From seven years spent in solitary confinement to a fellowship at MIT, Shaka Senghor’s story is one of forgiveness, redemption and hope. A crusader for criminal justice reform, it is a story he has shared many times, using his unique voice to advocate for alternatives to the mass incarceration of our nation’s most underserved populations.
Senghor spoke on the UAlbany campus on Wednesday, Feb. 3, as the keynote speaker at the university’s 37th annual MLK celebration kicking off Black History Month.
Raised in Detroit, Shaka Senghor’s early life is an all too common story in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. A bright child on the honor roll, he ran away at the age of 13 to escape an abusive mother.
“I was this naive child,” he said, “with all the potential in the world. When I decided to run away, I just knew that somebody’s parent would see this handsome little kid and that they would take me in and wrap me up in the warm and love and nurturing that all children deserve.”
Instead, Senghor found himself “seduced” by the Detroit crack-cocaine scene, quickly becoming a dealer as well as a user.
“Because what happens to kids who are naive and vulnerable and homeless, and broken and battered and beaten,” he said, “is that they get manipulated and taken advantage of because people prey on their need for love and acceptance.”
Within six months, Senghor experienced a series of devastating events: a childhood friend was killed; two of his older brothers were shot; he became addicted to crack-cocaine; he was robbed at gunpoint; and he was beaten nearly to death and left on the bathroom floor in the back of a crack house.
“I remember laying there bleeding,” he said. “with my face on this cold tile floor and asking myself what kind of world we live in where this can happen to children. What kind of world do we live in where children aren’t safe in their own homes? And there was no one there to answer.
“And so I found myself grappling with these complex questions,” he said, “while I was trying to navigate the chaos of the environments that I existed in.”
Despite the chaos, Senghor became increasingly more entangled in that culture. On March 8, 1990, he was the victim of a drive-by shooting perpetrated by an acquaintance with whom he had a previous conflict. “Within days, I was back on the same block,” he said.
“Not one doctor, not one nurse, not one psychologist or psychiatrist or sociologist or social worker thought to ask me how I felt,” he said. “Not one adult thought to offer me what I believe is the most simple gesture of human compassion and empathy — a simple hug, a word to say ‘you’ll be all right.’
“I was angry; I was bitter; I was sad; I was afraid; I was paranoid.”
To feel safe, Senghor began to carry a gun.
In July of 1991, at the age of 19, he used that gun to kill another human being.
He was arrested and sentenced to a maximum of 40 years for second degree murder for the crime, committed during heated argument about a drug deal. “In that moment,” he said, “I knew that my life was over.”
In prison, a bad attitude and host of misconduct violations quickly got him labeled “the worst of the worst” in the eyes of the system, said Senghor. He was one of the youngest inmates in maximum security and spent seven years —four and a half of which were consecutive — in solitary confinement, a practice Senghor calls, “by far, one of the most inhumane and barbaric things that we do to people in society to this day.”
During the 19 years Senghor ultimately spent in the Michigan state penitentiary system, he said that three “miracles” occurred that eventually enabled him to understand and accept forgiveness and to take responsibility for his actions — and for his life.
“I call them miracles,” he said, “because my life was supposed to have a different outcome.”
At the time, Senghor didn’t recognize those moments for what they would mean to him. The first came early in his incarceration, when he encountered other prisoners who would serve as mentors to the young inmate.
“These are men,” he said, “who are currently serving life sentences, most have been in prison since they were juveniles, and most of them will die in prison. But these are men who gave me life in an environment in which I knew I was destined to die. And they gave me life in this very peculiar way.”
Segnhor’s mentors told him that he would be given a second chance, and that with that second chance would come responsibility to be a voice for those who would never have that same opportunity. He didn’t want to hear it. Senghor was convinced he was going to die in jail.
“And then they tricked me,” he said. “They found their way in.”
These imprisoned mentors reached Senghor through books. Realizing that he liked to read, they began to introduce him to books by authors like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I didn’t know who Malcolm X was,” he said. “I just knew his name sounded gangster. And I read Malcolm and it blew my mind. Because here was a man that had been cast away by society and decided that he wanted a different life outcome and decided that he wanted to put the work in and turn his life around.”
He read the letter penned by Martin Luther King Jr. from a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, “that talks about the real things that challenge us, and push us, and force us to grow in ways that are uncomfortable.”
“Malcolm and Martin,” he said, became like angels on his shoulders. While he continued to get in trouble, they served as a reminder of the potential he had and the things he might accomplish. “They may not have always won out,” he said of those angels, “but they never quit. They never quit teaching.”
The second miracle came about five years into Senghor’s sentence. He received a letter from the woman who raised the man he killed. The letter began by describing the pain he had caused her family and Senghor, still unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, was tempted to throw it away. But, he said, something compelled him to keep reading.
“And she said, ‘Despite the devastation that you’ve caused my family, I forgive you.’ I forgive you,” he said, repeating those three words with emotion. “I hadn’t forgiven myself because I didn’t even feel worthy of forgiveness. See, I had bought into that narrative that had been handed down to me by broken people that told me that I would never amount to anything, that I was worthless, that my life didn’t matter.” He said the idea that someone he had hurt so deeply could forgive him was a foreign concept.
“She said, ‘Not only do I forgive you, I love you. I love you because Jesus would want me to love you,’” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘Wow. How can she love someone who doesn’t even love himself?’”
