When I first got the opportunity to interview Shaka Senghor, I jumped at the chance.
I remember hearing about his interview with Oprah on Super Soul Sunday (which she said was "one of the best interviews" of her life) and I knew he was a compelling speaker with an inspiring story about turning his life around after prison.
Once I started to prep for our appearance on theGrioLIVE, I quickly learned there was more to the story and the man: he grew up in a middle class family, escaped abuse, became a teen crack dealer, was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison for committing a murder at 19 years old, served 19 years behind bars, 5+ of which were in solitary confinement; and went on to become a fellow at the MIT Media Lab, Kellogg Foundation and a best-selling author.
Shaka was the epitome of a life redeemed. His story had a fairytale ending.
I went on to interview Shaka and had an incredible conversation about "RELEASED," a new docuseries he served as consulting producer for on OWN Network. It was a show that followed six people trying to start their lives over after being locked up.
After our chat, Shaka asked me if I'd read his NYT bestselling memoir yet and I hadn't, so he gifted me a copy and signed it right at the office.
I didn't realize what a gift he'd given me.
Tonight I just closed the last page of the book- Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption In An American Prison- and I'm filled with emotions of outrage, hope, despair and deep admiration.
We hear about mass incarceration and prison all the time, from books like Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" and movies like Ava DuVernay's 13th. But reading Shaka's first-person account of spending the majority of his early adult life behind bars makes the injustice of the American prison system realer than ever.
Seeing how a young frustrated teen with all the potential in the world could get sucked into the streets, had his cries for help ignored and became a victim before he would victimize another, is a tragedy.
Pure hell is the best description for the violence, murder, rapes, racism and degradation Shaka witnessed in prison from the age of 19 to 38 years old. This was not in some far-off land, but right here on U.S. soil.
I understand that Shaka and others who have committed crimes must pay for their actions- but the horror of our criminal justice system does little to nothing to repair or redeem broken men and women.
Reading about the ways he and others had to live by the "law of the jungle" just to survive prison, helps you understand how people end up in an endless cycle of violence and new punishment within the system- and how many can't recover when they leave.
The toughest moments to read in this story are when you see Shaka making the effort to change, take classes, work and do right behind bars, only to be set back by corrupt guards, skeptical parole boards and a system that appears hell bent on breaking his spirt.
What's most admirable about the author is the way he takes responsibility for his actions in the story, communicating how his thinking was wrong, misguided and prevented him from moving forward. He "writes his wrongs" finding strength to go on writing even when it seems there won't be a second chance at freedom.
I weep for all the young men and women who are set up to live the horrors Shaka Senghor lived through.
They are behind bars right now, forgotten, abused and branded irredeemable.
Some will die like Kalief Browder.
Some are headed to prison when they could be headed to college or trade schools because all systems- school, community, health, housing- will fail them time and again.
I'm outraged at the number of black lives in particular, which will be spent behind bars just like Shaka, in what amounts to modern day slavery.
While corporations get rich marketing the street life and trap life, young people who follow the lifestyle they're sold will eventually discover it's as poisonous as the drugs they're selling.
I'm glad Shaka Senghor lived to tell his story and change the world for the better after finding redemption.
I just pray for the day we won't have to read anymore stories like this. I won't see it in my lifetime but if enough people fight, maybe one day a new generation will see that wish come true.
P.S. You can watch the full conversation with Shaka and I on Facebook. Here's Shaka and I after the interview- shout out to Detroit!