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After 19 years behind bars, Shaka Senghor crafts change, inside and out 

A life's sentence

click to enlarge EARL GIBSON III
  • Earl Gibson III

The facts are pretty straightforward. At 14, Shaka Senghor turned to the streets to escape his troubled middle-class Detroit home. Dreams of a bed, food and clothing lured him into the world of selling drugs. At 17, he was shot, three times. Fourteen months later, during a drug deal gone bad, he lifted a .380 and murdered a man. He served a sentence of 19 years in prison and re-entered society on June 22, 2010.

What Senghor made of his life during prison and since, though, has been less than straightforward. He made more mistakes, which landed him seven years in solitary confinement, but he also ultimately opened to the advice of some wise mentors, and used quiet hours to read and write his way into the depths of his mind, heart and soul.

Now 44 and living in Los Angeles, Senghor has penned a New York Times-bestselling book, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, and through sharing his story widely and candidly has become one of the foremost activists for mass incarceration and prison reform. More than 1.3 million people have watched his TED Talk, "Why Your Worst Deeds Don't Define You," many more saw him on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and just last month, Oprah Winfrey featured him in her SuperSoul Sunday series.

The Independent spoke with Senghor in advance of his Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance-sponsored talk at the Pikes Peak Center Thursday night.

Indy: In a recent Guardian interview you talked about how this process of touring, talking about your stories, is going through your worst moments over and over again. How do you not sink back into old thought patterns, old habits and such?

Senghor: It can be difficult at times, when you're overwhelmed and you're stressed out and you feel like you have the world on your shoulders. It's easy to kinda just cave in, but you know I always just think about the bigger purpose in terms of what my life's mission is today. I think about the men and women inside who don't have a voice, and a responsibility I have to articulate that. Especially those who have mental illness, and who are in solitary confinement, but also juveniles throughout the country who are just languishing away in cells, without getting access to information that could help them turn their lives around. I just try to stay focused on the big picture you know, and I've also been able to recognize in life, things happen. It's part of being an adult. Not every day is gonna be pleasant and bubbly. Some days are gonna be tougher than others, some days are gonna challenge us in ways that we never thought. And so, it's just really about being up to the task and getting it done.

What seems hard to me ... is that what we need is not just change within the prison system — how people are treated, to the problems with solitary confinement and readjusting that — but we also need proactive changes as well ... setting up better systems to help people stay out of prison in the first place, and ... making sure they have assistance once they're released. I've heard you say that if we create the space for change to happen, it can happen. How do we create that space around such a large issue?

I think it's a lot more simple than we really have thought about. The biggest issue is recognizing that men and women who are incarcerated, they aren't prisoners, they aren't inmates, they're human beings who, in some instances, have made poor decisions. And if we can recognize their humanity, we can recognize that, just like anybody else in society, we have to find the things that connect with who they are — whether it's vocational training, college, whether it's spiritual processes, emotional development, and I think as a rule, we can make that the standard. When a person enters [prison], they're diagnosed in a way to where we're recognizing the areas of their life they need the most help in, which is a lot of times attached to their childhood, in some instances substance abuse treatment, or child abuse recovery, sexual abuse recovery, things like that. And then also preparing them for life after prison. You know we live in a very different society than just five years ago. When I walked out of prison, I came into a very different world and I wasn't prepared because nobody had told me anything in-depth about how the world works now compared to 20 years prior. So I think those are the things we can do relatively easily, except to have the political fortitude to do them.

I've heard you tell the story now a couple of times, about how coming out of prison for you was like Fred Flintstone walking into the Jetsons. I also think it's funny that you're now a key person with two organizations that are hashtag-named, #Cut50 and #BeyondPrisons.

[Laughs] Yeah, I'm all tech.

click to enlarge CONVERGENT BOOKS
  • Convergent Books

Joking aside, could you talk about your work with each of these groups, and what each group is focused on?

So I was a director of strategy and innovation for Cut50. I no longer hold that position. I am a co-founder and president of Beyond Prisons, and my role there is to help humanize the issue of mass incarceration, by identifying stories of redemption throughout the country, by sharing stories of the people who are the most closely impacted by mass incarceration — family members, children with incarcerated parents, those who work in the system — really just creating a whole new conversation around incarceration and what that looks like. We know so little about our system, largely because people tend to get out and move on with their lives, and never really wanna talk about it. But I think it's really important for people who are tax-paying citizens to know what they're getting for their dollar and, also, it's not what they were promised.

