We humans

Can prison be a place of redemption?

Jun 23, 2014 /


In 1991, Shaka Senghor shot and killed a man. Yes, his is a story of atonement and rehabilitation — but it didn’t always look like things would go that way. As he says in his TED Talk, for many of his 19 years in prison, he was bitter, angry and unwilling to take responsibility for his actions. Thanks to family and mentors, Senghor did turn his life around, and he now acts as a mentor and coach to at-risk youth. He knows first-hand the value of a justice system that can rehabilitate people who might otherwise be discarded.

In this long, thoughtful conversation, Senghor talks to Daniel Reisel, a London-based doctor who studies the neuroscience of restorative justice — including the treatment of criminal psychopaths, often considered impossible to rehabilitate. A lightly edited version of their epic conversation follows:

Shaka Senghor: Dan, according to your research, what percentage of people in the prison system are actually identified as psychopaths?

Daniel Reisel: Ah! Well, that’s a really fraught area. After all, what does it mean to be a psychopath? You know, there’s something called a psychopathy checklist, which involves people running around ticking boxes. To be honest, I don’t think that human behavior is reducible to a tick-the-box exercise. And it seems like there are two ways that defining someone as a psychopath can play out. One is, people use it as an excuse to not intervene, to not offer therapy, to give up on those people who are considered the most hardened guys, the ones who are the hardest to reach. Second is that you can use it as a grounds for even more intensive interaction and intervention. I obviously belong to the latter of those two; I think we do ourselves a disservice if we give up on people. I don’t think anybody’s beyond some kind of restorative process. But I don’t know … What’s your view on that?

“a lot of kids suffer from what’s now being called ‘hood disease,’ or post-traumatic stress disorder because of the high levels of gun violence.” – Shaka Senghor

SS: I’m very much a firm believer in restorative practices and the redemptive qualities of human beings across the board. I was incarcerated at a very early age for second-degree murder. I know every environment is different, and I know oftentimes when we’re dealing with the judicial system people don’t want to acknowledge the environmental factors. But I grew up in the city of Detroit. We’ve had consistently one of the highest murder rates in the nation. It’s a very violent environment, and a lot of kids suffer from what’s now being called “hood disease,” or post-traumatic stress disorder, because of the high levels of gun violence.

While I was incarcerated, I began to analyze how I went from wanting to be a doctor to spending my most promising years in prison. I began to analyze the things that I had experienced very early in my childhood, starting with child abuse in the home, getting out into the street culture and being manipulated and abused by older and more seasoned veterans, and then actually being shot multiple times, and what that triggered in me, which was to be very defensive. I began to carry a gun, and eventually when I got into a conflict, I shot first. As I was analyzing these things at the core of who I am as a human being, I knew there were good qualities and there were redemptive qualities, and that if I was willing to do the hard work through tapping into those good qualities, I knew I could come out a very different person from when I went in. I realized that the majority of men I was around also had that desire to be something more than a label.

DR: Can you put your finger on a particular time or a particular relationship that was helpful in your coming back from that?

SS: I would say the first thing that triggered my personal responsibility was reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I discovered this area in the library where there were authors who looked like me, and that piqued my interest. Once I read the story of his personal redemption and the things he went through, and how he took personal accountability and responsibility going forward, that started something in my thinking. The next thing was getting a letter from my son and hearing his interpretation of why I was in prison. As a father, you know, no one wants their child to look at them as a monster. Then I began journaling, and that was by far one of the best things I did. Being able to write and go back and examine the things I wrote about and what I thought about and the impact it had not only on my life but on the lives of my victim’s family, my family, and my community …

DR: I find that terrifically interesting. Just there, you’ve sketched both a picture of the childhood that you essentially survived, and you’ve described how your environment shaped you and the people around you. What we see in the literature about early-life events is that very often if a first offense or even first misdemeanor is met with an authoritarian, punitive or even chaotic response, then three things can go wrong. First, what is learned from that encounter on the street or with law enforcement? Second, what is being modeled, and then finally, how much control is the person being given over their own life situation? When people are in a punitive rather than an empowering environment, then bad things happen, and they can snowball. It sounds like that’s what happened in your early years?

