Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

 

Changing Minds, Changing Hearts

YouTube: Shaka Senghor

Recently I had the great privilege of hearing Shaka Senghor speak. He has written Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison. Shaka Senghor committed murder. His story of pain, struggle and transformation moved me profoundly. I was particularly interested in his accounts of being in solitary confinement and discovering books—from ancient classics to modern stories of black men. He writes this about one if his first experiences:

“When I got back to my cell, it was nearing time for count, so I sat down and opened up the dog-eared pages of Eldorado Red. From the first page, I was hooked. Goines’s vivid tale of inner-city life and the underground lottery had me in its spell, and his ability to articulate the pain of the streets validated the anger, frustration and disappointment I felt toward life in the ‘hood. Goines placed me back on the streets of Detroit; he made me feel alive again. I read the whole thing that night.” 1

All of us need our experiences to be validated. What do most of us living outside the fence in nice neighborhoods know about the traumas young black people experience in the streets and neighborhoods?

Senghor goes on about reading The Autobiography of Malcom X, “Without question, it was one of the best and most important decisions I have ever made.”2 This made me remember a statement from more than one of my students, “If I’d learned this stuff about my people in school, I don’t think I would have dropped out.”

Senghor echoes the power of black people learning black history when he writes, “My reading of Black history gave me a sense of pride and dignity that I didn’t have prior to coming to prison.”3

Books were an important part of his changing identity, as was learning to write and journal. When he figured out that writing in a journal was a method for learning about himself and a way to manage his anger, it all became a powerful tool for transformation. He writes:

“It’s hard to express how much this process of examination began to change me. Within the lined pages of my notepads, I got in touch with a part of me that didn’t feel fear whenever something didn’t go my way—a part of me that was capable of feeling compassion for the men around me.

For the first time I could remember, I began to recognize my true self.”4

There it is: the recognition of one’s true self. People are not born criminals. People with severe damage or psychological illnesses are in a separate category. I did not want to know about or discuss my students’ crimes. I learned that crucial lesson early on when I looked at a difficult student’s file and discovered what he’d done. It did not help the already tenuous relationship between us, and it was not my job. I did have the privilege of watching people being transformed by education as they learned to read and write, as they learned and articulated what was important to them as they thoughtfully figured out what their futures might look like outside the fence. As they worked and learned, as they figured out how smart and capable they were, they were discovering their own compassion and goodness, their true selves.

When I heard Shaka Senghor speak, he read the letter he wrote to his victim and talked about the letter from the victim’s godmother, who forgave him. He talked about the long road to forgiving himself. When asked about forgiving his mother who had abused him as a child, he said the lesson he learned was that forgiveness did not mean that the other person automatically changes their behavior.

It was an amazing evening. When he finished his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. All the proceeds from that evening’s book sales went to the Children’s Literacy Network, which sponsors Staying in Touch in the county’s prisons. Inmates choose books for their children and read the books into a recorder. Their children then receive the books, recordings and cards from their parents. Senghor praised the program, noting just how important those connections are for both parents and children.

I taught many remarkable men in my prison classroom. Early in my twenty-five year career, I had two men in a history class. (To protect them, I’ve changed their names.) Mr. Hamden was supremely organized in whatever he did, including his school work. A dream student, every assignment was done perfectly. He never missed a class and came in early every day. At a time when the Jaycees, an organization for leadership training and civic organization for people 18-40, had a chapter in the prison, Mr. Hamden found a program that would take store coupons and turn them into a charitable project. Under his leadership, other inmates and both federal and contract staff collected coupons and turned them in.

Mr. Engling was in the same class and another excellent student. He and his classmates wrote a play about a man experiencing events in the 20th Century. I don’t remember a single hitch in the whole process. Mr. Engling was warm and fun as he crafted the script to include everyone in the class. They then loved rehearsing—and the performance turned into a huge hit.

Years later I had Mr. Walls. He was at the end of a long sentence, delighted to be able to earn his high school diploma. He was a joy in class as he sat in the front row asking good questions and keeping discussions lively, interesting and focused. His assignments were typed (no easy task with very few typewriters available in the library), and he earned straight A’s. One of his papers was the story of his teenage years, including what he described as the terrible decision to drop out of school. He went on to write about his re-awakening when he discovered books and school. After he was released, he wrote letters back to our program’s Pre-Release class, encouraging people who were ready to go home and warning them about pitfalls outside the fence.

