Writing My Wrongs

Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison


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March 8, 2016 | ISBN 9780451484772

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About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • An “extraordinary, unforgettable” (Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow) memoir of redemption and second chances amidst America’s mass incarceration epidemic, from a member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100

Shaka Senghor was raised in a middle-class neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. An honor roll student and a natural leader, he dreamed of becoming a doctor—but at age eleven, his parents’ marriage began to unravel, and beatings from his mother worsened, which sent him on a downward spiral. He ran away from home, turned to drug dealing to survive, and ended up in prison for murder at the age of nineteen, full of anger and despair.

Writing My Wrongs is the story of what came next. During his nineteen-year incarceration, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement, Senghor discovered literature, meditation, self-examination, and the kindness of others—tools he used to confront the demons of his past, forgive the people who hurt him, and begin atoning for the wrongs he had committed. Upon his release at age thirty-eight, Senghor became an activist and mentor to young men and women facing circumstances like his. His work in the community and the courage to share his story led him to fellowships at the MIT Media Lab and the Kellogg Foundation and invitations to speak at events like TED and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

In equal turns, Writing My Wrongs is a page-turning portrait of life in the shadow of poverty, violence, and fear; an unforgettable story of redemption; and a compelling witness to our country’s need for rethinking its approach to crime, prison, and the men and women sent there.
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Praise for Writing My Wrongs

“[A] harrowing [portrait] of life behind bars . . . Gritty, visceral . . . Senghor writes about the process of atonement and the possibility of redemption, and talks of his efforts to work for prison reforms that might turn a system designed to warehouse into one aimed at rehabilitation.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“My first glance at the person on the book's cover—a dreadlocked, tattooed, heavyset black male—left me skeptical. Full of judgment. Why should I be interested in the story of a murderer? But as [Senghor's] words unfolded, so did my understanding—of what it means to fall short, to go astray, to lose your way . . . His story touched my soul.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“[A] powerful memoir.”The Washingtonian

“No one has forced us to look at the core questions about humanity and our broken criminal justice system with more authenticity and clarity than Senghor . . . If Senghor’s tale is any indication, redemption, mercy and grace aren’t just emotional ideals or spiritual buzzwords. They are the sharp, effective tools that can be used to rebuild lives and communities, one person at a time.”—Erica Williams Simon, Time

“Probably the most important book I've read in the past few years . . . Few people, sadly, come out on the end of two decades of hard time and find their way back to the life Shaka is now leading. Here, he tells us why that is, and why it doesn't have to stay that way.”—Shaun King, New York Daily News

“Extraordinary . . . You will reconsider everything you’ve ever thought about poverty, the prison industrial complex and the connection between the two.”Essence

“[An] inspiring book that gives hope for those who believe in the redemption of the incarcerated.”Publishers Weekly

“A necessary reminder of the deep humanity, vulnerability and potential that lies within each one of us, including those we view as 'thugs' or 'criminals'.  Shaka's story illustrates that if we muster the courage to love those who do not yet love themselves, a new world is possible.”—Michelle Alexander, bestselling author of The New Jim Crow
“Shaka Senghor's terrific and inspiring book affirms that we are all more than the worst thing we've ever done.  This beautiful and compelling story of recovery and redemption offers all of us powerful truths and precious insights as we seek recovery from decades of over-incarceration and excessive punishment.”—Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, bestselling author of Just Mercy

“A profound story of neglect, violence, discovery, redemption and inspiration. Consistently touching and surprising, Writing My Wrongs is, ultimately, deeply hopeful. Prepare to have your preconceptions shattered.”—J.J. Abrams, director, writer, producer
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Writing My Wrongs


Wayne County Jail

Detroit, Michigan

September 11, 1991

The sound of sirens burst through the quiet morning air, startling me awake. I crawled from beneath the scratchy wool blanket, rose to my feet, and approached the door to my cell, where a chubby roach was navigating its way across the cold, gray bars. I hollered down the tier, trying to figure out what was going on.

