Not long after he turned 19, Shaka Senghor found himself facing a bleak future.
He had just entered Michigan’s state prison system after being convicted of second-degree murder. A judge had meted out a sentence of 15 to 40 years for the murder, the result of an altercation gone wrong in a neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side.
But during the 19 years he spent behind bars, Senghor began an amazing arc of atonement, coming to grips with not only the pain he caused the family of the man he murdered, but also the abuse he suffered growing up and the traumatic toll of growing up in violence-plagued neighborhoods.
Senghor shared his story in his best-selling 2013 memoir, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, which gained attention from Oprah and NPR, among others. After leaving prison, he has spent time as a mentor and educator, as well as advocating for criminal justice reforms.
Senghor is now poised for the next chapter. Last month, he was named the new executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), the Los Angeles-based organization that has taken a leading role in advocating for young people incarcerated in California.
The organization was founded in 2013 by Hollywood producer Scott Budnick, who has spent nearly 15 years forging personal relationships with young people incarcerated in juvenile halls and prisons. In addition to helping create re-entry pathways for young people exiting incarceration, ARC also plays an important role in pushing for statewide justice reforms. The group helped push through Senate Bill 260, a 2013 law that allowed the opportunity of parole for 6,500 juvenile offenders in the state who were sentenced to prison for crimes committed before they turned 18.
With founder Budnick now returning to the movie business, Senghor is ready to fill his shoes. Senghor recently talked with The Chronicle of Social Change about the post-Budnick era at ARC, why we should give “young adult prisons” a shot, and how young men of color are impacted the most by censorship in prison libraries.
What sort of opportunity do you see here with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition?
The opportunity that I see with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition is the opportunity to really reshape the narrative around what it means to humanize young men and women … who have come in proximity to the criminal justice system. I think we’re at a special space in time where the conversation has elevated due to the work of the ARC and other organizations throughout the country, and learning from countries outside of the United States who have figured out a model that helps men and women return to their communities … but also are ensuring that when people go through the judicial system that they’re getting the treatment that they need, and oftentimes that’s their mental health treatment as well as rehabilitative and restorative justice treatment to help them return back to society.
One of the passages from your book that really struck a chord with me was when you wrote about your teenage years, when you were living on your own at the age of 14, selling drugs:
“Looking back, the most troubling thing about this part of my life is that no one stopped to ask me what was wrong.”
How should we go about checking in or intervening with young people who have experienced some of the trauma that you’re talking about?
So, in the distance of my work in the criminal justice space, I have also mentored young men and women for the last eight years. Like literally from the week I got released from prison I started working and mentoring young men and women.
What I found is that as adults we tend to talk far too much. We’re telling them to pull their pants up, to take their earphones out, and what I’ve found is that when you actually listen holistically — and what I mean by that is not just to what they say, but to what they’re doing — I’ve found that through this process you really begin to understand how to resource them, how to really help them, how to guide them.
Because they’re trying to tell us a story all of the time, whether it’s through the way they dress, through the music that they listen to, through their lack of verbal communication. They’re trying to tell us a story.
I know this from my own experience. I remember I was around, you know, whatever age you were at when you were in like sixth grade and I had been beat at home. I remember coming to school with these bruises and I couldn’t even verbalize the words to say that my mother abused me. But when I was talking to my teacher I was just making gestures in a way that hopefully he would see the bruises and then ask me what had happened. He never did, and that experience stuck with me.
I believe that what we have to do is we really have to take a more holistic approach. We have to think about what is the environmental factors that they’re living with because one of the things that I’ve discovered through mentoring is I can work with a child all day for several hours throughout the day, but they still have to return home, they still have to return to their community, and they still are going to deal with the peer pressures.
The other part of it is we have to give them experiences that are outside of their environment and help them see the world. Being able to travel changes perspectives. Coming into contact with people who are outside of that cycle of violence and trauma is one of the most healthiest things I’ve seen young people exposed to because at that point they can begin to imagine to re-imagine a life for themselves that doesn’t include gun violence or incarceration. Again, when we’re dealing with a traumatized young mind, we have to understand that they’re not seeing the world through our perspective and so we have to step back.
There is a big debate in the country right now about how to serve young adults who are incarcerated. Some states, including California, are considering the idea of creating facilities just for young adults, ages 18 to 21. Is this something that you think would have helped you? Do you think there’s a future for this sort of thing?
Absolutely. I think it’s really important. Obviously, I would love for us to eradicate the need for these facilities at all because I do think that we can better address a lot of these issues without incarcerating young people. However, I’m realistic about the world that we live in, and my perspective is that if we’re going to incarcerate young men and women, we need to be making sure that they’re in an environment that first of all recognizes that they are children, secondly recognizes that they’re looking at the world through a very traumatic lens, and third we need to really ensure that they’re in an environment that is healthy for them and that they’re around their peer group.