“By the time of the arrest that sent me to prison for 19 years, I had actually been arrested 11 times.” – SHAKA SENGHOR

SS: You know, in the early part of my prison sentence I was like the administration’s worst nightmare. I got into every type of imaginable trouble that was possible to get into inside of prison. And by default I emerged as a leader in that environment. But the good thing about that was I was able to take that influence and turn it around once I had begun to turn my own life around. As I began to explore other people’s stories, I found that we all had very similar characteristics: you know, the punitive households, environments where the smallest infraction is met with high levels of physical punishment. Most of our early encounters with law enforcement were very abusive, you know. We’d be slammed on the hood of the car, slapped around, handcuffs would be put on extremely tight, and then we were stripped of any sense of power and control. Gun violence began to become the mechanism by which we regained some of that. Gun violence, fast money, fast cars … those are the things that are kind of triggers for what characterizes power and influence in the environment or community I come from. For the type of men who end up incarcerated, their environments are pretty much the same. Their childhood experiences are pretty similar and the outcomes obviously are similar.

When I began to write my memoir, I wanted to give the community the gift of understanding, why so many of our men and women transition from teenagers to lives of incarceration — and think about what we can do to disrupt those processes. One of the things I discovered through my own journaling was that by the time of the arrest that sent me to prison for 19 years, I had actually been arrested 11 times. There were so many opportunities to disrupt that pattern, but pretty much, it was like, “oh, you’re a bad kid, and this is what the end result is.” You begin to parrot that in your own thinking.

DR: It’s such a typical situation. It goes from someone perpetrating a bad act — you know, doing something wrong — to being wrong, to being a bad kid. That’s a subtle distinction but it’s really important, because the moment kids go from doing bad to being bad, many of them feel that there’s no way back. The only thing they can do is to be bad badder, be better at being bad. Have you come across the American psychiatrist Donald Nathanson and his compass of shame?

SS: I haven’t.

DR: What he says is that authoritative or punitive approaches take people to a place of shame — and leave them there. And the problem with shame is that it’s an uncomfortable place to be. It’s like a compass, because from shame you can either go to violence towards others or violence towards the self. On the other axis, there’s withdrawal from society or withdrawal into yourself, not in a healthy way — often one that involves substance abuse or somehow trying to pull the curtains on the world. What I find impressive and interesting about your story is that somehow, through personal relationships and through role models, you managed to pull yourself back from that place of shame and turn it into something positive, into an empathic position, which is the opposite of shame. Not everyone is able to do that.

SS: As you were sharing your perspective, I started to relive my early experiences in prison. From the first time you walk in, you’re put in this position of feeling like you’re no longer a human. They remember your prison number, not your name. There’s the hostility of being stripped naked and made to feel like an animal. Obviously there are security issues, but in that process, there is no dignity. There’s a room full of naked strangers and you have to mostly detach yourself from your body. And then of course there’s the experience of prison itself.

I often ask people, “would you want to be judged for the entirety of your life?” When you’ve committed an act of violence that obviously hurt somebody, it’s really something that you carry for a very long time. We haven’t made space and room in society for men and women who were convicted of violent crimes to make amends, to atone through some type of positive action. To me, that’s one of the things that leads to these high levels of recidivism, and also it leads to acts of excessive violence. Our society is very unforgiving. For instance, I was trying to find a better apartment for my fiancée and my child, and we weren’t able to do that because I have a felony. Even though I wasn’t on parole or probation, they basically told me that I could never rent an apartment in this place because I have a felony.

DR: Can you vote?

SS: Yes, I can. In Michigan you can vote.

DR: But not in all states in the U.S., right?

