Shawn Lee

There are systemic failures that account for the legions of black men who end up in prison: endemic poverty, inadequate education, insufficient mental health services, over-policing of black communities, and racial profiling. But rarely is there a personal story that so accurately describes the life of an inner-city black man who ends up in prison—and what happens once he’s there—than Shaka Senghor’s.

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In his New York Times bestselling book, Writing My Wrongs, Senghor, a formerly incarcerated Detroit man, 43, sharply expresses the failures of the American prison system—a massive industry that is meant to encourage and harness reformation, but, according to Senghor, did the opposite. His is a story of inner strength—he had only himself to rely on to change.

Senghor was barely a teenager when he left his family home in Detroit and opted into a life on the streets. Like all of ours, Senghor’s family life was complicated: after his parents split for the final time, he had trouble connecting with his father, who had been an important force of good in his life. Senghor says his relationship with his mother put more of a strain on him. Senghor remembers being made of fun of by his friends because his mother was physically and verbally abusive. “It’s common in black households to hear about parents whooping their kids or whatever,” he told me over the phone. “But there’s a difference between whooping and beating.”

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After Senghor left home, to survive, he began to sell drugs. Then in a petty dispute, he was shot. He identifies that as the moment he became hardened and began to carry his gun with him everywhere. It was only a matter of time, he explains, before he was involved in a dispute that landed him with a second-degree murder conviction with a 17-year sentence and 7 years in solitary confinement. He served 19 years total.

In prison Senghor oscillated between trying to reform and succumbing to violent prison life. The following interview is a conversation with the author about his very personal journey of transformation.

Collier Meyerson: In popular culture there’s this trope of the absent black father. But your father was there. It was your mother who made you feel feelings of inadequacy. Do you reject the notion that black fathers are always absent? Or that even if a black father is locked up, that he can’t father from inside?

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Shaka Senghor: Yeah that narrative is so overused, unfortunately. That’s the saddest part because a lot of the time—the narrative doesn’t line up with our day-to-day reality. My family, we have a long legacy of present fathers. There’s not one deadbeat in our family. That narrative has never been true in our household. And even growing up, you know, some of my friends’ fathers weren’t necessarily in the household, but it didn’t mean they weren’t present in their children’s lives. We have a long legacy of fathers who are really present in the lives of their children. So I’ve never really paid attention to that narrative in my world.

I just think it’s an overused narrative. Even in prison, I did what I could. I sent money home. My father brought my son to visit. I wrote letters, phone calls, and that played out in the visiting room a lot. There’s no cookie-cutter model for parenting or being a role model, for that matter. And it looks different for everybody. I know we tend to pack things in these neat little boxes, but you know, they don’t always fit.

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You mention that the moment that changed everything for you—even though you’d been selling drugs for some time—was when you got shot. Walk me through why and what happened psychologically

The experience of getting shot is scary. I don’t care how tough you are, how hood you are. I ain’t never seen nobody standing around—everybody’s running for cover. It’s a scary experience. And when you actually get hit it becomes scarier. Imagine being 17 years old, left to deal with that kind of fear, knowing I’ve had childhood friends who’ve been killed and other friends who’d been shot and severely injured. Trying to handle the emotion of fear in and of itself was tough because black boys aren’t given permission to be afraid. We’re not given permission to say, “I’m hurting.” So that turns into anger. It turns into a “me against the world” mentality.

And so when I got back I couldn’t tell my guys, “Yo I’m not gonna stand and sell on the corner for fear of getting shot.” It’s like, no, I need to go back to this corner and prove I’m not afraid. And it’s all false bravado because that’s the last place I wanted to be or needed to be. But unfortunately we just haven’t really created that space for young men to really express their emotions in a healthy way.

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In prison, you seemed to oscillate between being on this righteous and nonviolent path and then reverting back to anger and violence. Sometimes it was out of necessity, but sometimes it came from somewhere else. What happened when that switch went off in your head?

The thing about prison and prison culture is just because you’ve changed doesn’t mean the environment has changed. And It’s still the law of the jungle. The rules of engagement are very different from civil society. And it’s very difficult to navigate that world without understanding that you have to defend yourself or result to violence, if you don’t have conflict resolution skills.

