literature, meditation, self-examination, and the kindness of others—tools he used to confront the demons of his past, forgive the people who hurt him, and begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed. Upon his release at age thirty-eight, Senghor became an activist and mentor to young men and women facing circumstances like his. His work in the community and the courage to share his story led him to fellowships at the MIT Media Lab and the Kellogg Foundation and invitations to speak at events like TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Senghor told Martin he was sentenced to 17 to 40 years at the age of 19: “Going into that environment, I had no hopes of ever getting out. I didn’t even think about getting out, it was pretty much like I had to leave everything I knew about life behind and prepare myself to do the rest of my life in prison.”
He explained during his first day in prison he witnessed an inmate being stabbed in the neck at Michigan Reformatory, also known as “Gladiator School” because of the high levels of violence that take place within the facility’s walls. Senghor said the incident was “like the most casual act of violence that you could imagine and that was normalized behavior in the environment.”
Senghor considers America’s so-called attempt to rehabilitate prison inmates “laughable.” He said, “For the last twenty, thirty years, everything but rehab is taking place in the prison system.”
The former inmate called the prison industrial complex a “warehouse for men and women who get convicted of crimes.”
“The most troubling aspects of our society is that we don’t know enough about what happens inside of prison,” said Senghor. As a result of his experiences, he decided to pen his book, Writing My Wrongs: “I think it’s really important for American tax paying citizens to understand what’s happening on our watch.”
He continued, “With the passing of the 1994 Crime Bill, they took educational opportunities out” of the prison system. At the time of his incarceration, Senghor had attained a 4.0 GPA in college, had hopes of doing something “meaningful” with his life, but it was “literally snatched” away when he was sent into the “barbaric environment” that comprises the American prison system.
“Anybody that gets something out of the environment, it’s really a matter of the work that they put in on their own, and that’s not the reality for a lot of people,” Senghor said.
Martin asked Senghor about the stripping away of opportunities to rehabilitate, educate and provide skill training to those serving time for criminal offenses.
Senghor replied to Martin’s question, “Politicians have done a great job of creating this fear campaign, this whole idea of tough on crime instead of being smart on crime.”
He added, “What we have is this volatile cocktail where you have people who are locked up for a very long time in a very barbaric environment and what they’re not telling the American public is that the majority of those men and women will at some point return home. If you put people in a very punitive environment, degrade them, dehumanize them and abuse them, you can’t expect them to come out and be civilized citizens.
“To me, it’s one of the greatest tragedies in this country, the levels of what is happening in solitary confinement, what’s happening to those who are mentally ill in that environment and then what’s happening to those that serve long-term sentences and try to come back to a society that doesn’t look like anything they left,” said Senghor.
Watch Roland Martin and Shaka Senghor discuss the realities of prison life and Senghor’s new book, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison in the video clip above.
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