Shaka Senghor - Redemption and Reform Behind Bars in "Writing My Wrongs"

March 21, 2016 - Shaka Senghor 03/21/2016 Views: 617

Activist Shaka Senghor reflects on the years he spent in prison for second-degree murder and calls for criminal justice reform in his memoir "Writing My Wrongs." (6:33)

Watch Full Episode

My guest tonight is thecofounder of Beyond Prisons

and, uh, a New York Times best-selling author.

His new book is called Writing My Wrongs:

Life, Death and Redemption in the American Prison.

Please welcome Shaka Senghor.

-♪ -(cheering, applause)



-Shaka.-Hey, how's it going?

-How you doing, man?-Great, great.

Thanks-thanks for comingto the show.

-Thanks for having me.-Uh, let's get straight into it.

You have such a fascinatingstory. I mean...

Uh, cor-correct meif I go wrong here,

but this book was wonderful.I mean, you're from Detroit.

-Yeah.-You were in jail for 19 years.

You basically got arrestedwhen you were 19.

But you were in, uh, the lifeof crime from the age of 14?

-14. Yeah, 14 years old.-Yeah.

And then you got shot...

Multiple timeswhen I was 17 years old.

-And so you got a gun.-Yep. Mm-hmm.

And then one day you turnedthat gun on somebody else.

Yeah, 16 months later.Similar conflict.

And I fired what turned outto be four fatal shots,

was sentenced to 17 to 40 yearsin prison,

ended up serving 19,seven in solitary confinement.

Man, that is a...that is just such a crazy story.

What-What's crazy though isnot... is not just the fact

that you were... you were in--

it's what you've donesince you came out.

I mean, this is such a beautifuland fascinating story.

But let's go back into that.

The number one question peopleask... I mean, I even ask it

when I read this book,I go, "For somebody who was,

"uh, tried and convictedfor se-second degree murder,

why do you believeyou deserve a second chance?"

I believe people are redeemable.

You know? I thinkthat the decisions you make

when you're youngaren't necessarily the decisions

you'll make as an adult.

And I believethat we really are redeemable.

There's a... there'sa beautiful section in the book

where you talk a lotabout atonement

-as opposed to forgiveness.-Yeah.

You know? And-and there'sa beautiful story--

if you wouldn't mind telling itto the audience--

about how the godmotherof the victim

that you shotactually reached out to you.

Yeah. Uh, about fiveor six years into my sentence,

uh, the godmother, she sent mea very profound letter.

And there was two thingsthat she pointed out.

One is she said that she forgaveme based on her faith,

but, uh, she also saidthat she loved me.

And that was something reallyhard to digest at that time

because I didn't love myself.

Uh, but it was being ableto take that in

and absorb it, it allowed meto transform my life

in a way that allowed meto be a productive

and positive persononce I got out.

I mean, this is not... Like,when I started, I was like,

"Oh, this is gonna be like Orange is the New Black."

-Uh, it was not. It was not.-No. No.

But there-there must have beensome funny moments in prison.

There must have been... Like,even Nelson Mandela laughed

at times in jail. Were there...were there moments in jail

where you were like,"Yeah, this-this is... I mean,

I know I'm here for a long time,but this is funny."

No, I mean, prison itselfis hilarious.

-Uh, people don't really...-(laughs)

Well, I mean,I wouldn't put it like that.

-But, yeah... (laughs)-No, I mean, like... I mean...

But, like, if you, like, wake upone day and you're just like,

"Wow, this guy is just, like,you know, sliding food

across the hallwith a fish line."

-It's, like, amazing.-Wait, what-what do you mean?

Who? Who's doing that?

The guy in the cellacross from me.

It was, like...This is how they exchange food.

It was like was like our... kind of like

-our Internet. And...-(laughs)

-So, like... -So you guyswould sw... Wait, so someone

-would send you foodfrom another cell. -Yeah.

-Yeah, with a fish line.-Wh-What, do you have

-different food? -Yeah, well,sometimes you were payin'

for food or they're selling foodfor cigarettes.

-Damn. And you guyswere sending it across -Yeah.

-with fish line in prison.-Yeah.

It's funny you say,"That was like our Internet."

I've always been fascinated bythis. When you go away to prison

-for as long as you went away,when you come out, -Right.

what is the craziest thingthat has changed in the world?

-'Cause it's like time travel.-So, when I went to prison,

there was no Internet,there was no smartphones,

there were no cars that talked.

Uh, so everything was, like,different when I came out.

And, uh, it was justmind-blowing to really absorb

all the technology andto see how far we've advanced

-as a society. -What wasthe first thing you did

when you got on the Internet?

I created a Facebook account.

I would've gone for porn,but you're a better man.


I was trying to make that, sothat was a different situation.

What's, uh... what's really beautiful about your story is,

you know, you've come outon the other side

-from a prison system thatyou-you really preach -Yeah.

-about needing reform.-Yeah.

Why is that so important,as someone that was a prisoner?

Well, I think it's importantbecause, for so many years,

we've been lied to,that, you know, people said...

politicians say,"We'll just lock 'em up

and throw away the key."And the reality is

they just lock people upand hide the key

until it's time for usto come home two decades later.

And the American publichas been duped into believing

that the system works,and unfortunately it doesn't.

So you're reallyjust warehousing people,

whereas there'sthis great opportunity for us

to invest in peoplein a real way to ensure

that when they come backthey're productive citizens,

uh, and that... it createsa safe environment

-for men and women to return to.-You, uh...

you-you talked about how...the fact that, you know,

programs have been removedfrom the system, you know,

learning programsfor all of the prisoners.

Uh, a lot of peoplewon't understand that.

They go, "What does it matterif prisoners can't learn?

"What does it matter ifprisoners can't fill their time?

That's what they're supposedto be in prison for."

-How would you reply to that?-I mean, my r...

my reply to that would be,uh, the skill sets

that are learnable in there,like making shanks,

there'sno real world application

-for those.-Did you say "making shanks"?

Yeah, I mean, that's, like...

You got to survive in there,right?

Um... So that's...those skill sets

have no real world application.And so when you think

about somebody coming back,how are they supposed

to reenter societyif they don't have the skills

-to-to become productive,tax-paying citizens? -Yeah.

It's a... it's a beautiful,fascinating story.

I mean, since you've come out,you've met everyone.

-You met... you metOprah Winfrey. You met... -Yeah.

I-I bet there are some peoplewhere you said, "Hey,

"if-if you had to go to jailfor 19 years

and then could you meet Oprah,would you do it?"

-They'd probably say no.They'd say no, -Right.

-but they'd think about it iswhat I'm saying. -Right, right.

Some people would be like, "Uh,no, that's enough. That-that..."

Uh, the people that you've met,the people that have now been

a part of your life, what'sthe biggest thing you've hoped

for them to get across,in terms of your message?

Um, that people are redeemableand that we have to stop

throwing people away.I mean, we live in a society

where we're so quickto just dismiss a person

that's incorrigible.And when you really look at it,

there's men and women who reallywant to do something meaningful

when they get out. And wejust have to create a platform

for that to beour day-to-day reality.

It's a beautiful story, man.Beautiful book.

-Thank you for the message.-(cheering and applause)

I cannot recommend this bookenough.

Writing My Wrongs is availablenow. It's a beautiful story.

Shaka Senghor, everybody.We'll be right back.

(cheering and applause)

All Shows