When you’re in an environment where there’s so much anger and so much violence, it’s like walking through a minefield. The slightest thing can be a provocation, can be a potential conflict. And It takes emotional maturity to navigate, and I didn’t have that early on. So as I began to develop it and began to develop more empathy for the men I was incarcerated alongside, it helped me to see that they were hurt little boys acting out, and I started looking at it like, you know, if I could see the little boy in every man I encounter then I’ll be be able to engage him from a very humane perspective, as opposed to being standoffish or conflict-oriented. Even with  the officers it’s difficult, because they’re trapped in the same cycle of violence and anger.

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Were there ever any mental-health services available to you, to sort through some of this? Or was that never an option?

I’ll go back to when I first went to prison. You go through a thing that’s called quarantine. You talk to a psychologist and they determine if you suffer from any mental illness. The thing is, they’re so far removed from the everyday reality of what the hood is that the only thing they can go by is what the book interpretation is of who we are. And one of the things that always stuck out to me is, when I went in and spoke with [the psychologist] she asked me some questions in a very matter of fact way and I responded to them in a very matter of fact way. And she wrote that “he’s remorseless, he doesn’t care,” and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The way that she characterized me just wasn’t who I was as a person, because she didn’t factor in environmental factors, upbringing, stuff that’s pretty important if you’re trying to understand somebody. You have to look at things holistically. She didn’t even recommend counseling. She didn’t even recommend counseling for that fact that I had been physically traumatized by being shot, but I had been psychologically traumatized by taking someone’s life.

There’s no real services that allow young men to grapple with that reality. So we’re left to deal with that on our own. You know, the average human, they do something tragic, that haunts you for a very long time. And if you’re in a hood type of environment and that’s where honor is, it distorts your ability to deal with it in a healthy way.

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You echo a lot of the formerly incarcerated when you talk about getting out of prison. That there’s nothing set up to help anyone readjust to life on the outside, and that it is scary and depressing. What helped you get through?

I’m fortunate in a lot of ways. For one, I was highly literate. And so that gave me an advantage getting out. In terms of staying focused, I had a skillset I knew was marketable. I knew I was a good writer. I never second guessed my ability to use the power of the pen through the course of my life. But despite that, there were battles. Trying to find employment before the book thing took off. Being denied and rejected because I have a felony. That’s demoralizing, and it definitely is a real character checker. Are you really built for this? Are you really wired to succeed against all odds? There were countless times I felt the temptation to go back to my former life, but the prospect of enduring that level of pain and hurt and darkness just wasn’t favorable.

Do you have any personal recommendations for what the criminal justice system can do to reacquaint the formerly incarcerated?

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I had the great fortune of going to Germany last summer to visit their prison system. I visited about six prisons. Their model was dramatically different from our model, because they see the men and women as an extension of themselves and their community. They treat them like they’re just citizens and neighbors and friends who didn’t follow the law, and they allow them to serve with a sense of dignity and respect. But they build the wraparound services from the very beginning which is important. Let’s speak realistically: I did 19 years in prison. I did a program at the end of my sentence which was about 10 months. Ten months of a superficial isn’t gonna undo 19 years of chaos, disorder, violence, and anger. The work I do today is a reflection of the work I did on myself while I was inside. I couldn’t have started this process out here and been successful. I had to put the work in while I was in there.

You talk mostly about your own experience in the book. But there are hints of objections, anxieties, and anger toward the criminal justice system. If you could create your own system of what happens when people who get in trouble with the law: whatever that looks like, what would it be?

It takes a lot of political fortitude to get to a place where we’re doing things that actually make sense. I think the big thing would be to start with why so many men and women end up in prison in the first place, and address those core issues. Ideally, of course I want to abolish the system, but that’s never going to happen. What can we do to ensure that men and women are returning to communities that are safe for those who want to follow the law?

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This conversation was edited for length and clarity

Correction: An earlier version of this interview stated Senghor served 17 years. Senghor was sentenced to a minimum of 17 years but served 19 years.

Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.