At age 17, Shaka Senghor was shot three times in his own neighborhood. Living in reactionary fear, he then killed a man and was sent to prison. There, he was hostile and angry becoming the “worst of the worst,” eventually landing him in solitary confinement for seven years. After receiving a profound letter from his son, he re-examined his life and began a difficult self-transformation. With the help of mentors, his family and partner, literature and writing, he practiced forgiveness and reconciliation. He spent two decades in prison before he was released. Shaka received a fellowship at MIT Media Lab, became a professor at the University of Michigan and now works with formally incarcerated men and women who are integrating back into society. Additionally, he mentors at-risk youth going down a path reminiscent of his own, creating an empathetic space for change.
His compelling blog piece was written for the Article 3 blog series on U.S. criminal justice reform and details his experience of returning to prison in an entirely different context.
For the first time in the five years I have been home, the emotions of what 19 years in prison did to me hit me like a brick in the face. Just two weeks prior, I had been invited to speak at a Black History Month program at Handlon Correctional Facility. When I walked inside the prison, everything about serving time came rushing back to me. The sound of gates crashing closed, officers barking orders and the laughter and jokes of incarcerated men, all reminded me of the years I spent inside. However, the thing that struck me at the core of my being was the utter disdain and disgust that I saw in the eyes of two officers who stared me down with such intense hatred that it caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. They didn’t want me there and it was very apparent that they were holding a grudge against me because of my past. In fact, I would later learn that several officers had taken the flier with my face on it, which had been posted around the facility, and shared it amongst each other as they talked about how angry they were that I was being allowed back inside. This was just another in a long line of reminders that there are some people who truly don’t believe in second chances.
Despite the anger in their eyes, I smiled, because at the end of the day I wasn’t there for them. I was there to fellowship with my brothers. I was there to pour love, hope and inspiration into men who continue to inspire my work today. I was there because I wanted these men, my brothers, to know they weren’t and will never be forgotten, at least not by me. I drove to the prison because I wanted to tell them face to face, man to man, brother to brother that I carry them in my heart everywhere I go, and that every time I share my story, I am sharing their story because we are forever connected by the misfortune of our circumstances. Most importantly, I drove the 2 hours to the prison to be searched and run through metal detectors several times because I want these brothers — my brothers — to know that they have a second chance to do something meaningful with their lives. Yes, that’s why I was there.
Once inside the auditorium where I was scheduled to speak, thoughts of how the men would react to my presence bounced around in my head. I wondered how many of them I had served time with. I wondered what old friends would look like. I wondered who would absorb the food for thought I had to share. Although I had thought about what I was going to say on my drive up to Ionia, when the first brother walked in the room and came up and hugged me, all of that went out of the window. In that moment, I knew that I had to let my soul speak and not my head.
As the men filed in, my heart began to break inside. Men I had grown up with, who were once vibrant with life despite their circumstances, were now showing the signs of being beat down and broken by the reality of incarceration. Their eyes no longer shined with the optimism of men who believed they would be given a second chance. Their faces were somber and heavy with the sadness and pain of being left to wither away in the cold and indifferent world of prison. In addition to the men whose spirits appeared to be broken was another reality that has always troubled me — mental illness. Over a third of the 150 men who were present showed clear signs of being under the influence of heavy psychotropic drugs. But in the midst of this all, there were glimmers of light that manifested in the form of my former bunkie and a few other men who I had served time with. Their smiles were bright and I could see and feel the love and pride in their eyes. It was that energy that fed my soul for the next hour and a half. By the time I was done, that light had expanded across the auditorium and all of the men were now smiling and laughing as I joked with them and loved on them as a brother, friend and man of my word. Before I came home, I told them I would never forget them, and five years later my word remains intact.
When I was done they gave me a standing ovation, and one by one they came and gave me hugs and shook my hand. Today I heard “I am proud of you” over 100 times!!! When I got in my truck to leave, I thought about the drive up there and it struck me that the last 24 years of my life has been connected to prison. As I drove past the other 3 prisons on the same road, I asked the Creator would it always be like this and why I was chosen for this calling. Within one minute of asking these questions, a song in my play list by the artist T.I. came on called ‘Hallelujah.’ It was one of his song’s I normally skip past because I don’t care for the beat, but this time I just let it play out and it blew my mind because the song was talking about his life in prison. Normally that wouldn’t be that big of a deal to me because it’s the reality that many rappers understand far too well. However, as soon as that song went off 2Pac’s song ‘Hold Ya Head’ from his Makaveli album came on. Back-to-back songs about prison right after I had asked the question. There was no doubt in my mind that the Creator had spoken and its with this understanding that I will continue doing everything in my power to offer hope and inspiration in places where its needed most. My belief is that we are at a moment in history that can forever change how we treat them men and women on lockdown, especially those with mental illness. A little bit of hope goes a long way.
Shaka Senghor is a writer, mentor and motivational speaker whose story has inspired youth and young adults at high schools, universities, and conferences across the nation. He is founder of the Atonement Project, a recipient of the 2012 Black Male Engagement (BMe) Leadership Award, a 2013 MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, a Fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network, and teaches a course on the Atonement Project at The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2014, Shaka shared his story on the world-renowned TED stage and in just four months his talk reached more than 1,000,000 views.
Shaka was recently named the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year and currently serves as the Director of Strategy for #Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce our incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years by convening unlikely allies, elevating proven solutions, and communicating a powerful new narrative.