There are roughly 42,000 men and women serving time in prison in the state of Michigan. They all have stories of how they got there, ranging from poor choices and a bad upbringing to just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Shaka Senghor, a leading criminal justice reform activist, is now telling his story. He is currently a mentor to youth, and a leader in helping victims and violent offenders heal through the power of the arts. But he didn’t start out that way.
He started out as James Wilson, an honor student with dreams of being a doctor, to becoming Jay, a crack dealer who murdered a man and spent nearly two decades in Michigan prisons as Prisoner Number 219184.
His new memoir is Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in An American Prison. It's an open and honest account of how things went wrong for Senghor, and the level of soul-searching and self-understanding that ultimately led to his atonement.
“When you’re incarcerated, you have a lot of time to do a lot of things,” said Senghor, who spent 19 years in prison, seven of them in solitary confinement. “I don’t want people to walk away thinking that putting people in cells is the answer to soul-searching. It’s really all about who you are at the core of your being. And those were some of the questions that I had to wrestle with...how did I go from being an honor roll student to serving out my most promising years in a prison cell?”
Questions like that helped him figure out what went wrong.
Jay, as he started calling himself, started selling crack at the age of 14. At 17, he was shot three times and 14 months later, he was the trigger man. He killed a man and was sentenced to 15-40 years in prison. In October of 1991, he began serving the first of 19 years at the Michigan Reformatory in Iona, Mich. -- one of the most violent prisons in the state, quite possibly the country.
At that time, Senghor felt his situation was the fault of everyone but himself. His upbringing was difficult, as the fourth of six children with parents whose marriage was in flux. His mother, who he later learned was the victim of abuse herself, was abusive with Senghor and his brothers and sisters.
The abuse pushed him out on to the streets, where he was exposed to a drug dealer who took advantage of an emotionally fragile teenager.
“It’s not that hard to seduce a child who is already in a very vulnerable emotional state,” said Senghor. “It’s not hard to seduce them into that lifestyle. And that’s what happened to me.”
After suffering three gunshot wounds at 17, he describes the emotional scarring that laid the groundwork for the murder he committed 14 months later. Going to prison was a traumatizing experience.
“My years in prison were … very volatile,” said Senghor. “Prison is such a brutal place for a child whose mind and brain are still developing. When I grew up in prison … I grew up during the era where it was arguably at its most violent. It’s a scary place to be. It’s a very bitter and angry environment. It’s hopeless. There’s no compassion for self and others.
“So many people think that’s what prison should be,” he added. “But in reality, I came from a hard environment. I came from an environment where young people are killed every day. Where violence is the norm, where brutality and abuse is normalized behavior. And so prison just further reinforced the idea that this was my lot and that my life had no value, and it had no meaning, and it had no purpose, beyond trying to survive from day-to-day in the steel jungle known as prison.”
Seven of Senghor’s 19 years were spent in solitary confinement
“The idea that you throw somebody in a cell for 23 hours a day [5 days a week, 24 hours the other two days] … with the hopes that that’s going to change the behavior is just not realistic,” said Senghor. “Eight years into my incarceration, I was sent to solitary confinement for what turned out to be four and a half years straight. It was the most insane, barbaric environment that you could possibly imagine.”
However, it was in this environment that he came face to face with his “truest self.”
Listen to part one of the interview with Shaka Senghor on Stateside below to hear about the situation that led to the murder he committed, as well the “barbaric” experience of solitary confinement.
Senghor began his transformation in prison through reading books and writing. The game-changer for him was discovering the autobiography of Malcolm X. The civil rights leader’s book opened the door to other areas of literature, and helped him start to write himself.
“When I was in solitary, I set my days up as if I was at a university,” said Senghor. “I would get up in the morning and I would study political science for one hour, then I would go to African history, then I would go to philosophy, American literature. And I would just study things every day and write late into the evening.”
After giving himself a deadline as motivation, Senghor wrote his first novel in 30 days. He said the writing went a long way toward helping the healing start, but it was a letter that he received that really “opened up the floodgates."
That letter was from his son, who was about eight years old at the time. It devastated him because it revealed that the child’s mother had already answered a very difficult question: Why is my father in prison? His son, Jay, knew that he was a murderer.
“As a father, as a man, as a human being, it was heartbreaking to know that my child was seeing me as a monster,” said Senghor. “Because a murderer to a child is a monster. That’s the most heartbreaking experience that you can have as a parent, is for your child to see you as a monster.
After being paroled in 2010, Senghor has committed his life to making sure “there are no more Jays in the neighborhood.”
“My work today centers around working with young men and women who are growing up in environments that are very volatile, who are dealing with issues of sexual abuse and child abuse,” said Senghor. “Young men and women who have been thrown away by society.
"I love the work because [what] I see in them, I see myself. And I’ve been able to use literature as a healing tool for them, and really help put them on a path that’s different than the one that Jay was on.”