"One of the most barbaric and inhumane aspects of our society": Shaka Senghor on the horror of solitary confinement

Former inmate and current activist for criminal justice reform talks with Salon about his new memoir

Published March 9, 2016 12:58PM (EST)

 (AP/Steven Senne)
(AP/Steven Senne)

Twenty-five years ago, Shaka Senghor was one of the thousands and thousands of young African-American men who were on their way to a life behind bars. He'd grown up in a middle-class environment, but a combination of forces — both personal, like his parents' divorce, and political, like the crack epidemic — and his own bad decisions had set him on a different path. Ultimately, it was a path that led to solitary.

A lot has happened since 1991. Today's America is a different country; and today's Senghor is a different person. He's an activist now, working with #cut50 and others to stop mass incarceration and implement comprehensive criminal justice reform. And he's devoted to helping individuals reform themselves, too. (His TED talk on redemption has been viewed more than 1 million times.)

How Senghor got from there to here is the main — but by no means only — subject of "Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison," his new memoir. Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Senghor about his life, his book, and his read on where the criminal justice reform movement stands today. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

The book's introduction begins with you in solitary confinement, and you engage in acts of forgiveness. Why did you choose to start the book the way you did?

The reason I chose to start at that point in the book is because I believe that forgiveness is one of the most powerful human tools we have available. And unfortunately we just don't use it often enough, whether it's forgiving ourself or forgiving others. I really wanted to take people into a space of understanding how life-changing the simple words of "I forgive you" or "I apologize" or "I'm sorry" can be. I think it just sets a great tone for bringing people into the world of the book from a very empathetic and compassionate space, which allows their heart to be really open to the idea that no matter what we've done in life that we can forgive others and we can forgive ourselves, and that we can extend that grace to anybody if we're open in heart and mind.

What is the experience of being in long-term solitary confinement like?

Solitary confinement is by far one of the most barbaric and inhumane aspects of our society, especially in a modern, civilized society like America. It is one of the most difficult places to find yourself. It is one of the most difficult places to maintain your sanity. Because there is a heightened level of mental illness in that environment with the closing of so many mental institutions throughout the country, a lot of men and women who have mental illness are herded into prisons and oftentimes they find themselves in solitary confinement because of management issues.

When I was in there, the thing that I will never forget is the smell of defecation, feces, urine being thrown on each other, mingled with pepper spray, which the officers used to subdue men who were sometimes having mental illness episodes, but were treated in a criminal way as opposed to treated with the expertise of a psychiatrist. So that was my day-to-day life, every day. The noise level was deafening -- lockers being beat on, walls being beat on, screaming and hollering, officers barking orders -- just a very chaotic environment. I was locked down for 23 hours a day with one hour out for recreation in a dog kennel, basically.

Other than that, did you ever leave your cell?

When I left my cell, I was escorted by two officers who handcuffed me and had the handcuffs attached to a dog leash. And it was the same process when I was allowed to take a shower three times a week. Three 10-minute showers -- technically 10 minutes, but oftentimes they were shorter because they count the time they come and get you from your cell and take you to the showers. So some very barbaric, inhumane treatment. My belief about the environment is that you don't make people better by causing more harm. But that's solitary confinement in America.

Did you feel like there was any effort within the prison system to help you come out as a better person than you went in as?

When I first went to prison in 1991, there was a larger focus on rehabilitation. There were college opportunities, there were vocational trades, there were self-help groups. By 1994, most of those things had been stripped away. It just became one big warehouse of misery. I wasn't that optimistic that I would find anything inside prison that would be beneficial toward me getting out of prison. It was a very archaic environment, trapped in the age of punishment and things like that.

That was a major concern as I started nearing a decade in prison. It was more so for other guys. I was fortunate. I was well read. I was able to practice meditation because I was stimulated through my readings and how they impacted other people's lives. I would do a lot of these things on my own, but it also reminded me that many of the men I was incarcerated around didn't have that type of insight to even delve into their own behavior because of their lack of literacy and not being able to read things that would inspire or spark their mind in any meaningful way. I think that what has happened since '94, '95, whenever that crime bill that Clinton passed went into play, that caused a devastating impact on those of us who have been incarcerated for long lengths of time.

Were there resources available to you when you were about to be released?

Even when I got out, or was preparing to get out, the programs they had were very anemic. They didn't really speak to the reality of the world that I've reentered. I came home to this very technologically advanced environment with cellphones and laptops and Internet, and none of these things existed when I was inside. I didn't have access to them until I actually got out.

I think we've done a horrible job in this country of preparing men and women to reenter society successfully. We've basically created a model that ensures that upward of 70 percent will return within the first six months of their release. It's just a very tragic way of looking at incarceration.

What percentage of your fellow inmates would you estimate were in need of mental health care?

I don't know the statistical numbers, I just know my lived experience. My lived experience is that the majority of the guys I was around had some type of mental illness or some type of indication of deficiency. In prison talk, we call prison a young man's game. Because typically, the majority of guys that get locked up are very young when they go in, so their minds are still developing. When they go into an environment that's very stagnant, it arrests their development emotionally, mentally and psychologically. It's troubling.

One of the reasons I do the work that I do today is because I know what that looks like, and I also know the potential that is there. I saw it firsthand from being a tutor, being a law library clerk, I saw that if you pour into these guys hope, compassion and empathy, the likelihood of them coming out better is a lot higher.