SS: Right. You can’t vote in a lot of states once you have a felony. So a lot of your personal rights aren’t restored.

DR: I grew up in Scandinavia; my father’s Dutch, and the Dutch and Scandinavian penal systems are really turning this the other way around. Instead of taking people and leaving them in the place of shame, the whole point of custody is to reintegrate the person right back into society, to give them life skills and to give them control over their life so they have the power to better their own life. That’s a whole different way of thinking. In Norway, people who have served long sentences get transferred to an open prison at the end of their sentence. They get a salary — not very much, but they do get their own money — and they have responsibilities, along with job-seeker training and skills training. That means that when they get out from that institution, they’re actually ready to go back into society. It’s like a clean slate. That’s a very different story from what you have in many states in the U.S., where there’s basically no reintegration.

“The vast majority of people in the prison system have already had dealings with the system, which means that the system is completely unable to meet one of its goals, which is to reduce crime in society.” – Daniel Reisel

SS: That’s one of the things that I really hope my TED Talk will help add to that conversation. Since I’ve been out, what I’ve found is that a lot of people are talking about mass incarceration, but rarely is there anyone speaking from a personal experience. I was very popular in prison for both negative and positive reasons, but when guys are coming home, they seek me out, and they’re trying to find ways to reintegrate into society. We do have some reentry programs, but they are very cosmetic and they don’t really deal with the social, the emotional, the psychological transition back to society. Given recidivism rates, how important do you think that component is for someone who is coming home after nearly two decades in prison, or even just five years? Five years is still a pretty lengthy sentence.

DR: It seems to me that the key problem is, like you say, recidivism. If you look at the numbers, there’s something like a 70 to 75 percent chance that anybody who is going into custody has already been convicted in the past. That means that the vast majority of people in the prison system have already had dealings with the system, which means that the system is completely unable to meet one of its goals, which is to reduce crime in society. And why is that? It seems obvious that the reason why the prison system isn’t able to prevent re-offending is because they’re not doing anything. It’s like a brain freeze. People go in, they come out five years later, and nothing has changed. And the way I think about it is in terms of layers, with behavior on top. Underneath that there’s thinking and feeling, and at the heart of every person there’s an unmet need. It might be something from their childhood, and unless that person is able to deal with it, then this ends up coming out in violence and impulse-control problems and in all kinds of negative ways.

You were able to turn this around through introspection, through journaling, through talking to people and being alert to what is going on beneath the surface. But in most cases, people get released back and the unmet need is still there like a hard ball underneath all these layers. Nobody’s made any effort to unpack that. That is why I think the restorative justice approaches can be helpful, because they specifically ask about a person’s unmet need. Let’s go to that place and find out what it is that they’re angry about. Let’s find out what isn’t working in their life, and let’s unpack it and face it. That can be a really tough process. Not everybody’s able to go to that place, but there’s no doubt that that is what’s needed to make a change.

SS: I agree 100%, and I watch it play out. Sometimes it’s so frustrating because I’m limited in my resources and my ability to address all these needs that men have coming back to the community — other than being a listening ear and sometimes guiding them to resources. I recently started a project called the Atonement Project. The goal was to create an online platform for restorative justice practices, using art as a basis to ignite conversation. Art makes difficult conversations a lot easier for people to have. But the thing is, how do we work collectively? People have been researching this for years: how do we pool our resources and create a movement around the idea that restorative justice practices are very effective?

