*Author and Activist Shaka Senghor is one of the leading voices in the fight for criminal justice reform. After serving 19 years in prison for killing a man, he emerged with a refined outlook on life and since his release, he travels the world sharing his powerful testimony.
Oprah Winfrey states that his interview on Super Soul Sunday was the best interview of her 30-year career.
In 2014 he delivered one of the most powerful TED Talks of the year reaching over 1.3 million views. In his memoir, “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison,” Senghor points out the dehumanizing realities of prison life. As a Consulting Producer on OWN’s newest series Released, he offers a glimpse into the lives of formerly incarcerated men and women re-entering society.
A few noteworthy incarceration facts:
• 10,000 men and women are released from prison each week (United States Department of Justice)
• 1 in 9 African American children has had a parent behind bars (Bureau of Justice/ Washington Post)
•44 percent of black women and 32 percent of black men have a family member in prison, compared to 12 percent of white women and 6 percent of white men. (Du bois Review Social Science Research on Race)
OTHER NEWS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: Oprah Explores ‘Life After Incarceration’ with New OWN Series ‘Released’
Released features intimate, first-person narratives of formerly incarcerated men and women as they walk out of the prison doors for the first time to restart their lives.
“This series depicts OWN’s intention of telling personal and very real stories that affect our everyday lives,” said executive producer and EVP of programming for OWN, Jon Sinclair. “The heartfelt narratives will expose the effects of mass incarceration not only on the individuals but also the impact on the entire family unit and the unique challenges re-entering society can bring.”
It is Senghor’s hope that viewers impacted by the criminal justice system find the series emotionally supportive.
“It’s not many families who haven’t been touched by the criminal justice system. I want them to walk away feeling supported emotionally,” he told EUR. “As they welcome their loved one back home, I want to make sure that they know that there are resources available. We have a Facebook group for ‘Released’ and it’s been really amazing to see the types of resources that people are sharing with each other. It’s helping make the transition home a lot easier. But I also want people to really wake up and realize that this is a system that can be changed. It’s going to take some courage. It’s going to take some commitment. It’s going to take some awareness of the issues that people are facing when they’re coming home and that’s what the show has done a great job of doing — really showing people, in real-time,” he explained.
“These are the things that’s going to be difficult, whether it’s just adjusting to having another adult at home who you’re now responsible for, or whether it’s the person coming back home and struggling with trying to find employment or trying to deal with the restrictions of being on probation or being on parole. Our goal has been to really share the truth — very honest, very open stories and it’s just amazing to have this glimpse into these men and women’s lives, even though I personally lived it. I get so emotionally touched watching them interact with their families because I know what that feels like and I just think there’s power in that.”
Read the rest of our conversation with Mr. Senghor below, and tune in to the finale episode of Released Nov. 18 at 10/9c. If you missed an episode, stream the series at oprah.com.
How would you describe your views? Are you more on the side of prison reform compared to prison abolishment?
Shaka: I would describe my views as being realistic about what we can do right now in the moment. I think abolishment is aspirational and I think we’re a far ways off from that. I do think that we can create societies where there isn’t a need for prisons to exist in the first place. It really just takes being honest about what our current system is. And that current system is one where mental illness, substance abuse and people who have addictions and things like that are being criminalized when in reality they need treatment. So my role in this conversation is, how do we humanize the issue in a way that allows us to think about what can we do to prevent people from going to prison in the first place. But if they happen to end up in prison what are the things that we can provide to ensure that they’re coming home as assets instead of liabilities and how can we stop over-criminalizing so many elements of our society. I try not label myself in any capacity. I don’t really see myself as an activist. I see myself as somebody who was formerly incarcerated who understands what needs to happen in order for people to come back to their families.
In terms of reform, if we can just start thinking about how do we treat mental illness as a disease and an illness opposed to criminalizing it. How do we address the issues of substance abuse? And you see that in the show where Kay is coming home and she’s battled with this addiction to opioids for years and it’s landed her in prison several different times. But the reality is, had we had the type of substance abuse treatment in place, her outcomes could’ve been a little bit different. So being able to show those real stories, those honest stories and take that veil off the idea that people who are convicted of crimes are these boogeymen or scary monsters, and you really just get a chance to see that Kay is just a vulnerable woman who had an addiction that was reignited when she was in the hospital being treated. So it’s things like that that helps people think about what our criminal justice system is and what it could be.
