Beyond Prisons: A Conversation at the Castro

Shaka Senghor with son Sekou and Van Jones

As President and Cofounder of #Cut50 Van Jones introduced New York Times—bestselling author and #Cut50 Director of Strategy Shaka Senghor at the packed Castro Theatre in San Francisco Wednesday night, he got a laugh by first thanking the crowd for missing the Warriors playoffs to attend a conversation on criminal justice reform. Then he talked about how Shaka’s memoir, “Writing My Wrongs,” is one of those books that, by the time you have finished, you have become a different person.

 “Tonight,” said Van, “we’re going to have a real conversation. Shaka, you’re from Detroit, you were abused in childhood, you ran away, joined a gang, got shot, then shot back. Then you went to prison for second-degree murder for 19 years, 7 of those in solitary confinement. Since you’ve been out, you’ve been on the front lines pushing for changes to the system. You wrote a memoir and by some miracle wound up in the hands of Oprah Winfrey--perhaps you all have heard of her--and now you’ve been to the White House, twice. What happened in between? What’s prison like up close?”

 Shaka: “The myth is that prisons are full of crazy people and lazy people. But in prison, there's a 100% forced employment rate. I made an astounding 13 cents an hour cleaning a unit full of frat house males, subjecting myself to hepatitis. Prisons are an $80 billion industry, and they are getting their money's worth. But are we? I don’t know many other industries with a 70% failure rate.

 The other myth is that prisons are full of crazy people. I met amazing men serving life in prison who became my mentors, gave me books that transformed my life. The work I do today is because of the unsung heroes I met in prison.”

Van: “You know Oprah and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz--people in Silicon Valley would push their best friend in front of a BART train to talk to Horowitz. And yet your most powerful mentors are people we have thrown away forever.”

Shaka: “You wouldn't believe the level of wasted genius. There are great legal and political minds in prison. It’s a very innovative place. I’d love to take all you Silicon Valley people to prison and show you some of the things we made up. When I started working with MIT Media Labs, I gave some design challenges to some of their brilliant minds. For example, can you pass a message across a corridor using only a toilet paper roll, a tube of toothpaste, and a pair of underwear? They couldn’t. Yet that was our Internet system in prison. Check your email. Innovate at MIT and you’ll be validated; in prison, you’re labeled a troublemaker.”

 Van: “Most of us have dreams we’re not achieving, and we all have excuses. You wrote your first book while doing a 4 ½ year stretch in solitary confinement, which is the toughest place on earth. The rest of us have writer’s block at Starbucks. How were you able to break out of your internal prison?”

 Shaka: “I didn’t realize I had a skill set. But I wanted to leave something for my son. I said to myself, if you're sincere about turning your life around, then challenge yourself to write a book. In 30 days. I had no laptop. They only give you flimsy pens that can’t be used as weapons. And paper was limited. I sent my manuscript by string to the cell directly across from me. He said it was the best book he’d ever read. Then I remembered, the dude’s in solitary confinement--any book’s going to be the best book.

 I went on to write a second book, then a third. And I fell into a severe depression, because I had discovered that I had a dream worth living for. They don’t give you an end point when you’re in solitary - it’s part of the psychological control.”

 Van: “I come from Black Faith tradition, and I know there must be a spiritual root that has blossomed so beautifully in you.”

 Shaka: “Well, I did wear my polyester pastels on Easter growing up. I don’t talk a lot about my faith, but yes, in prison I started to center my life on my belief that the world is infinitely abundant. From the darkest place, I found a dream, a skill, and then I wrote a letter to the warden telling him that if he let me out of solitary, it would be one of the best decisions he ever makes. He agreed, but his higher-up didn't, and I spent another year in solitary. Finally, I got to go to jail.”

 Van: “You had a dream, to get to jail!”

 Shaka: “Yes, and I promised myself, if i ever get out of solitary i’m going to do the George Jefferson stroll.”

 Van: “You can tell right now how old people here are by who’s laughing.”


 Shaka: “I was moving on up to a new me.”

 Van: “You went in when you were 19 and came out when you were 38. What was it like to get out?”

 Shaka: “Prison is the complete opposite of being a human being. When I got out of prison, I just wanted to have the feeling of drinking a juice I selected from my own fridge, food based on my palate. I wanted the ability to be human.”

 Van: “You left people behind. What do people in prison need? And what do they need when they come out?”

 Shaka: “The level of mental illness in prison would blow your minds. The worst abuse against mankind is the way the mentally ill are treated in prison. The cutters in solitary for example, don't’ receive treatment but are instead chained to their beds to stop them from self-mutilating. I knew when I got out I would have a responsibility to speak for them.

 The most important gift for someone in prison is hope. The majority of people on the outside aren’t in contact with anybody on the outside. These are men and women we’ve thrown away. A simple letter or phone call doesn’t cost us much. Expand empathy in spaces that aren't your natural ecosystem.

 There’s no forgiveness for the currently incarcerated or for those coming home. Everyone in this theater has done something they're not proud of.”

 Van: “Look at how some of yall are dressed. I joke, I joke.”

 Shaka: “I went to Germany last year to see the prisons. I thought Germans, based on their history, would have tough prisons. I was shocked. From the very first moment of incarceration they work to get people back into society. They actually get them working in society. They don’t use solitary. Family visits are mandatory. And they don’t sentence children to life in prison.”

Van: “We have to tell the story of what happened when we went to the White House.”

 Shaka: “We had to rush. It was a hot day. We were running down the street in our suits. I’m not the type to put a suit on. Now, I always get nervous going through security. My name was on the list, but when I heard ‘one second, sir,’ I knew it was going down hill from there. I stood outside for 2 hours in the 90-degree heat. It was a very difficult moment to be invited to the White House and then barred. Eventually, I got to go inside. I was invited again and got in with no problem. Obama has announced sweeping prison reforms this year.

We have to see the humanity of our brothers and sisters coming home. When I got out of prison, every apartment turned me down. I aced a job interview, they said they wanted me, then later I found out I didn’t get the job because of my felony. It’s legal to discriminate against felons. It’s the most demoralizing feelings to want to do the right thing and be told you’re unworthy to do it.

 Soon after I got out of prison, we were expecting a baby, and I was asking myself ‘how am i going to take care of my family?’ And it occurred to me that with one phone call I could be back in the gang, because the streets are always hiring. If not for the help of my friends, I might have become homeless or turned to substance abuse.

 It’s not about coddling, but about giving people a fair chance. These are regular people with hearts and souls who want to dream and work and live with dignity. Human resilience is really what it’s about.”

 If you’d like to take action, sign up at #Cut50. Buy yourself a copy of Writing My Wrongs at #BeyondPrisons and buy one for a friend.   


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