Do you know of Father Greg Boyle's work out there in LA?

I've heard of him but I haven't met him yet.

During my research for this interview ... I was reminded of him because he's been ... running Homeboy Industries there in LA, for, I think, almost 30 years now, which is a gang intervention, rehab and post-prison re-entry program. ... He talks a lot about how it's not about him simply providing food or clothes, or a job, although those things are important, it's more heartfelt than that. It's really connecting with people ... and seeing each person as a human being worthy of love and compassion. That rings true from what I've read about you, and from what I've read in your story. Do you think that's true?

Yeah, definitely. I mean it's one of the things that's really tough, especially with everything that's going on in the country now, being a black male in this country, or a brown male, or poor white male. [I'm] specifically speaking males because I was incarcerated with them — it doesn't diminish or take away from what women experience — but just speaking from my experience of growing up inside prison where the majority of men were black, brown and poor white males. You know there's this mentality to just discard them, and not think about them as potentially compassionate, empathetic human beings, who really have a desire to change. I can tell you from my personal experience from running groups inside prison and classes that the majority of the men I encountered, they wanted to turn their lives around, they just didn't know how. It takes a special skill set to identify the things that will inspire them to change. Largely it has to come from somebody who's gone through what they've gone through, or at least is in a proximity that they understand it on a deeper, emotional, mental and philosophical level. But that's where it starts. Self-worth really makes a major difference, and if you don't have a sense of your own self-worth, it's easy to get pulled into negative directions.

When you were on SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah, you told her that you had to really strip down everything that you had accepted in terms of your own identity. Can you talk about what that meant to you?

I believe that in life we go through and, a lot of times, we end up carrying other people's baggage — baggage that don't belong to us — and it typically comes to us in the form of parents, family members who have toxic energy because of the things they've experienced. And from a very early age you hear so many negative things, and you begin to identify those things as being who you are. For me, it was really recognizing that I wasn't this person people had painted me to be, or led me to believe, and I had to get to a space where I was comfortable accepting who I truly am, you know, my most authentic self. It's interesting, I have a practice that I do with my son every night called "positive affirmations." Every night before we go to bed, we go through 10 or 15 positive affirmations, largely because I want to prepare him for a society that can also sometimes be cruel. Before somebody else tells him who he is, I want him to already know these things. It's just really about getting to the core of who you are as a human being.

What do you hope anyone who hears your story will take away?

Well, I hope what people will take away from my story is the ability to recognize that men and women for the most part are redeemable, and that we have to stop throwing people away. I think we live in a disposable society where we're used to just discarding things — and people — and I really hope people can look at my story and say, you know, what happens to the child that became the person in prison? Because that's what the story is really about, is the journey as a young person growing up in some very unfortunate circumstances — which is the case for a lot of the men and women in prison — and how those circumstances lead to negative outcomes and how we can address things on the front end, and if we're gonna incarcerate people — make sure that we're preparing them for life after incarceration.

click to enlarge EARL GIBSON III
  • Earl Gibson III

Aside from your book, if you could have everyone read one book out there, what would it be?

One book? That's a tough one. ... I would say I would have everybody read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Such a powerful work of transformation. [Pauses.]

Do you want to add a few more? [Laughs.]

I actually love Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth. Yeah, it's been one of the better books I've read since I've been out.

What specifically about that book has impacted you?

It's one of those types of books, when you read you can actually see your own soul and your own spirit, and how you're impacted by other people and experiences. It's very introspective.

Is there anything else that you want to add, that I haven't asked you?

One of the things that I would want to add is that we live in a time where we are on a cusp of major changes throughout the country, obviously with the new election coming up, and I really want us to collectively seize this moment to create a new way of thinking when it comes to incarceration. ... Getting athletes and artists and creatives involved with redesigning the mentality behind incarceration, I think it's really, really important. Me personally, I'm getting back into my creative space, 'cause I think that I can add more value as a storyteller in different types of creative spaces. I'm just encouraging people to step up, and talk about these issues locally, nationally. I really want the hip-hop community to step up, because I think that generation has been more impacted by incarceration than any other generation, and I think that it's their responsibility to give voice to some of these issues. I just think art and activism go hand-in-hand and being able to use those different platforms will help us really make the change that we envision.

  • A life's sentence

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