Former prisoner talks inner-city violence, his experiences

Amanda Allen/Daily
Shaka Senghor speaks about youth violence at the Socially Just Neighborhoods: Urban Communities Addressing Violence and Incarceration event hosted at the School of Social Work Friday. Buy this photo

By Caroline Baron, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 13, 2014

Shaka Senghor, an author, motivational speaker and social activist, discussed the perpetuated cycle of inner-city violence and how his experience in prison led him to speak and write at the School of Social Work Friday.

After he shot and killed a man at age 19 and spent nearly two decades in prison, Senghor is now an author of six books, youth mentor and recently spoke at a regional TEDX Conference. At the event, Senghor discussed his life growing up on the west side of Detroit in an abusive home and running away at age 13.

“One of the things that often happen in inner cities and tougher environments where kids might run away is that there are other people looking to exploit them and so, after a couple of weeks on the street, I was seduced into the crack trade,” Senghor said.

Senghor said the violence in his neighborhood was part of everyday life. At 18, he was shot working as a drug dealer in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, an area afflicted with crime, poverty and abandoned buildings. From then on, he carried a gun wherever he went.

“I made up in my mind that if I was ever in a conflict again, I would shoot first,” Senghor said.

In response to one Social Work professor’s question concerning how Senghor could have benefited from a social worker after he was shot, he said a way to deal with the trauma of violence would have been crucial. He added that counseling in underprivileged areas is still lacking.

“I just knew he’d get treatment or counseling; but just like when I got shot, they passed him up, sent him right back to the hood, and nobody ever intervened in that way,” Senghor said of his shooter.

On a separate occasion, an argument with a man to whom Senghor was selling drugs escalated into violence: Senghor shot him to death. He was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison. Then, he said he learned the power writing gave him to atone and reflect on his life.

“I sat back and started journaling,” he said. “I was disgusted with what my life turned out to be, and more importantly I was tired of hurting myself and hurting others.”

He spoke about solitary confinement during his 19-year tenure in prison. He was on 23-hour lockdown five days a week and 24-hour lockdown the other two days. During this period, he became depressed.

“I’m not sure if we think critically in American society about what solitary confinement does to human beings,” Senghor said. “You get three five-minute showers, and you’re allowed to go to recreation cages on breaks, which is really a little dog kennel, and when they bring you out of your cell you’re in handcuffs with a leash attached to them. We don’t consider the high level of psychosis that happens in the solitary confinement.”

Senghor completed two novels in prison, which he noted was rare for an inmate.

“I represent less than 1 percent of the solitary confinement population who’s been able to make that leap,” Senghor said.

Since his release in 2010, Senghor has committed himself to giving other prisoners the opportunity to address problems that are often ignored. He started a program called Live in Peace in which he speaks to students in Detroit and addresses emotional issues he also grappled with.

He subsequently won the Black Men Engagement of Leadership Award funded by the Knight Foundation, which invests in community innovation in American cities.

This led him to the MIT Media Lab, an “antidisciplinary” research foundation. It was working in Detroit to address ways that technology could improve production of new businesses in the city. Senghor and another member of the MIT Media Lab created the Atonement Project, dedicated to bettering Detroit.

“Detroit is a very, very complex city,” Senghor said. “While there are a lot of amazing things taking place, there’s still a very different reality that people are afraid to talk about and afraid to discuss. And that reality is that there are people living in communities who don’t have access to anything, and there are police that just don’t respond in these communities.”

They brought the Atonement Project to the University to engage with the Prison Creative Arts Project, an initiative collaborating with incarcerated people to strengthen creative expression. Students can take a class with Senghor and PCAP director Ashley Lucas.

LSA senior Judith Rontal, one of Senghor’s students, said Senghor emphasized a focus on antoning for one’s actions and not judging someone on their current situation.

“Perpetrators were often victim,” Rontal said. “We try to bring this theme of reconciliation and atonement to our project, and the guys we work with are so brilliant with what they do with that.”