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Former Inmate Becomes Advocate For Prisoner Reform


More than 600,000 people leave American prisons every year. Many of them return but not a man named Shaka Senghor. Since he left prison more than five years ago, he has stayed trouble-free. He's become an advocate for inmates and a spokesman for the idea that people can change. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: 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.

SHAKA SENGHOR: Yeah, the smell is one that I'll never forget - the smell of pepper spray that the officers use to extract, you know, the men from their cells mingled with the feces and urine that the men throw on each other out of anger and frustration and then just that mingled with the smell of institution.

JOHNSON: It is, he says, the smell of human despair. In a new book called "Writing My Wrongs," Senghor describes his journey to prison and beyond. Once an honor roll student with dreams of being a doctor, Senghor ran away from an abusive home at age 14. He says he naively thought someone would give him shelter.

SENGHOR: And unfortunately, the world just doesn't work like that. 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.

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

SENGHOR: Yeah, March 8, 1990, bright, sunny spring morning, I was shot multiple times standing on the corner of my block in the west side of Detroit.

JOHNSON: Someone called 911, but the ambulance never arrived. He says authorities rarely ventured into the neighborhood to help people like him. 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.

SENGHOR: I was paranoid, I was angry, I was sad, I was afraid. And I reacted to that by carrying a gun myself.

JOHNSON: Sixteen months later, Senghor was the one pulling the trigger - four times - shooting a man in a confrontation on a Detroit street and becoming inmate number 219184. Walking into a prison known for its brutality, Senghor says he decided to be a lion rather than a lamb.

SENGHOR: You come in and you have to decide very early on, do you want to be a victim of, you know, rape or stabbings or bludgeonings, or do you want to stand up for yourself?

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

What do you say to people who read this book and say, listen, this is a guy who committed second-degree murder, why should I believe he's going to change now?

SENGHOR: Well, I think my work speaks for itself. In the five years since I've been home, I've accomplished a lot. I had one - a TED Talk that was one of the top-ranked TED Talks of 2014. I've won awards for my mentoring work. You know, I'm actually out here living in a way that honors my second chance.

JOHNSON: Senghor says years of reflection in prison helped him change. So did books by Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Plato.

SENGHOR: Yeah, reading changed my life. And it's one of the things that, you know, I'm a firm believer in the power of the written word.

JOHNSON: He says he eventually made peace with the godmother of his victim, but he hasn't been in touch with the man's three children. Senghor left prison in June 2010, a day after his 38th birthday. He says he had a hard time finding a job. 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 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 this...

EBONY: Tell Daddy what you did.

SAKU: Well, I wrote my last name on (unintelligible).

JOHNSON: That's Ebony (ph), his partner, and their 4-year-old son Saku (ph) carefully printing his father's name on a whiteboard.

SAKU: S, A...

SENGHOR: That's a great H.

JOHNSON: Little Saku finishes the job, but he needs help putting the cap back on his red marker.

SAKU: Yeah, I need some help with a grownup. Grownups are stronger...

SENGHOR: There you go.

SAKU: ...Than kids.

SENGHOR: Sometimes.

SAKU: Sometime.

JOHNSON: Senghor says 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 says, he won't do anything to compromise his second chance. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.