Things didn’t immediately sink in for the young convict. He continued to get in trouble. Eight years into his incarceration, he found himself in solitary confinement — where he stayed for four and a half years. “It is essentially torture,” he said of the punishment. “It is designed to destroy. There is nothing in it that is rehabilitative.
While in solitary, Senghor’s third miracle reached him in the form of another letter, this time from his 10-year old son. The boy’s mother had told him the reason for his father’s incarceration. “He said, ‘Dad, don’t kill again. Jesus watches what you do,’” said Senghor. “As a father and as a man, those words from my child were devastating.”
On the streets where he grew up, serving time for murder was considered “a badge of honor” and earned Senghor credibility. “But seen through the eyes of a child,” he said, “it was called what it was — and I knew in that moment that I had the responsibility to turn this thing around. Because I owed my son a father; I owed him a father he could be proud of.”
Senghor said that he knew that, if he was serious about turning his life around, he would have to make a commitment and put in the work it required. Citing Plato’s quote about the unexamined life, he said he realized that he had not been living his life but merely existing, buffeted by all the negative influences that had surrounded him. So he decided to set goals for himself.
And he began to write.
“I began to write down and analyze all the things that had happened to me,” he said. “From child abuse, to sexual exploitation, to the drug abuse . . . I wrote my way through the pain.”
Senghor wrote his first book in that solitary confinement cell. A sense that it wasn’t real until it had been read by someone prompted him to slide it under his door to a nearby inmate, a decision he regretted moments later when he realized it was his only copy.
Several hours passed before Senghor received his first literary review: “He said, ‘Man, that was the best book I ever read.’”
Senghor was released in 2010 at the age of 38. To date, he has written six books, including Writing My Wrongs, a new memoir about his life in prison. In 2012, he published a book of his writings, entitled Live in Peace: A Youth Guide to Turning Hurt into Hope as part of an outreach program aimed at Detroit youth. He is even the author of a detective series called Crack: Volume 1 and Crack: Volume 2.
“I think narrative is the greatest way to connect as human beings,” Senghor told a small group of reporters immediately before his keynote address. “You know, everything we watch, everything we love, everything we engage is all about the story, right?”
Following his release, the burgeoning author also became a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform, eventually becoming a prominent representative of #cut50, a national bipartisan effort to reduce America’s incarcerated population 50 percent by 2025.
“We had a pretty robust bipartisan effort going and we created some amazing partnerships that had never occurred in the country’s history,” said Senghor. “In fact, we hosted the largest bipartisan summit in the country in 2015.”
In 2014, Senghor delivered a TED Talk at TED’s 30th Anniversary Conference, entitled “Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You,” where he received a standing ovation. The video has been viewed several million times online. He was a 2014 TED Prize finalist for The Atonement Project, which is designed to help victims and violent offenders heal through the power of the arts.
Since 2010, the former inmate has lectured at prominent universities, taught at the University of Michigan, was an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, and holds a current fellowship in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Community Leadership Network. He was awarded the 2015 Manchester University Innovator of the Year Award and the 2012 Black Male Engagement Leadership Award. After an interview that aired in March 2016, Oprah Winfrey declared that her conversation with Senghor was one of the best she’d ever had. Later the same month, he was a guest on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.
“I think my life experience definitely allows me to utilize my voice in a very different way than I would be able to had I not had these experiences,” said Senghor. “One of the things that lived experience does for you is that it really gives you a broader perspective of who we are as human beings.”
“At the core,” he said, “I believe that we as humans tend to figure out what’s the right thing to do and, in the midst of adversity, I think we tend to bond together as opposed to pull apart.”
At the center of criminal justice reform initiatives advocated by Senghor is the idea that long sentences and tough-on-crime policies are morally questionable and economically unjustifiable. According to a report released by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law School last December, researchers found 25 percent of the country’s prisoners —nearly all non-violent, lower-level offenders — would be better served by alternatives to incarceration such as treatment, community service, or probation. Another 14 percent who have served sufficiently long sentences could be released with little to no risk to public safety. Releasing these 576,000 inmates would save $20 billion annually.
Led by nationally renowned criminologist Dr. James Austin, the report was the culmination of three years of research and includes a blueprint for how the country can significantly cut its prison population while still keeping crime rates near historic lows.
In the report’s foreward, NAACP CEO and President Cornell Brooks wrote: “While national support for this effort provides hope the tide may be turning, it also belies a sad truth: Many of the grave inequalities we fought decades ago still persist, more than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act. The single greatest injustice that threatens our safety and hinders our progress? Mass incarceration. People of color bear the brunt of our criminal justice system in disproportionate and devastating numbers.”
“I think the biggest challenge is to maintain the momentum we’ve created in terms of bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system,” said Senghor. “To see some of the things that are going on, like the new Attorney General, it might be kind of scary to think that all of the hard work that we put into building these coalitions and getting people working across the aisle and collaborating together on something that’s so important — it’s kind of scary to think that some of those things might get rolled back, but the thing that gives me a sense of optimism are these conversations that are happening.”
“I tend to look toward, in the midst of the chaos, like, what are those points of entry where we can actually learn something from each other and learn something about each other.”
“Mr. Senghor’s powerful story of redemption has relevance for all of us,” said Teniola Adeyemi, the UAlbany senior and president of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity — to which Martin Luther King Jr. belonged — who introduced the keynote speaker. “It is a story about the power of personal change. It’s a story about how all of us can rise above our mistakes. And every one of us makes mistakes.”
“I believe,” said Senghor. “In dark times, that’s when our greatest lights tend to shine through.”