“Yo, Satan, what the fuck they hit the siren for?” I asked, wiping the crust from the corner of my eyes.

Gigolo, whom everyone called Satan, was one of the few cats I spoke to on a regular basis. In jail, friendliness was frowned upon, so I didn’t talk to anyone unless we had something in common beyond being locked up. Gigolo and I were from different cities, but we had grown up in similar environments and had formed a bond during the time I’d been in county jail.

“I don’t know, homie,” Gigolo yelled back from a few cells down. “You know how they do around here. They probably hate that they ass can’t get no sleep, so they fucking with us.” A few other inmates laughed.

Gigolo’s statement expressed the sentiment of most of the cats on lockdown. We had come to believe that the deputies would do anything they could to make our stay as unbearable as possible. They would bang their keys on the bars, turn the bright lights on in the middle of the night, and hold loud conversations during hours when we were trying to sleep. But if they had intended for this to intimidate us, it didn’t work. Most of us had come from environments where disrespect, violence, and abuse were the norm. We were used to it--and besides, you can’t change a person for the better by treating him or her like an animal. The way I see it, you get out of people what you put into them, so the officers were only making their jobs harder.

Another inmate called from farther down the tier. “They might be coming to get y’all and take y’all to different county jails,” he yelled.

“Come get us for what?” Gigolo asked, a bit irritated.

“Man, they take that escape shit serious. Ain’t nobody tried to pull off that shit y’all just tried,” he said, alluding to the escape attempt that had landed Gigolo and me in the hole.

Another voice hollered from the end of the tier. “Bitch ass nigga, mind your business ’cause you speaking on shit you don’t even know about. You working with the police or something, saying some shit like that? You don’t know if them brothers tried to escape or not. You trying to get niggas indicted around this bitch?” Everyone burst into laughter.

“Man, I was just saying,” the first inmate stammered.

“That’s the problem now, so shut the fuck up!” This led to more laughter.

I sat on the corner of my bunk and listened to the inmates argue back and forth as the sirens continued to blare. It felt odd, listening to two strangers speak with so much authority about something I had been accused of doing. It had been a week since Gigolo, Gee, White Boy, Jabo, and I were placed in the hole and charged with attempting to escape from the sixth floor of the Wayne County Jail. With no evidence other than a confidential statement made by another inmate, we were found guilty and sentenced to fifteen days in solitary confinement. 

Two days after being thrown in the hole, we were each called out by an officer from the Internal Affairs Division. He threatened us with lengthy sentences and then promised us the world if we snitched on one another. One by one, we refused to answer any questions regarding the escape attempt, and the matter was dropped as far as Internal Affairs was concerned. But the Wayne County hearing officer, who was basically an internal, autonomous judge and jury, found us guilty. It was an irony that vexed us to no end. In jail and in prison, when a confidential informant makes a statement against an inmate, it’s enough to find him or her guilty of any charge. But when we have witnesses who are capable of exonerating us, their testimony is no good.

The Wayne County Sherriff’s Office had suffered great embarrassment from our almost-successful escape attempt, but it turned out that the sirens had been sounded for a much more sinister occasion.

After half an hour of blaring, the siren suddenly cut off, leaving an eerie silence in its wake. Within moments, we could hear keys jingling and the urgent crackling of deputies’ radios. For us, those noises would become the soundtrack of chaos. 

A team of deputies, better known as the goon squad, burst through the door of our tier and began snatching us out of our cells, one at a time. The officers wore an assortment of expressions: astonished, sad, angry. The officer who came to remove me was one of the few we all considered cool. Unlike most guards, who thought it was their personal duty to add to our misery, he understood that for the most part we were all miserable, and he would come to work cracking jokes and talking shit to lighten the mood. Some days, he would leave the entrance door to our tier cracked and turn on the radio to FM 98, Detroit’s hip-hop and R & B station. It was a small gesture, but it went a long way to break up the monotony of the hole.