Why is it important to show society what life is like for formerly incarcerated men and women re-entering society?
Shaka: Because every week 10,000 men and women are coming back to communities and a lot of times, as members of the community, we don’t think about what are the support structures that need to be in place to welcome our fellow citizens back to society in a healthy and whole way. I had a great experience going over to Germany and being able to explore their prison system and what I saw over there was that they made sure that men and women were welcome back home healthy and whole and I think we can replicate that over here but in order to do it people have to know that there’s a need, ‘cause sometimes people just think, “Well, they’re released from prison so they will go on about their lives.” But they’re not factoring in the hardship that comes with trying to find employment, trying to find housing but more importantly, the impact it has on families who are trying to support their loved ones. We really wanted to show what that whole 360 view was like.
Do you have any concerns about prison reform efforts under the Trump administration?
Shaka: When it comes to policy and policymakers, Trump’s role in that is not as big as people think it to be. It’s really about what we do with senators on a legislative level and individual states. The federal system makes up 10% of the overall criminal justice system and I believe if we can get senators onboard from both parties bipartisan that we’ll produce different outcomes. I don’t give in to the fear because we had a very charismatic president at one time in Bill Clinton and in the eyes of the black community he could do no wrong. The reality is he passed one of the worse criminal justice bills in the history of the country and it led to an explosion in the prison population and that’s what happens when we give in to the emotions and stop paying attention to the details. I pay more attention to the details. I can tell you from my work in this space that people on the right have actually been pretty aggressive in helping reduce the prison population even though at one time they contributed to the prison growth and they’re a lot more willing than people would have you believe to help change things. But it just takes us consistently pushing the envelope, challenging politicians and policymakers, challenging communities and not giving in to the emotions of the moment.
President Trump is a lightning storm for emotional back and forth on social media so I kinda stay away from the emotions of it all and focus more on the human connection that I have with people in those space and communities. There’s no more important voice than the men and women in communities that can get out and vote and understand that how these policies, when we don’t vote against them, is almost like voting against our best interests. I’m more hopeful in terms of the people. And anytime you get somebody like Oprah Winfrey and the OWN Network to say this issue is important, this issue shouldn’t be hid in the dark, this is something that we need to bring to light, that’s what gives me hope, because I know at the end of the day, this is going to impact lives in a way that Twitter fingers won’t be able to impact in real-time.
How bad is the school-to-prison pipeline and what is an academic’s role, if any, in prison reform these days?
Shaka: The original title of it was cradle-to-prison pipeline and then it became the more popularized school-to-prison pipeline but my take on it is this, when I walked out of prison, the prison I walked out of was in better condition than the first school I went in to mentor, and to me, that spoke volumes about where our interests are in this country, where our investments are in this country and I think we have a responsibility to assess those honestly and adequately. As a parent who now has a child in school, it’s alarming to me the idea of standardized testing as a means to measure intelligence. To give you an example, my son is 5-years-old. He’s doing 3-digit math. He can read books on philosophy because this is what me and his mother pour into him. Yet when he’s in school, they have him doing stuff that he was able to do when he was 1-year-old because it’s standardized and it’s mandatory and I think that functioning of a system is broken when it comes to meeting the specific needs of kids who are oftentimes a lot smarter than they’re given credit for and they may be disinterested because they’re not being challenged intellectually. So I think that part of the system is really dysfunctional but the investment side, it’s heartbreaking.
It’s one of the things that I get very passionate about. I’ve actually spoken on this issue and brought to tears because it hurts my soul to know that there are kids that are going to schools that are unsafe. That lack supplies that they need to the type of education that they want. Classrooms are overburdened and teachers, to their credit, are doing the best with what they’re given and it’s just sad that they are left to try to clean up the mess of politicians who just can’t figure out that our children are worth so much more. Think about this, for example, Meek Mill who was just sentenced to 2-4 years in prison at a cost of about 40,000 a year, imagine what 80,000 can do for one of the schools in the community that he came from. If we can really start thinking about is it more valuable to have this young man locked up or to allocate those funds to the schools in his community and utilize him as a resource in his community. You can deduce that it makes more sense to not have him locked up, apply those funds to education and produce different outcomes. We’re just not doing that because the proper motives of prison are such that the men and women who are incarcerated are worth more to those who are taking advantage of the free labor than they are if they were free.
