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Writing is his redemption after spending his youth behind bars

By the age of 19, Shaka Senghor was behind bars after his teen years as a drug dealer ended with a death on his hands. Senghor says his story is all too familiar for many young black men. The author of “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison” sits down with Jeffrey Brown.

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  • JOHN YANG:

    There are 2.2 million prisoners in the United States. Almost half of them are black.

    In this final addition to our summer reading list, we hear from one former inmate who is trying to stem the tide.

    At the recent Los Angeles Book Festival, Jeffrey Brown talked with Shaka Senghor, the author of "Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me ask you first, why did you write this book?

    SHAKA SENGHOR, Author, "Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison": I thought it was really important to help people understand what's happening in the inner city where young men and women were ending up in a prison system.

    But also I wanted to bring people as close to the prison experience as possible without them have to actually get arrested, because I think in order to solve a problem, you have to be in close proximity to it.

    And I just think the book brings you right there front and center. Our system is a mystery to most taxpayers. And it shouldn't be. I think that we should know as much about the prison system as possible, considering that the society has been so deeply impacted by what's happening within the system.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tell me a little bit about your childhood.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    I grew up in the city of Detroit on the East Side in a household, and on the outside looking in was the model for middle-class black America.

    Unfortunately, what was happening in my household, which is all too often the case for young men and women who end up running away, is my mother was being abusive. And I decided to run away. And that's how I got seduced into the drug trade at the age of 14.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Drug trade, which led you on to streets, which led you to guns.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    When I first got seduced into that culture, I had no idea, like, everything that that entailed.

    And it was a relatively short time that I experienced every imaginable horror that comes with drug culture, including a childhood friend being murdered, both my older brothers being shot, and eventually myself being shot multiple times at the age of 17.

    And that's the world of street culture. And I wanted people to really understand what's happening in this space, why it's happenings and how we can stop it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And it led eventually to you shooting and killing someone.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    When you say people understanding, did you understand at the time right…

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Not at all.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    No? Right and wrong and…

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    I mean, it was an understanding of what was legal and what wasn't legal.

    You know, obviously, I grew up with a moral compass to differentiate between right and wrong. However, when you are immersed in the psychological trauma of high levels of gun violence, those decisions are not always easy to make.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Not on your mind at that…

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Because it goes from right and wrong to what is survival. And when you are operating out of survival mode, the rules change.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What did you expect prison would be like before you went?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    I expected it to be a horrible experience of human misery.

    And it proved to be true when I went inside prison at the age of 19. It was really one of the most volatile, dehumanizing, degrading environments in modern society right now.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You write about a letter from your then 10-year-old son, right, that helped transform you.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Tell us about that.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    As a father, my responsibility is to provide and protect. And I was failing to do that by being incarcerated for a very serious crime, and one in which my child was growing up to look at me as a monster.

    So, I knew I had a responsibility to turn my life around in such a way that he can understand that, even though I made a poor decision, that doesn't totally define who I am as a human being.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There are going to be people who watch this and say, you killed somebody, right?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Prison is not supposed to be a good experience, right?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You're being punished.

    So, what's the response to that?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    So, 90 percent of who are incarcerated will at some point get out.

    And we have to decide what kind of men and women we want to return to society. And the idea that you can punish, degrade and dehumanize somebody and then expect positive outcomes is ridiculously absurd.

    It just goes against logic, because you get out of people what you pour into them. And so my position is that, while I had a horrible experience, I am OK today, because I was able to do things to ensure that I left with my mental faculties intact and my psychological faculties intact. But that is not the normal case.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Part of how part of how you did it was through reading and then writing. Right?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Had you been a reader, a writer before all this?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    So, those were the classes that I always excelled in.

    They were things that I loved. I learned how to read when I was 4 years old. I have always had an appreciation for the written word. In terms of actually becoming a writer, that didn't come until later on, when I just decided to join into the world of literature and just started writing fiction and things along those lines.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, fiction was the way in?

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes, fiction was the way in. It allowed me to explore different worlds. It allowed me to examine different aspects of who I am as a person.

    And I think sometimes you can tell the deeper truths through fiction, because it is not as antagonistic, it's not as personal. Sometimes, it gives you enough distance to really kind of think about things differently.

    And so literature played a profound role in turning my life around, but it was also journaling as well, like being able to really write and ask myself those tough questions, like, how did I go from wanting to be a doctor to serving my most promising years in prison?

    And the discoveries that I had and epiphanies I had along the way helped me course-correct and really rethink what I wanted to do with my life.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So, now you're out. You have published this memoir, and you were telling me before we started about getting involved with literature, literacy programs in Detroit.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Yes.

    So, I grew up in Detroit. I do a lot when I'm home to work with young men and women who are growing up in a similar circumstance that I grew up in. And I found that when you can introduce them to literature that connects to their reality, that they are a lot more receptive.

    Getting the book in the hands of as many students, high schoolers in Detroit to read during the summer would just be a phenomenal way to have a conversation about ending gun violence and disrupting the playground-to-prison pipeline that is so prevalent in inner cities.

    I think we're at a pivotal moment when it comes to criminal justice reform. I think we're at a pivotal moment when it comes to racial dynamics and inner-city gun violence. And people want change. And I think the book allows people to really examine how we can go about fixing things and turning things around.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The book is "Writing My Wrongs."

    Shaka Senghor, thank you very much.

  • SHAKA SENGHOR:

    Thank you so much for having me.

  • JOHN YANG:

    You can watch many more of Jeff's author interviews from BookExpo America at PBS.org/book-view-now.

    And you can see all of our recommendations for summer reads on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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