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Once 'Seduced' By Drug Trade, Former Inmate Now 'Honors My Second Chance'

Shaka Senghor
Shawn Lee
Courtesy Penguin/Random House
Shaka Senghor

On a hot summer night in 1991, in a drug buy gone bad, Shaka Senghor shot a man to death.

He went on to spend 19 years in Michigan prisons — seven of them in solitary confinement, where he grew accustomed to what he calls the smell of "human despair."

"The smell of pepper spray that the officers use to extract the men from their cells mingled with the feces and urine that the men throw at each other out of anger and frustration, and then just that mingled with the smell of institution," Senghor said.

In his book Writing My Wrongs, Senghor describes his path to prison and his new role as an advocate for inmates and a spokesman for the idea that people can change.

Once an honor roll student with dreams of being a doctor, Senghor said he ran away from an abusive home at age 14, naively thinking that someone would give him shelter.

"Unfortunately the world just doesn't work like that," he said. "And like many vulnerable children, I got seduced into the drug trade by older, more seasoned street hustlers, and that's how it happens for a lot of kids."

At an age when he should have been preparing for the homecoming dance, Senghor found himself robbed of drug money, beaten and eventually shot.

"March 8, 1990, bright, sunny spring morning I was shot multiple times standing on my block in the west side of Detroit," Senghor recalled.

Someone called 911, but the ambulance never arrived. He said authorities rarely ventured into the neighborhood to help people like him. Eventually, a friend drove him to the hospital, where doctors patched him up and sent him back to the streets two days later, a bullet still lodged in his body.

"I was paranoid, I was angry, I was sad, I was afraid and I reacted to that by carrying a gun myself," he said.

Sixteen months later, Senghor was the one pulling the trigger, shooting a man in a confrontation on a Detroit street and becoming inmate No. 219184.

Walking into a prison known for its brutality, Senghor said, he decided to be a lion rather than a lamb.

"You come in and you have to decide very early on do you want to be a victim of rape or stabbings or bludgeonings or do you want to stand up for yourself?" he said.

During those first long years behind bars, Senghor stood up for himself, and more. He embarked on a failed plot to escape. He ran a black market prison shop. He once threw hot mashed potatoes in the face of an inmate who insulted him, and he fought with a corrections officer.

In all, Senghor racked up 36 disciplinary citations during his tenure in prison. But his book contends that he has changed, turning himself into an acclaimed TED Talk speaker, a teacher and a mentor.

"I'm actually out here living in a way that honors my second chance," Senghor said.

Senghor says years of reflection behind bars helped him change, and so did books by Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Plato.

"Reading changed my life and it's one of those things that, you know, I'm a firm believer in the power of the written word," Senghor said.

In the book, Senghor describes making peace with the godmother of his victim, but he said he hasn't been in touch with the man's three children.

Senghor left prison in June 2010, a day after his 38th birthday. Like many of the more than 600,000 people who return from prison each year, he had a hard time finding a job, and no one would rent him an apartment because of his criminal record.

These days, he's working for a group that's trying to reduce incarceration, limit solitary confinement and humanize people behind bars. In his free time, he's mentoring kids in youth homes and visiting prisons near where he lives.

And then, there's Ebony Roberts, his partner, and their 4-year-old son Sekou, who carefully printed his father's name on a white board during the interview.

Little Sekou finished the job, but he said he needed some help putting the cap back on his red marker.

"Yeah, I need some help from a grown-up," Sekou said. "Grown-ups are stronger than kids."

"Sometimes," his father responded.

Senghor said he missed his chance to be a parent to his two older children, who grew up and apart during the nearly 20 years he spent in prison. Now Senghor said he won't do anything to compromise his second chance.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.