Shaka Senghor, 45, a consulting producer for Oprah Winfrey’s new program, Released, which debuted on the OWN cable television network, visited San Quentin State Prison in November 2017.
Senghor said he wants to collaborate with men in prison. He knows about incarceration because he served time, 19 years in prison for second-degree murder in Michigan. Seven of those years were in solitary confinement.
“I spent two decades with these men,” said Senghor. “Friends don’t leave friends behind.”
He said there’s no turning back to that past life, but “I had to come to see the brothers in (San Quentin). That’s important to me.”
Dressed in all black, wearing neatly groomed dreadlocks and a closely trimmed gray beard, he entered the prison’s media center recognizing that the men there were doing “serious stuff,” in a positive way.
“Guys in here have some kind of responsibility for what they send home,” said Senghor, adding that recidivism hurts their efforts. “Our biggest battle is when one guy gets out and f**** up.” That, he said, reflects on everyone who is incarcerated. Still, he likes working with people who “get it.”
Senghor also collaborates with Van Jones, of #CUT50, whom he met at MIT’s media lab during a fellowship. He said they sometimes discuss the spiritual aspect of their work. “Van always wants to know how we can get better.”
Recently, Senghor, Jones and Michelle Alexander, attorney and author of The New Jim Crow, spoke at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, California. “This raises the importance of men and women coming home,” he said. “It’s about accountability to keep ourselves sharp.”
“The premiere episode of Released follows three black former inmates who each committed different offenses but face similar experiences of fighting to stay out of prison after being released,” the Huffington Post reported.
The episode follows the journey of Sam Johnson and Kevin Carr, recently paroled from San Quentin State Prison, and explores how they reconnect with their families after years of incarceration.
Senghor said he never imagined that he would do this kind of work. “Some days it seems all surreal.”
Not too long ago, Senghor was invited to Germany to visit a prison with a contingent of prison activists and wardens. He admitted to having prejudices going to a German prison—thinking of Auschwitz—but when he arrived he said it was “mind blowing” because it wasn’t an “antagonistic atmosphere.”
According to Senghor, German prisoners are allowed to go out into society and return to the prison to serve their sentences. He said in Germany, prisoners are treated like citizens.
“If this is happening in Germany, what can we do here?” Senghor said. He said in Germany, they have “life-long sentences” where people are not sentenced to die in prison.
One poignant experience he recounted was discussing his years of confinement in U.S. prisons with a German prison warden. Upon hearing that Senghor spent seven years in solitary confinement, the warden cried, “We would never do that to one of our citizens.”
Senghor wrote the book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, which has appeared on The New York Times best-seller list. “Sometimes it’s emotionally draining when you have to reflect on your worst moment,” he said. “It’s about my journey and growing up on the streets of Detroit. It’s also about going to prison and coming out on the other side.”
Senghor had many interesting stories to share with the men at San Quentin. He spoke of meeting President Obama when he was invited to the White House. Initially, he was not allowed in because of his criminal record. However, Jones spoke up, mentioning that Senghor was forced to stay outside. Jones then looked directly at the president.
Senghor said “they scrambled to get me in.” Later, the White House apologized and changed its policy.
“I always keep (my) book with me when I’m traveling,” Senghor said. When he met Obama, however—who he said is “super cool and cares about the issues,”—he didn’t have a copy of his book. It didn’t help when Obama said, “So, I heard you wrote a book.” (He was able to send him a copy later.)
Senghor recalled reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in prison and imagining getting Oprah to read one of his own books.
Commenting on his writing and his connection with Released, Senghor said, “I believe I have a voice in this space, and I have a responsibility to say something positive. You can’t get through tough times without having someone inspire it.”