When I was in prison — actually, probably like two years before I got released — one of the tiers in our prison was for young guys that I think were like 16 to 21 and it was very easy to recognize that they were not prepared emotionally or mentally to deal with the reality of being in an adult prison. It made them very vulnerable. It made them very susceptible to the manipulation that typically happens in that environment. It subjected them to a level of abuse by officers who weren’t equipped to deal with their emotional immaturity. So, it’s just a very dangerous and a very unhealthy environment for young people to be in.
How does it feel to kind of take over from Scott Budnick? Did he give you any words of advice as you grabbed the reins?
It’s definitely an undertaking of a great magnitude. I mean, Scott has been tremendous always in this space not just for ARC but nationally, which is how we actually we met. He’s built along with the amazing team over there a culture that’s centered around membership, comradery, family and support. Those are big shoes to fill. I’m definitely honored.
Scott was very persistent about me interviewing for the position. Initially, I was hesitant. He and I talked at length multiple times. Really he just told me [to] trust myself to be who I have been since I’ve been out of prison in regards to working in this space and trust that there’s a family over there that’s really strong and supportive. Its members are incredible and the people there are looking forward to my leadership. I’ve had some experiences.
Recently, I spoke at a juvenile defense lawyer conference here in L.A. and I moderated a panel with several ARC members. One of the most special things happened after that experience was one of the members, Sam, came over and he took his ARC pin off of the lapel of his blazer and pinned it to mine. Basically, that was kind of saying, “Hey, we’re excited to have you on board as the executive director.”
So, I’m excited about it. It’s very humbling. It’s a dream experience to really be able to work with system-impacted men and women and to be able to advocate for them. As much as I’ll be leading the charge over there, there’s so much I get in return.
Storytelling seems like a really important part of your work. In the current age criminal justice reform in California, what kind of stories do we need to hear?
We need to know the stories of men and women who are serving life sentences. A lot of times, we just say, “OK, they’ve been sentenced, they go away to prison, and we forget about them.”
The reality is most people can’t even fully comprehend what a life sentence really means because they think, “Oh, they’re just in there. They’ve got a television and workout equipment and they’ll be fine.” But basically, you’re saying that a person’s life has all but ended and that they will never have an opportunity to redeem themselves or to enjoy what is most human to us, which is our freedom.
So, I think we need to tell more of those stories. We need to really tell the stories about the mental health crisis that is occurring inside of prisons when states across the country begin to close down mental institutes. There’s a lot of people who would’ve been there getting treated who ended up going to prison because mental illness has been criminalized in this country. So, we need to tell those stories.
We also need to tell the backstories of how so many men and women end up in prison in the first place. It’s one of the reasons I wrote “Writing my Wrongs.” When I wrote that book, people weren’t talking about young men — especially young men of color — struggling with suicide, or the thoughts of committing suicide, or struggling with depression, or struggling with trying to deal with the various levels of abuse they have been subjected to.
Then the other part is the ownership. Other people want to tell our stories. I think it’s really important for us to tell our stories and for us to shape the narrative around who we are.
When I got out of prison — obviously, people have seen my story now and they’re like, “Oh, my God, this guy is successful and he made it.” The first three years didn’t look like things look now, you know? I struggled to get employed, I struggled to find balance, and I struggled with my own adjustment to the reality that I had been through several traumatic experiences. When I went to prison it was 16 months after I got shot and I had never gotten treated for that PTSD. Then I went to prison, which is a very volatile environment, and that compounded the PTSD. So, when I go out of prison, I didn’t even think about that.
I was focused on what I wanted to do and what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t realize that I would have all of these triggers until they were actually happening. Once I was able to kind of zoom out and figure out, “OK, well, why did this feel like that,” then I was able to identify what was happening inside of me. Again, I’m fortunate in the sense that I had incredible mentors that led me to incredible books that helped me self-diagnose these things. Sadly, unfortunately, that’s not the reality for everybody.
Well, that actually leads to my next question: For the young men and young women in the juvenile halls and juvenile camps of L.A. County, what are a couple of books that you would recommend to them?
Obviously, I would recommend Writing My Wrongs, and not just because I’m the writer of it, but I do think it’s the type of book that really connects to their reality. A type of book that they can find themselves in. One of my favorite books is, As a Man Thinketh by James Allen.
Sadly, this is the hardest part about this — is a lot of times those books get rejected in prisons. I just did a talk with some librarians here. I was telling them about the censorship that happens in prison. So, I started off reading Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim. These were writers who talked about the inner city, they talked about drugs, they talked about pimps and prostitution, and those books are currently banned for those reasons. But to me, I think those are some of the most important books I read because those books led to me reading Malcolm X, they led to me reading James Allen, and ultimately led to me writing because I could see myself in those pages.
When you’re a person of color in this country, oftentimes the things that are relatable to us are some of the first things that are censored. It’s really important that people have literature that they can connect directly with because it will inspire them to read. I’ve done multiple groups inside prison that started with those types of books. I’ve worked with young men who were illiterate when they walked into prison and once we started working those were the books that I would give them work with because I knew that if they could see themselves in those pages they would work that much harder to comprehend what they were reading and really understand it. That’s really important when it comes to books.