Shaka Senghor spent seven out of his 19 years in prison in solitary confinement, known to other inmates as ‘the hole’ or ‘administrative segregation’ in the official language of the U.S. prison system - a term eerily designed to reduce the impact of its reality.
Convicted of the murder of a fellow drug dealer, Senghor was incarcerated in a bare six-foot by eight-foot excuse for human habitation. A concrete slab juts out of the wall, threatening impalement instead of offering sleep. The hole in the wall that’s intended for bodily functions gapes back at him as if to say, I will swallow you. The lockdowns run 23 hours a day on weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends.
Human contact, if it ever happens, is administered as if an animal is being handled, replete with leashes and five-point chains. The environment is steeped at a pitch of insanity - cell blocks rife with shouts and screams and the flinging of human feces. The walls seem to speak: ‘you cannot escape the incessant reminder that what you did is now who you are.’
Even after his release in 2010, Senghor, like most other former prison inmates, faced systematic discrimination as he attempted to step out of one bizarre reality into another that seemed intent on recycling his original punishment. A job and a supportive community are top priorities for those leaving prison if they are to avoid recidivism. But on employment applications, a box must be checked if the applicant has served time. In implicit and explicit ways, former prisoners are reminded of—and invisibly shackled by—their crime, long after their discharge.
Today however, Senghor is part of a new initiative in the United States that aims to transform the justice system by cutting the U.S. prison population in half by 2025. Called the “#Cut50 initiative” and launched on March 26th 2015, this effort has unusual bi-partisan support and leadership, and carries a powerful moral and political message: a culture of punishment run amuck is destroying the fabric of society; it’s time to end the warehousing and exploitation of human beings.
As someone who transformed his own life and discovered a love for writing while serving those 19 years in prison, Senghor will be a powerful and respected spokesperson for #Cut50. By sharing his story, he’s already helped mothers of murder victims to forgive, inspired young men in the streets to choose a college degree over a prison number, and shifted the thinking of ‘tough-on-crime’ advocates from the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality to believing that redemption is possible. His TED talk “Why Your Worst Deeds Don’t Define You” has received over one million views.
Senghor’s colleagues include Van Jones and an ongoing endorsement fromNewt Gingrich, about the most unlikely political partnership imaginable in the USA. Jones is an attorney and co-host of CNN’s Crossfire program, as well as a former Obama Administration advisor on “green jobs” and the co-founder of organizations such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Green For All. Gingrich is known for his staunch conservatism. Yet both realize the high stakes involved in the transformation of the US justice system, and the common ground that exists underneath the surface of party politics.