Despite his dream of becoming a doctor and parents who met all of his material needs, Shaka Senghor started hustling drugs at 14. Having left home to escape his mother’s beatings, Senghor would spend five years on the Detroit streets at the height of the 1980s crack boom. He would eventually get shot, become a second-degree murderer and serve 19 years in prison, including more than five in solitary confinement. In his new memoir, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison,” Senghor delivers a deeply personal look into his mind before and during his incarceration.

In addition to the book, Senghor has shared his story in a popular TEDTalk, an interview with Oprah Winfrey, and appearances around the country. He has been embraced by politicians and other anti-prison advocates, including Michelle Alexander and Van Jones, with whom he works at #Cut50 as director of strategy and marketing.

For Colorlines, Senghor had a wide-ranging conversation with asha bandele, a senior director at the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of the groundbreaking memoir “The Prisoner’s Wife.” In this exchange cut and edited for space and clarity, the writers discuss the politics of crack, White flight and forgiveness. They also grapple with the challenge of putting out a powerful redemption story that doesn’t end up fueling the falsehood that incarceration is solely a matter of personal responsibility rather than a byproduct of a deeply unequal and racist criminal justice system.

asha bandele: What did you most want readers to take away from “Writing My Wrongs”? 

Shaka Senghor: I want people to understand the human side of mass incarceration. Crime in urban communities gets splashed across the headlines but only gives us snap judgments of the people accused. I want people to have a more holistic view of us, to understand that behind the statistics there are real human beings, families— fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers. These people aren’t the living definition of evil. They come from all walks of life, and many times they’ve had traumatic life experiences that led to them being in prison.

In many ways you make that point strongly, but some of the words you use in the book like “super-predator” and “crack whore” were jarring. Do you worry about how this language might increase the stigma against the very people you work so hard to lift up?

In the book, I was reflecting the mentality I had when I was in the street. I know that often times we tend to identify people in ways that are very limiting—which is unfortunate because like others, I tended to live out my life based on these limitations and terms that were given to me.

I did notice that in the book you shifted. After you began building with men in prison who were politically conscious and you began reading, you didn’t use terms like that anymore. Was that a conscious decision?

It was, and also a reflection of my natural growth encouraged by these amazing books I read that awakened me to my authentic self.

Talk about the books that impacted you the most.

My introduction to Black literature came from reading Donald Goines’ [fiction]. Once I started reading him, my mind was opened to other books by Black authors. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had the most profound impact on my life. After Malcolm, I read Marcus Garvey, Assata Shakur—and your book [“The Prisoner’s Wife”]! All of these books brought me to the title “Writing My Wrongs” because it was through the written word that I was able to really find my authentic self.

Much of your book details your use and sale of crack. Given the work you’ve done and all you’ve read, do you have a different reflection now on some of the people who bought from you, including the women who had been generally reduced to so-called crack whores?

When crack hit, it destroyed our moral fabric and created a very unhealthy dynamic in terms of how young men began to see women in our community. It was really important to bring those things out in the book, along with my role.

Dr. Carl Hart, the leading neuroscientist on drugs and an expert in drug policy, details in his book, “High Price,” how we misnamed the Crack Era. We blamed everything on crack and the people who sold crack, which made it easy to ignore the Reagan-era policies that destroyed and disassembled so many communities and social supports.  In other words, if we talked about a drug—which was used and sold at least as much in White communities that did not come undone because they had employment, healthcare and employee assistance programs—we didn’t have to talk about structural racism. What do you think?

I get that. In Detroit, I grew up in an era called White Flight. I saw the way the collapse of the industrial system really impacted our community. We went from being this beautiful middle-class neighborhood to one that looked like a bombed-out country.

I wrote from the perspective of how I lived at the time. I had absolutely no political conscience then. I literally saw just what was directly in front of me. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to understand that the men and women who at one time were factory workers, librarians and teachers had lost their jobs which let addiction play out in their lives so badly. 

I also didn’t understand that social programs that were created by the Black Panther Party like the Free Breakfast program, was first commandeered by the government, and then destroyed.  Those programs really helped people sustain their families. And of course the structural breakdown was made even worse by the racial polarization—something that plays out in the city even today.

When the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population, we’re no longer talking about individual failure. We’re talking about a policy position. Your work at the prison reform organization #Cut50 is mighty—shifting the behemoth that is the theater of punishment in the United States.

You know, I’m aware that this is one of the first times that somebody who has been convicted of murder—and who wasn’t exonerated—has this type of platform. So what I really want to challenge is this whole idea of nonviolent versus violent offender: We’ll release the nonviolent offenders and we’ll reap more punishment on the violent ones. What’s not being told to the American public is that 90 percent of the men and women, regardless of what they’ve been convicted of, will at some point return to society and we have a choice in what kind of men and women they will be.  Will they be men and women more harmed coming out than they were going in?

We’ve opted to not exercise our human compassion and empathy. Our primary model for resolving conflict is to further diminish, demean and punish people. We’ve chosen to throw people away. But as long as we continue to see people as statistics and data, we’ll never arrive at a point where we really know what’s happened to the fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers—or their children left behind. I hope that what I’ve been able to do is pull the lid off of a clandestine environment. We have 2.2 million people locked up and we really don’t know what those environments are like or really understand anything that goes on inside. I am not going to allow that on my watch. We’re all going to have to grapple with the hard stuff and talk about the things that make us uncomfortable, because that’s the only way we’re going to arrive at a place of true justice.