Shaka Senghor has been to hell and back. He was once imprisoned in one of the country’s worst correctional facilities, but now is a director’s fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Media Lab and a successful author and speaker.
Senghor was a troubled youth who experimented with drugs and eventually started dealing narcotics. He experienced many of the traumas of inner-city life, such as watching his friends get shot and being shot himself. Eventually, he started carrying a gun and killed a man in a drug deal gone wrong. In 1991, he was sentenced to 17 to 40 years in a correctional facility. He did almost 20 years in hellish prison conditions.
“It’s horrible, the conditions are deplorable,” Senghor said. “I started at Michigan Reformatory, which is arguably one of the most violent prisons for young men in the nation.”
Prison life in general is difficult, but Senghor experienced the worst of it, when he spent seven years in solitary confinement. He witnessed an inmate fatally beaten by guards and another prisoner starve to death.
Senghor said many inmates have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, like he realized he had, or come from abusive environments. Many of them have undiagnosed mental problems.
According to Senghor, the environment is so negative, most people come out much worse than they went in.
“To live in that environment for any number of years and not come out a damaged human being takes an enormous amount of resiliency, fortitude, support and inner strength,” he said.
Although he is a fan of hip hop, Senghor is annoyed that hard-core rap tends to glorify street life and glamorize going to jail.
“I think it’s shameful to be celebrating that (going to jail) as something to be glorified,” Senghor said. “I would love for hip hop artists to step up to the plate and talk about how exploitative the system is.”
Senghor credits his survival on the inside to his education. He already had a GED, when he was imprisoned and developed a love for reading and writing. Senghor read thousands of books and wrote articulate letters to his family.
“Reading and writing became my saving grace,” Senghor said. “I used that to break through the depression of being incarcerated.”
Being locked up for almost 20 years gave Senghor a close look at the inner workings of the prison industrial complex. He saw how it exploits captive labor and inmates’ families.
“There’s a 100 percent employment rate inside prison for men who can’t find employment outside prison,” Senghor said. “If you’re in prison, you are going to be employed in some capacity or another.”
However prison laborers are paid wages vastly lower than the average American worker. Essentially, they are slave wages Senghor believes.
“Constitutionally, you’re basically a servant,” he said. “You’re servitude is justified by the 13th Amendment, which says that no man or woman shall be subjected to involuntary servitude unless convicted of a crime. The 13th Amendment basically rewrote how you could be enslaved. You have big business who exploit cheap labor. They exploit the most vulnerable.”
While in jail, Senghor worked as a law librarian, making $1 per day; a tutor, where he made a whopping $9 per month; and a kitchen worker making 17 cents an hour. And he never got a wage increase.
“That hourly wage never changed throughout the 19 years I was there,” Senghor said.
However, it’s not just the inmates who are being exploited. Inmates ’families also suffer as they pay exorbitant rates for phone calls and have to spend large amounts of money visiting their loved ones, who are often imprisoned far from their homes. He said his former fiancee spent up to $400 per month on phone calls.
In 2010, he was paroled to a very different world and had to get used to space-age technology, such as the Internet, smart phones and talking cars. In a TED talk, he describes it as like going from “the Flintstones to the Jetsons.”
“The most surprising thing was the development of technology,” Senghor said. “When I went in, the Internet was just being created.”
Senghor faced other problems adjusting to society. His movements were restricted, and it was nearly impossible to get a job. His family’s housing situation was threatened because of his record.
“They (my family) became victims of my felony,” he said.
Even simple tasks, like going to the DMV and being surrounded by hundreds of people were stressful.
Senghor feels there aren’t enough transitional programs to help ex-convicts reintegrate into society. Another problem is the fact that few of the available programs are designed by former inmates, who understand the struggle personally.
“We know things someone sitting up in an office in the state Capitol will never know,” Senghor said.
He also said former inmates should be allowed to go back into prisons, teach workshops and mentor other inmates, since they understand what it takes to succeed.
“It shows that it can be done and that’s really important,” he said.
Senghor eventually started mentoring in Detroit schools and met Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab. Ito was impressed with Senghor’s story and writing skills and offered him a director’s fellowship. Director’s fellows are people from non-traditional backgrounds who are invited to participate in Media Lab research alongside faculty and students. Senghor now works with the MIT Media Lab, teaches a course at the University of Michigan and is national outreach representative for BMe Community, a network of Black men committed to positive social change.
He also works with CNN analyst and former White House green czar Van Jones at #cut50, a bipartisan initiative whose goal is to cut in half the prison population within the next 10 years. The organization is supported by conservatives such as former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Mark Holden of Koch Industries.
According to Senghor, some Republicans are beginning to warm to the idea of reducing the prison population for a combination of reasons.
“They have realized how deep it (corrections spending) impacts the state and federal budgets,” Senghor said. “This is draining so many resources that could be applied to other areas. Spiritual conservatives are beginning to look at it from a spiritual and religious perspective. They realize we are going to be judged harshly by how we treat the most vulnerable.”
Senghor has become aware of the stark difference between corrections and education spending, when he visits schools.
“The prison I walked out of is in better condition than most of the schools I walk into in the inner city,” he said. “That speaks to what people are willing to invest their tax dollars in.”
Senghor credits his post-incarceration success to meeting people, like Ito, Jones and Trabian Shorters, founder and CEO of BMe Community, who were willing to give him a second chance. He also thinks education is the key to saving people on the inside and laments that education programs have been slashed for prison inmates.
“I’m a firm believer in getting men and women in prison as much material to read as possible,” he said.