Beyond Prisons: A Conversation on Criminal Justice Reform

Your worst deed doesn’t define you.

Last Wednesday, I had the honor of hearing author and activist Shaka Senghor in conversation with political commentator and activist Van Jones on criminal justice reform, and the #cut50 and #BeyondPrisons campaigns to reduce the prison population by 50% over the next ten years. Held at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, the night was inspirational and full of compassion.

Senghor spent 19 years in prison, seven of those in solitary confinement, where he says he grew accustomed to the smell of human despair. It’s a wonder, as Van Jones says, he became better not bitter. Senghor is now a acclaimed speaker, teacher and mentor. He says reading changed him and he challenged himself to write a book in 30 days. He did it. Unlike so many millions of men and women behind bars (2.5 million are currently incarcerated in the United States’s prison industrial complex), he found redemption and is now using that to fight for criminal justice reform.

We hold people hostage their whole lives for a moment. Is it really surprising that people can’t always recover from that? 

As Senghor explained: What you feel everyday in the prison environment is the opposite of what it means to be human. How can one be rehabilitated and sent back into the world if they do not feel human? He told the story of visiting prisons in Germany, and when he told the prison warden he was in solitary confinement for 7 years, she wept, exclaiming that Germany would never do that to their citizens. How is this still happening?

Mental illness needs to be decriminalized if we’re going to make real changes in criminal justice, exclaimed Senghor when asked what is one of the first hurdles to get past. This struck a cord with me as my Uncle who is schizophrenic has spent time in and out of prison for something that is out of his control. I deeply appreciate being able to tell him when he signed my book after the talk, just how much that affected me.

Hearing Senghor speak (and Van Jones who is as witty and charismatic as you see on television, if not more) was an inspiring experience. Through my own stories of dealing with the prison industrial complex and my family, I feel so strongly about criminal justice reform. As Van Jones said, you are here tonight because you believe in change and you are tired of the status quo. Hearing Senghor speak has only motivated me to get more deeply involved in the criminal justice reform movement, through the #cut50 and #BeyondPrisons campaigns, but also just writing to those behind bars, because as Senghor said, a few words, one letter or more can completely change a person.

No one wants to be held hostage to their past. All of us can be more than what we have become.

– Shaka Senghor

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