Right, because politicians need to value ALL life before we see any impactful reform with the criminal justice system. Locking us up remains a billion-dollar business.
Shaka: I definitely believe that there has to be empathy and compassion and relatability and I think that’s one of the things that makes ‘Released’ so magical. It doesn’t matter what your nationality is, your political background, if you watch that show, you can’t walk away without your humanity being touched. That’s largely what my work has been about. It’s really just sharing stories that authentically touch the heart and I’ve seen the impact that it’s had on policymakers. I’ve sat in those rooms. I’ve been to the White House prior to the current administration taking over. I’ve spoken with Senator Corey Booker and many others and we talk about how do we humanize this issue. Again, it goes back to what’s happening with the opioid crisis now. There’s a relatability and it’s up to us to make that connection because they’re not going to make it on their own because we have a greater deal of experience with our loved ones being locked up, victimized and hurt by that system. We’re in a better position to express how this is the same thing that happened in the 80’s. How can we come together and solve this problem instead of pulling each other further apart by saying, “Well, Y’all didn’t care about this when it was the crack epidemic.” Because the reality is, opioids are still impacting us too. If you’re from Detroit, Chicago, New York, South Central LA, you see the impact of opioids on your community as well.
Speaking of which, now that white folks are at the center of the drug crisis in America, what’s your take on the changing political and public attitude toward the so-called “war on drugs” and the willingness to recognize addiction more as a health problem than as a criminal issue?
Shaka: Obviously it highlights a very real problem we have in our country with deep-rooted racism and institutional racism, structural racism and we see that showing up with the whole approach to opioids because of the impact it’s having on white, rural America. But the wisdom in me says that this is an opportunity for us to seize upon the willingness to change, regardless to what the tipping point was for that change. The reality is, it’s here now. How do we take advantage of it? How do we make it retroactive for those men and women who were victims of the crack epidemic? How do we bring them home now that there is new interest in addressing the idea of addiction as opposed to criminalizing it? It’s sad and unfortunate that people are dying and it took for that to happen for people to realize that substance abuse and addiction are diseases that we need to be treating as opposed to criminalizing but the reality is it’s happening. The motivation for it happening is obvious and I think it’s an opportunity for us to have that deeper conversation about empathy and compassion. It’s like, if you can see the impact that this is having on your community, now you need to start seeing that impact in other communities and what can we collectively do about it to bring about a change.
I read a startling report that women are the fastest-growing population in prison — all over the world.
Shaka: There’s been this desensitizing socially in regards to how we view women as soft and gentle to where we’ve grown a little bit more callous in that, especially when it comes to addiction and mental illness and I think those two things have contributed greatly to this explosion you see in women going to prison for crimes that are really related more to substance abuse, addiction, and mental illness. I think that’s something that we need to work on and focus on because obviously communities have been destabilized by the fathers being taken out of the home but when you add the element of a mother, whose oftentimes the primary caretaker, being stripped from her children it just creates horrible outcomes. And to see so many women end up in prison on our watch is really a great tragedy. So I’m working with an organization on this Dignity Act, that’s ensuring women that if they are incarcerated they’re not being treated in an undignified way especially if they’re giving birth. In the past they were shackled to the bed while they were giving birth and even being in the cell blocks where men have access to them, they were being sexually exploited and taken advantage of. So we want to make sure that we’re protecting women in that environment but also that we’re lifting them up in terms of this larger conversation about mental illness in prison and substance abuse. Those are the two things that I think are really the main drivers and it’s something that is definitely fixable.
Tune in to Released airs Nov. 18 at 10/9c on OWN. Get caught up on past episodes here. Follow Bruce, Jermaine, Kay, Kevin, Michael, and Sam as they learn firsthand what it’s like to return to society after spending years—even decades—in prison away from their families.