An appearance on Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” is usually an affirmation that the guest is officially recognized as an intellectual or a spiritualist who has transcended ordinary life experiences to join the ranks of the enlightened. They are typically the sages who’ve lead stellar lives and have long been considered pillars of society. But, award-winning author and motivational speaker, Shaka Senghor joins that company social commentators after taking a turn on the path to higher understanding, which lead him to a 19-year stint in prison.
Senghor’s incarceration was not of the nature of political imprisonment or a social injustice, as in the case of those he champions like Nelson Mandela and Assatta Shakur. He went to prison for killing a man when he was just 17-years old. A murder he admits he committed, and the type of street altercation that’s all too common in distressed urban environments; intoxicated young men and a drug transaction gone wrong.
Senghor writes in a letter to his victim in the prologue of his book, Writing My Wrongs: Life Death and Redemption in an American Prison.
“It takes strength to walk away from an argument. Back then, I didn’t have that strength. I was afraid and I allowed my fears to dictate my actions. … When you and I encountered each other, I was already programed to kill. I had convinced myself it was better to shoot than be shot; that the handgun in my pocket was the only think that could protect me.”
Senghor had been shot himself 16 months prior to that fatal night that would alter his life forever. He explained that it was the trauma of that experience that lead him and young men like him to react violently.
On gun violence …
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is part of the cycle of violence in cities like Detroit and other cities with high levels of gun violence. Most of the young men that I was incarcerated with had similar stories where they were shot or they were in close proximity to a friend or a loved one who had been shot and the cycle just repeats. There’s no recourse or treatment for the PTSD we suffer from in our communities. And so it manifests in very unhealthy ways.
When someone attempts to take your life over a meaningless argument, you carry the fear, you carry the anger, you carry the sadness, and all of these volatile emotions. I was 17 at the time. And that’s a lot of difficult [and complicated] emotions for a 17-year-old to process alone.
But alone and virtually forgotten is how Senghor would spend nearly the next two decades of his life, with four and a half years of that time in solitary confinement for an altercation with a prison guard. Twenty-three hours a day for five days a day alone in his tiny cell, and 24-hours in complete isolation on weekends, prompted the remorseful inmate to examine his life and explore the possibilities for his future.
Confinement and his decision to write …
“I was in solitary confinement for four and a half years of my 19-year sentence. I was allowed three 10-minute showers a week, and one recreational hour five days a week in a dog kennel-like cage.
Fortunately for me I was able to use that time wisely. It was very difficult. It’s one of the toughest environments to be in. But I was able to turn my prison cell into a [place] of higher learning. I studied, and I read and I wrote.
Meditation really helped me with being able to step back and look at life from a different perspective and figure out that I still had time [and the opportunity] to do something meaningful with my life.”
During high school Senghor attended several schools and admits that he lost interest in school due to the distractions of a turbulent home life and a troubled relationship with his mother. The former honor roll student once destined for success expressed regret for his choices and hope for the young charges he mentors now.
Impact of violence on youth …
You have to understand and you have to understand the thinking of young inner city kids, mostly black and brown males who grow up in these very volatile environments. And do once you understand a lot of the abuses and the high level of gun violence they are exposed to and the proximity to death and danger, then you can begin to help them cope and help them understand what their own cognitive processes are, what their emotional processes are and how they are psychologically damaged by their environment. You can fix that if you understand it.
It’s also important to bring in people they can relate to, even inmates and people who have been in prison who have information and experiences that they can impart to these kids in ways nobody else can. I try to play my part in terms of helping young men and women understand the consequences of those lifestyles.
On the school to prison pipeline …
You know, when you watch these kids getting out of school there’s such a dominant police presence. The uniform mentality and the whole idea that our kids have to be regulated in a way that criminalizes them even though they’re regular kids doing what kids do. We have this hyper reaction to every incident and take a blanket approach in Detroit schools, and create policy to [penalize] kids. Our kids get expelled in record numbers, and that sets them up for a pathway to prison. Even when you look at test scores, tests scores are an indicator of who is going to end up in prison.
Other contributing factors to cycle of violence…
When you think about the self-medicating that happens [it’s part of that cycle]. You have young people who are addicted to drugs and addicted to alcohol, these are there self-help and coping mechanisms. Gun violence is another one, because when you’re paranoid and you run up into these volatile environments, you don’t feel safe unless you have a gun. Then you’re in the mindset of, ‘if I’m in a conflict, what does this other person have, and I need to shoot first.’ That’s one of the reasons I thought it was so important to share my story. You can’t solve the problem if you don’t know the root causes. And locking somebody up and throwing away the key is not the answer, because you can stop it before it gets to that point but you have to know the answer.