Then you add to that the reality that the majority of the guys I've talked to that had violent crimes came from volatile environments where child abuse was the norm. That in itself does things to the young mind. I'm not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but I know that when you abuse people at a very early age that it changes their brain chemistry. That's the reality of what we're looking at inside prisons.

Do you feel that prison is intentionally designed to dehumanize the person within it?

I think the current system as it exists, for the most part, is designed to break people as opposed to build people up. It's designed to be very punitive. We live in a very punitive and unforgiving society when it comes to those who've run afoul of the law. We live in a very punitive society when it comes to those who suffer from the illness of substance abuse. So the system is designed to further deteriorate their humanity. It's a very hostile environment. It's racially antagonizing, it's a lot of class antagonism. It's just a very, very harsh environment to try to nurture the best in a human being.

Does that environment make you value yourself less and give you less motivation to have hope and put effort in?

When you grow up in an environment that treats you as if you're worthless and that you're easily discarded, it's hard to find value in yourself. Especially when you're very young and impressionable. What I found in my experience is that the majority of guys were coming from backgrounds where abuse and inhumane treatment was normalized behavior. So they walked in with a low sense of self-esteem, and to go into an environment that reinforces all of the negative things you've heard about yourself, it's just hard to walk out of that environment with a positive sense of who you're capable of being.

For me, I was fortunate to be literate enough to read books of men and women who had gone through similar situations but were able to come out on the other side with their humanity intact. It was those readings that inspired me to look deeper into how I landed in prison and why I landed in prison and what I can do whether I'm getting out of prison or not.

What I try to do, especially with "Writing My Wrongs" is to ensure that that message is being communicated and to be a model for the men and women that are inside. I'm fortunate that I've been able to go back inside prisons, and there's nothing like being able to bring hope to people who are living in a hopeless environment and see that light come on in their eyes that they too can become an ambassador of hope.

So the book is directed at incarcerated individuals, but is it also partially directed at policy makers?

It was a multi-layered purpose for writing the book. It touches on many aspects of my personal life. Obviously growing up in an environment where gun violence is at a crisis point, I wanted to help policy makers, administrators, citizens and community builders understand the psychology behind why so many young men and women are resorting to gun violence. I also wanted to make sure that taxpayers are informed about the prison system that they're footing the bill for.

Ultimately, the big picture thing is that I want policymakers to understand how we're ruining generations of people and how we're devastating our country by discarding so many human beings by locking them out of the American dream, by destroying their humanity, and then having the audacity to wake up and say that we can have a better society by locking more people up. So I really wanted to challenge them, and I really want them to look at it from an everyday perspective.

This problem tends to be out of sight and out of mind for large portions of our society.

There's not many people in American society who hasn't had a bad moment or a bad day. There's not many adults who haven't done something that could have led to them possibly being a felon. Not necessarily going to prison, but being a felon. It happens all the time. Fortunately for some, class and privilege helps them avoid that reality, but for millions it doesn't.

So I really wanted this to be a wake-up call for what's happened in our system. I wanted it to be a wakeup call for what's happening in inner cities, where you have cities averaging a murder a day. I wanted it to be a wakeup call for educators and parents to really keep an eye out and pay attention to some of the signs that may be there that we often ignore and dismiss as just bad behavior, when in reality it's something going on inside these young people who have been exposed to so much and have been hurt by so much.

What aspects of this problem do you wish were better understood by members of the prison reform community?

What I would love to see is more people putting themselves in close proximity to the issue and to the problem. It's easy to live in the suburbs and say, "I want to help the inner cities, so I'm going to donate money or go to a prison in rural America," but it's a lot more courageous to step up and say, "Let me actually go into these inner cities and really get close to the problem. Let me realize that we're all one big family that's really connected if we can get outside of our class and economic boundaries and racial separation. I think being in close proximity to the problem is really important.

Allowing people to speak for themselves as opposed to trying to speak for them, which I've found in my work can be problematic. I've been at countless panels where the whole panel was a bunch of people from academia who don't have the lived experience or don't live in close proximity to the issue.

One of the other big problems is that America's prison system is very clandestine. We need more transparency. We need more people who live in communities with prisons to go inside and volunteer, to actually watch the watchers. So much has happened on our watch because we're just not paying attention. I would love to see more people stepping up and going inside prisons and juvenile detention centers and inner cities where we're having all these issues. And again, just to be more informed about the bills that relate to the criminal justice system.

Are you optimistic that we'll see significant prison reform in the near future?

I think there is some momentum. For the first time in history, you have both parties actually agreeing that what has been done over the last three or four decades has been wrong. So that gives me a glimmer of hope. I have more faith in everyday people than I do in politicians.

I have an unshakeable faith in the power of humanity to overcome this atrocity that has occurred on our watch. So it's for that reason that I keep forging ahead. I'm not going to quit; I'm not going to give in. It's one of the reasons that I wrote the book. I'm a writer — I write fiction — that's what I love to do. Originally I had no plans of writing a memoir, but once I got released and I saw that there was a very real need for people to hear from the insider's perspective, it compelled me to write the book. It was a painful, arduous journey, but it was a journey that was so important because we just have too many people who have been discarded and thrown away, and we've just given up on people who are redeemable.

I still have friends in prison. Some are probably never going to get out. I have friends that have died in prison. And I can't consciously move through life without fighting for their humanity, because ultimately that's what it comes down to. This is not necessarily an issue of criminal justice reform, it's an issue of reclaiming our humanity collectively and recognizing that in each of use there is something special, something sacred, and something redeemable. If we can just get past the hot news of the day or the demagoguery of the day, we can actually make a hell of a difference.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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