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 started by dispelling the myths that prisons are full of crazy people and lazy people.. "In prison, there's a 100% forced employment rate," he said. "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 crowd laughed.
Shaka continued, "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.”
Shaka was interviewed last month on Oprah Winfrey's SuperSoul Sunday. She also bought his movie rights. Shaka is close, too, with top venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. Said Van, "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 told the audience about the great political and legal minds in prison. “You wouldn't believe the level of wasted genius. 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.'" He got a big laugh, but added, "Innovate at MIT and you’ll be validated; in prison, you’re labeled a troublemaker.”
So how does one write a book in the toughest place on earth? “Most of us have dreams we’re not achieving, and we all have excuses,' said Van. "You wrote your first book while doing a 4 ½ year stretch in solitary confinement. The rest of us have writer’s block at Starbucks. How were you able to break out of your internal prison?”
Shaka said he didn't know he had the skill till he tried. He said he wanted to leave something for his son. He thought, if you're sincere about turning your life around, then challenge yourself to write a book. He did it in n 30 days with no laptop. He had only a flimsy pens that could not be used as weapons. Even paper was limited. When he finished, he sent his manuscript by string to the cell directly across. The other guy said it was the best book he’d ever read. "Then I remembered," said Shake, "the dude’s in solitary confinement--any book’s going to be the best book."
Shaka went on to write a second book, then a third. And he fell into a severe depression, because he had discovered he 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,” he said.
Van talked about coming from the Black Faith tradition. But what about Shaka? He asked if a spiritual root helped him blossom. They compared polyester pastels worn to church during their 70s childhoods. And Shaka said while he doesn't often talk about his faith, he did start to center his life in prison on my belief that the world is infinitely abundant." He wrote a letter to the warden telling him that if he let Shaka out of solitary, it would be one of the best decisions he ever made. The warden agreed, but his higher-up didn't, and Shaka spent another year in solitary. But finally, he got to go to jail.
Van started laughing, “You had a dream, to get to jail!” And Shaka couldn't help but laugh. “Yes, and I promised myself, if i ever get out of solitary i’m going to do the George Jefferson stroll.” Van added, "You can tell right now how old people here are by who gets it, who’s laughing.”
Shaka said, “I was moving on up to a new me.”
Shaka went to prison when he was 19 and came out when he was 38. If prison is the complete opposite of being a human being, what does it feel like to get out?" Shaka said he just wanted to have the feeling of drinking a juice of his own choosing from his own refrigerator. That, for him, was the ability to be human.
But he knew he had a responsibility to speak for the ones he left behind. He said, “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 the self-mutilating."
Again and again throughout the night, Shaka mentioned hope. It's what people on the inside need the most and have the least. It doesn't help that the majority of prisoners 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," said Shaka. "Expand empathy in spaces that aren't your natural ecosystem. There’s no forgiveness for the currently incarcerated or for those coming home."
Shaka reminded the audience that everyone of them has done something they're not proud of. Van couldn't resist, “Look at how some of yall are dressed," he said looking out at the crowd, then added, "I joke, I joke.”
Shaka talked about a trip to Germany last year to see their prisons, and how he expected them to be harsh. "I was shocked," said Shaka. "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.”
The last segment of the evening was audience questions. A moderator called from the right side of the theatre, "We have a question from the right." Van said, "Hopefully not the real right." It was someone wanting to know about the fiasco that occurred when they got invited to the White House. Shaka and Van recalled rushing that hot day, from the train station, running down the street in their suits.
"I’m not the type to put a suit on," said Shaka. "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 my suit in the 90-degree heat." Shaka explained that it was a very difficult moment, to be invited to the White House and then barred. He did eventually get inside, and was even invited back. Van pointed out that Obama has made sweeping prison reforms this year.
The night was not only a big window into prison existence, but also the realities of coming home. "When I got out of prison, every apartment turned me down," said Shaka. "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 is, after all, legal to discriminate against felons.
Shaka recalled how demoralizing was that moment, wanting to do the right thing, and being told he was unworthy. "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."
Just before he brought that child, Sekou, up on the stage, and his standing ovation, he said, "It's 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.”