All three of these men were self-reflective, centered and focused on successful futures. They were kind, compassionate, helpful and courteous. All three helped me enormously by being perfect role models for newer students who were struggling. I found them charming and lovely to be around.

All three had committed murder.

Much of the discussion around prison reform centers around non-violent offenders. If those people are released, that would be progress, but it leaves many more people locked away who have, at an earlier time in their lives—often as teenagers—committed violent crimes like murder. People DO outgrow bad behavior and take responsibility for the crimes they commit. Those people who do not need to be kept behind bars. One of the missing pieces in our broken criminal justice system is any attention on the victims and survivors of violent crimes. When asked, people have amazing capacities to forgive.

I think about the people, especially those in power in the criminal justice system, who cannot look beyond a single, awful event—and see whole people. This article from the New York Times tells of someone who committed a murder and spent over forty years behind bars: False Hope and a Needless Death Behind BarsHe became one of the most respected inmates in the state’s system, took total responsibility for his crime, earned degrees and started a program in which victims and offenders could communicate. He had support from prison guards, judges, clergy and prosecutors. After he was denied parole ten times, he committed suicide at age 70.

Another compelling reason to release people who’ve served long sentences, may have committed violent crimes and are doing good work behind bars, is that the world needs them! Formerly-incarcerated people are organizing across the country to work for prison reform and to work with vulnerable young people. No one can do it like they do. They know. They have the answers, the solutions and the commitment. Many of the men I knew expressed their needs to “give back” to their communities.

“Our worst deeds to not define us,” says Senghor. Prison is tough. In America we don’t simply lock people up and take away their freedom—we add further punishment like the use of solitary confinement. Our current system allows life inside to be miserable and dangerous. It is not easy to admit and atone for crimes committed. But, if people serve their sentences for many years and become valuable citizens behind bars, we should at least consider releasing them. If they can change their hearts and minds, we should be able to do the same. We need to start imagining a world where we matter to one another. Part of the blaming and shaming has to do with how cut off we all are to the people who live in prisons. Media images of “those animals,” as one person described them, abound.

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

Mr. Walls wrote this, “I have thought a lot about this in the quarter of a century I’ve been locked up. When it is their loved one who is charged with a crime and convicted, people always want leniency, mercy and humane treatment for the person they love. But, when it happens to people you feel no connection with, it is common to hear cries of “3 Strikes and you’re out!” and “Execute him!” He also wrote, “I wish citizens would demand that prisoners be treated as they would want their beloved sons and daughters to be treated, because that is who we are. We are your brothers and sisters who have made mistakes and lost our way from the right path. Only through education will we find our way back.”

  1. Shaka Senghor, Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison, (New York, Convergent Books, 2013, 2106), p. 99.
  2. Ibid., p. 101
  3. Ibid. p. 101
  4. Ibid. p. 192

Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer by Richard Shelton

Crossing the Yard:Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, written by Richard Shelton, is a rare look into the lives of people incarcerated in maximum security prisons. The book tells of Shelton teaching creative writing to prisoners in grim and violent facilities as a volunteer for thirty years. This memoir, written with tough-minded honesty, forces the reader to see the humanity in condemned and forgotten people, and this interface between a committed, compassionate teacher and eager students reminds us of what is possible when people find their voices–and sometimes a new identity–in the process of writing. The stories compel us to see “bad” people in a new, more whole way and recounts the satisfaction of seeing their poetry published in various books, projects taken on by both Shelton and his wife.

The acclaimed poet Jimmy Santiago Baca was one of his students. The book points to the success of art programs inside prisons, and how creativity, especially in the writing of poetry, has the power to both flourish and heal. In the face of constant frustrations when dealing with the repression of prison systems, Shelton is a model of tenacity and courage. Crossing the Yard gives us examples of the triumph of the human spirit, in both teachers and students alike.

Published by the University of Arizona Press
ISBN: 978-0-8165-2594-2
Available in libraries and at amazon.com