But today was different. When he ordered me to step out of my cell, he had a look of total disbelief on his face. I could sense that something was seriously wrong, so I asked him what was going on. He hesitated before he spoke.

“Somebody shot and killed Sergeant Dickerson,” he responded solemnly.

“Do they think we had something to do with it?” I asked, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.

“No,” he whispered as another officer approached with handcuffs. “They’re just taking precautions.”

It wasn’t until later that we would find out what had happened, and when we did, we were as astounded as the officers. By the administration’s account, an inmate had attempted to escape by smuggling a gun into the county jail. Allegedly, he had thrown a handmade rope out of the window and gotten someone on the street below to tie a gun to it. Then, later that day, he was on his way to court when he pulled out the gun in an attempt to liberate himself. A scuffle ensued, and when the dust settled, Officer Dickerson lay dead. 

I had been at Wayne County Jail for six weeks, following my arrest and conviction for second-degree murder. In those six weeks, I had witnessed everything from rape and robbery to murder, and this was one more reminder that inmates had no shortage of creativity when it came to inflicting harm on other men. Little did I know, this was just beginning my education in the true meaning of violence.



Police Headquarters

Detroit, Michigan

Six weeks earlier


Six weeks earlier I was sitting in a dingy cell at the police headquarters on Beaubien. It was my second arrest as a young adult, and by far the most serious in my short career as a street hustler. The days of going to the precinct or youth home only to be let right back out were over. This wasn’t a drug rap or assault charge--the kind of thing I was used to getting into. This time, it was murder.

One month after my nineteenth birthday, I had officially graduated to the big leagues. There would be no more slaps on the wrist or warnings from an irate judge, no bailouts from a counselor who saw potential in me. If I lost this one, it could cost me the rest of my life in prison, but that was a reality that my young mind wasn’t ready to accept.

The sound of bars rattling made me snap to attention. I removed the shirt that had been covering my head, and a light-skinned officer was standing at the cell bars with a no-nonsense expression on his face.

“Get up and get dressed,” he barked. “You’re being transferred to the county jail.” He turned and walked down the tier, repeating the same order to a handful of other unfortunate souls.

“Wayne County Jail”: three words every hustler and street thug in Detroit feared hearing. The stories of violence, corruption, and desperation in WCJ were legendary. The seven-story building on St. Antoine looked inconspicuous enough, but inside, the law of the jungle prevailed. In the early eighties, during the heyday of Young Boys Incorporated--one of Detroit’s first major drug rings--the jail’s reputation for violence skyrocketed. Among the tiers named after characters from the Transformers TV show, few inmates could count themselves safe from unprovoked attacks, mostly from other inmates. From robberies to beatings and rape, anyone entering was considered fair game.

I pulled myself up from the small, cramped bunk, slipped into my shoes, and walked over to the bars. I looked out onto the dusty tier as I slipped on the shirt I had been wearing for the last three days. I smelled like I had been sleeping in a garbage Dumpster. 

The sound of clanking metal shot down the hall as officers opened and shut the cells of other inmates, herding the guys down the tier and into a holding cell, in preparation for their transfer to the county jail.

Soon, it was my turn. The officer opened my cell, and I shuffled down the hallway slowly, holding up my shorts and doing my best not to lose my shoes. (They had taken my belt and shoelaces when I entered the precinct--their way of making sure we didn’t hang ourselves or choke someone else.) When I reached the intake desk, they returned my shoelaces, belt, and the knot of money that had been in my pocket when they arrested me. The thick wad of hundred- and twenty-dollar bills was a reminder of the city streets I had left behind, and the weight of it in my hand made a current of excitement shoot through my body. But the feeling soon evaporated as I realized I might never see the streets of Detroit again.