I have a group of cohorts I met while incarcerated, and we developed what we called accountability circles. Oftentimes against the wishes of the prison administration, we would meet and share books that inspired us. And when we shared these books, we would have discussions about their big ideas. One was by a psychologist named Dr. Amos Wilson, who wrote a book called Black on Black Violence. It spoke to something that we talked about earlier, that when you deal with issues of shame and powerlessness, typically you learn to become the best at being bad. With these accountability circles, we really challenged each other as young men to alter the course of our lives in a really unique way. And so now there are several of us who are currently home. Several of my friends are entrepreneurs, they have been home for several years and they’re very engaged in the community. So we know that this model is very effective, and part of what I think made it effective for us is that we spoke to who we truly were, with the full understanding of the environments that we came from, what our upbringings were.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give another human being who is going through adversity is hope.” – Shaka Senghor

DR: What you are saying essentially stems from this belief that the future can be different from the past, which actually is a wager. That’s not a scientific question; it goes beyond numbers and statistics, and it’s actually a spiritual dimension of restorative approaches. I don’t want to go all new age-y on it, but I think there is something very powerful in that belief that restorative reintegration from shame can actually be transformative. And it’s all about those personal connections and small groups working together to form a movement. I’m not a terribly religious person, but I do have a belief in the capacity of every person to change their own mind and their own behavior over time. What do you make of the spiritual aspect of restorative justice? Is there something there?

SS: Definitely. I’m also not very religious, but I am very spiritual, and I really understand the power of belief, because when you’re attempting to do something that doesn’t reflect the norm, you have to have unshakable faith in your ability to make it happen, that transformation is real and that there is hope. One of the greatest gifts you can give another human being who is going through adversity is hope, and that’s what those books that I read and those conversations that I had did for me; they gave me hope that there could be a better tomorrow. I began to really believe in that, and my actions began to align with that.

Once I came home, I encountered difficulties like any other man or woman coming out of prison after 20 years. I came out to a different world. I had to learn a whole different language, but I was a firm believer that, if I took the necessary steps, that the universe would welcome me and embrace me into this different space. It was tough every step of the way, and my faith was tested, but it was never shaken to the point where I was like, you know what, I’m going back to what I know, which is street culture. So there is a lot to be said about the power of faith and the power of hope and the whole restorative process, because you have to believe that not only is it doable, but you are worthy of it. And I think a lot of us struggle with our sense of self-worth. When you’re riddled with shame, it’s hard to believe you have any value, that you can add any value to society.

DR: That’s why it’s so frustrating that these penal institutions dehumanize their prisoners, you know, because you’re already starting in a place where the average person there is going to have issues about self-worth, and then you essentially take away everything that’s individual about them and make them into a number. How can then they turn around and be surprised when the recidivism rate is so high? The prison system is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

SS: Part of the problem with the penal system is that we refuse to be honest about what it really represents. You know, it’s a big warehouse. It’s a big pool of free labor for a lot of companies that are now heavily invested in prisons, so there is no vested interested in them reducing the prison population, to be honest, because in reducing that you’re reducing a free labor class. So there are a lot of political dynamics there. In sharing my story, I guess I hope that we can put a real face to the statistics. Generally, any time an inmate is a spokesman, it’s usually someone who was exonerated. And so they parade around and talk about the injustice and the disparities of the process of getting to prison. But rarely do you have a spokesperson who was actually guilty of the crime who can articulate what prison life is like — and what’s going wrong. When we can marry that with the research, the analysis, the data, the psychological profiles, that’s when we get maximum impact.

DR: The human stories are key to changing attitudes — and that’s how you change systems. But, a comment on your mention of the prison industrial complex — the rather dark side of the whole equation, the fact that many prisons are now private, that the prison warden union has a lot of power in America, that it influences politicians to keep incarceration rates high, and so on. That’s a huge problem, and it opens up a question related to the dehumanization that you encountered in prison, as one person, but which is also obviously true across the board: Who benefits from that dehumanization? The scary answer is that it makes prisons easier to run, and it makes it easier to be a warden if you’re not looking after people but after numbers, people in jumpsuits who are basically all the same, a mass of people, not individuals. And that’s a really key difference, you know? If a criminal justice system is supposed to be about changing behavior and getting people back on the right track, then it’s about them, it’s about those individuals who have, for whatever reason, gotten the wrong start in life. That’s an other-centered approach, whereas at the moment there is a self-centered approach where the system is set up to protect itself. Any system set up like that will abhor chaos. Individuals being different, having their own life stories, is a threat to a system that’s set up like that. But unless you change the system so that it’s open to people’s stories and people’s individual lives, to their individual, unmet needs, then you’re not going to create that transformative change that is required to make a difference in people’s lives.

