Liz Hardaway, Transcript Reporter
It’s the 90s, the era of Walkmans and hammer pants. A 19-year-old honor student from East Detroit was just sentenced to 17-40 years in prison for murdering a man in an argument over a drug deal.
Shaka Senghor had “assumed” that his life was over.
After serving 19 years in prison, Senghor is now a New York Times best-selling author, with six books under his belt, including his latest “Writing My Wrongs.” Senghor has appeared on “Super Soul Sunday” and led three TED talks.
Senghor brought his story to the Benes Room in Ham-Will on March 30, pointing out the flaws of the modern prison system in the U.S.
“We live in a society that is very slow to think about what it means to give second chances,” Senghor said.
With more money being poured into prison upkeep rather than the education system, and the U.S. containing 25 percent of the total world’s prison population with a 70 percent return rate after release, Senghor challenged attendees to pay attention to the tax investment Americans make on their prison system.
“If you treat a person barbaric, animalistic, abuse them, degrade them and dehumanize them, the logical outcome is that they are going to get out and do the same to someone else,” Senghor said.
Senghor ran away from his abusive mother when he was 14. As a young honor roll student, he said he hoped that someone would see the smart kid that he was. Soon, a local drug dealer approached Senghor and introduced him to the world of dealing crack cocaine.
“I was way in over my head … Within the first six months, my childhood friend was murdered, my older brother was stabbed, I was robbed at gunpoint, and then I was beat nearly to death and left on a cold bathroom floor … thinking to myself where is my mother, where is my father, and how could somebody allow their child to be gone for so long and not seek them out,” Senghor said.
After getting shot, Senghor started carrying a pistol, determined that the next time he got into a conflict, he would not hesitate to pull the trigger.
On March 8, 1990 the opportunity arose when Senghor refused to sell crack to a stranger. When the argument escalated Senghor shot and killed the man.
After the first five years Senghor was in prison, he had accumulated 25 misconducts and was placed in a maximum-security prison.
Surrounded by inmates who were for the most part serving life sentences, Senghor said he found brilliant life mentors who gave him books and encouraged him to keep learning.
With the high rate of mental illness, minimal recreational hours and seven years of solitary confinement, Senghor attributes his success and sanity in prison to these men.
Senghor wrote his first book in 30 days in solitary confinement, and used a fish line of underwear and socks to send it over to the inmate across the hall to read. After receiving copious amounts of praise for this book, he challenged himself to write his second book in 30 days as well.
Upon realizing his dream to become a writer, Senghor was depressed as he wrote his third book. His freedom was even more important if he wanted to make his dream a reality.
After Senghor got out of solitary confinement, he found a word processor and would type his first four books 13 pages at a time.
These books were published while Senghor was still in prison, but after three parole hearings, Senghor was released on June 22, 2010. Upon leaving, a guard told Senghor that he would be back.
“There are families being broken … there are human beings that are being thrown away that have real value … if we give them a chance,” said Senghor.
Black Men of the Future (BMF) organized the event, and even made Senghor an honorary member of the organization.
“Our goal is to raise awareness and begin harder conversations that a lot of people are afraid to have,” said senior Aaron Cameron, vice president of BMF.