At the end of the tier, an officer pushed me inside the holding pen, where a dozen or so other inmates were waiting. Most of them were in their early to mid-twenties, and from the looks on their faces, it was clear that they were thinking the same thing I was thinking. How had our lives come to this? And what would we find waiting for us on the other side?

As I stood there in cuffs, my thoughts wandered back to my childhood. I thought about the first time my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had told her that I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help people get better, to mend their broken bones. I wanted to be the kind of doctor who gave children balloons and lollipops anytime they had to get a shot.

But the image of me with a white coat and a stethoscope faded as my thoughts returned to the present. I stood with my back against the wall of the dingy pen, wondering if there might still be a way out of this. All I needed was one more shot at freedom, one more chance to turn my life around. 

It wasn’t the first time I had told myself that. There was the time I was charged with felonious assault and drug possession and sent to the Wayne County Youth Home. I promised my father that I would turn my life around when I got out, and for a few months, I did. I went off to Job Corps in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, got my GED, and started working as a carpenter. But I hadn’t relinquished my old ways. The entire time I was there, I sold six-dollar joints and ran a loan-sharking ring. When I was caught, I was sent back home on the next Greyhound, to my father’s great disappointment.

Then there was the case I had just beaten in Monroe County. I had been driving back from one of my drug-selling trips to Ohio with a car full of cash and a trunk full of guns when a policeman pulled us over and arrested us for receiving and concealing stolen property. After the arrest, I told myself that this was it. I was tired of the streets and all that came with them. But as soon as we beat the case and returned to Detroit, it was business as usual.

That was the routine. As long as there was a threat to my freedom, I acted like I was ready to change, but the moment I got free, I didn’t care anymore. It would take ten years and a lot misfortune for me to understand that real change comes only when you are completely and thoroughly disgusted with your actions and the consequences that they produce. As the Honorable Elijah Muhammad once said, “One hundred percent dissatisfaction brings about one hundred percent change.” And in 1991, I was only about 40 percent dissatisfied.

I loved living in the streets. I loved the fast money, fast cars, and fast women. Above all, I loved the reputation I had earned in the ’hood. People knew me as a crazy motherfucker who would shoot as soon as I detected the slightest threat to me and my crew. When I drove or walked around the ’hood, people acknowledged me out of fear or respect, and that was the greatest feeling in the world. It was the one thing that made me feel like I was somebody, like I had power, like I had control over my life. I was the embodiment of what noted Black psychologist Amos Wilson argued: that the young Black male has perfected the art of being the best at being the worst.

Back in the holding pen, I was pulled out of my train of thought by the feeling that I was being watched. Sure enough, when I looked up, a tall, slim guy was staring at me. I returned his stare, then went over to ask if he had a problem. That’s what you did in the ’hood, jail, and the prison yard. If you and another male exchanged glances, you’d better be up to the challenge, or you would be considered weak. And in our world, the weak became prey.

When I walked up to the guy, a smile creased his face, and he told me he remembered me from over on a street named Savannah, where my sister had lived back in the day. His name was Jimmy, but I barely recognized him because he had grown several inches since I had last seen him. We kicked it about the old neighborhood for a minute, then he told me that he had overheard the officers talking about my charges. They were disturbed that such a violent act could have been committed by such a young kid.

About the Author

Shaka Senghor
Shaka Senghor is the New York Times bestselling author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, a leading voice on criminal justice reform, a tech investor, a lecturer at universities, and the head of Diversity, Equality & Inclusion at TripActions, a travel management and expense start-up. Senghor is a former MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow, a former fellow in the inaugural class of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leadership Network, and a member of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100. In the decade since his release from prison, he has started and worked with nonprofits seeking to lift people up, visited the White House, been interviewed by Trevor Noah and Oprah Winfrey, and given award-winning TED Talks, all with the goal of building a more inspired, just, fulfilling future. More by Shaka Senghor
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Random House Publishing Group