“Right now we’re in a situation where society is in denial, that this is not their problem. They’re washing their hands of the problem and at the same time they’re surprised that crime is not reducing.” – Daniel Reisel

SS: I was incarcerated for 19 years, and I spent about seven and a half of those years in solitary confinement. At one point I spent four and a half years straight in solitary confinement. Now, there is a high level of psychiatric illness or mental illness in solitary confinement, and it strikes me that mental illness has been criminalized. When you try to put somebody in the general population who has schizophrenia or who may be bipolar or have some other form of mental issues, it’s hard for them to cope and it’s hard for the other inmates to understand them. That leads to them being victims of violence, and oftentimes they commit acts of violence and end up in solitary confinement, and once they’re down there, they end up doing excessively long sentences because they act out. They’re punished as if they’re logical thinking human beings. That was one of the most disturbing parts of my incarceration, because I felt like there was nobody more vulnerable than those who are mentally ill inside a prison, and yet no one’s talking about that. What has been your experience in terms of dealing with those who have mental illness?

DR: This is a huge area, but you’re absolutely right, there are very high rates of mental illness in prison, both those that are easy to define and those that are much more diffuse. You’re already dealing with a population that is traumatized, and then the experience of prison is an additional trauma. In a good-case scenario, nothing happens, but in many cases those guys come out worse at the end of their time in prison. Unless society turns around and starts to think differently about this population, you’re not going to have progress. Essentially, you’re not going to have safe streets. This isn’t a problem to do with that population of people; it’s a problem to do with society. Somehow we attach this stigma to somebody who’s in jail or who’s been in jail, as if they’re beyond help and it’s all their own fault. Now, accountability is a key thing, but at the same time, society needs to be responsible for its actions, and realize that some people grow up in impossible circumstances and they’re just doing what’s normal for them. Right now we’re in a situation where society is in denial, that this is not their problem. They’re washing their hands of the problem and at the same time they’re surprised that crime is not reducing. This is a short-circuit in thinking, and that’s why I think the personal stories are so important, because they show a mirror to society, to show what is possible, and also what isn’t being done.

SS: A lot of people only know what transpires outside of prison. Prison is very secretive, which is very interesting considering that the process that leads there is very transparent. You can go into a courtroom and watch a trial carried out, and I think that’s largely done to ensure that justice is being carried out. But once a person is inside prison, it’s like a closed, secret society where anything goes. And it’s actually horrifying. As a parent, as a person living in the community, I think about some of the men I’ve watched get released from prison, and I really thought to myself that I would hate for that to be my parents’ neighbor or my child’s neighbor. I see the issues that are unresolved, and shame that is so heavy that he’ll think of doing the worst to somebody else to alleviate his own personal pain. That’s disturbing. There’s no transition piece there, and because society doesn’t understand what goes on, when he comes out and commits a heinous crime, they tighten the screws, because they think that must be the fix. But it’s been proven clearly that it doesn’t work. We’ve had a prison explosion since the 1980s, and crime hasn’t been reduced since that time. I’m trying to think of ways that we can reshape that conversation and push back on the idea that punitive is not the best practice.

DR: A system that works on the model of blame, shame and punish is always going to infantilize the people it deals with. And when you’re dealing with adults with that top-down, punitive, authoritative, patronizing, self-centered approach, then it’s actually quite dangerous, because it’s dehumanizing, and it means that that person is locked in a position of not being able to change, unless they’re very lucky. I think you’ve been lucky that you were able to find a path out of that, and that’s why I think it’s really commendable that you dedicate your time now to showing others how to get out of that bad place. So may I wish you every continued success.

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