What We Don’t Understand About Violent Offenders

7 minute read
Erica Williams Simon is a strategist, cultural critic, speaker and media maker. Her work focuses on communicating the personal values, ideas and habits that lead to radical social impact. She is a deputy editor for Upworthy.com and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. Follow her @createdbyerica

“I’m asking you to envision a world where men and women aren’t held hostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don’t define you for the rest of your life. In an era of record incarcerations and a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves. Together, we can make things right.”

The man who wrote those words is Shaka Senghor, the formerly incarcerated author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption In an American Prison. We’ve heard a lot during this political season about communities devastated by the mass incarceration wave that began in earnest in the1990s. But 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. And that makes sense. He was once convicted of second degree murder and served 19 years in jail, including 7 years in solitary confinement. Today, he’s a scholar, writer, activist and devoted father.


His transformation – and the powerful impact that he is making now – is why I believe we must push deeper, past the polite, sterile conversations about the economics of private prisons or low-level drug offenders. In order to truly transform our society and see a radical revitalization of the most broken communities in America, we will ultimately have to take a hard look at our values, stretch the ideas of redemption and hope to their uncomfortable limits and rethink how we treat those that society has deemed unforgivable: the violent offenders.

Senghor was born in Detroit in the early 1970s. As a bright, precocious child, he wanted to be a doctor. But after being shot at the age of 16, he turned to the streets, began carrying a gun out of fear and ultimately at the age of 19, shot and killed a man who he felt posed a threat to him. In 1991, he was convicted of second degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Writing My Wrongs details the powerful story of his life before, during and just beyond his early release after serving nearly half of his 40 year sentence. His TED talk entitled “Why your worst deeds don’t define you” has now been seen over 1.3 million times. Even Oprah has taken note of Senghor, calling her conversation with him “one of the best of her life.” Senghor, who has since been an MIT Media Lab fellow and now spends his time mentoring youth and building national criminal justice reform programs, clearly has a gift for sharing his story in ways that make people take notice.

While the much deserved attention being paid to him now is lightening-in-a-bottle rare, the desire to right wrongs, the capacity for change and the potential to make a positive difference in the world after restoration is not. There are countless Shakas in prisons all over America. So why don’t we hear about them? Why isn’t every politician telling the public the statistical truth: that punishment without rehabilitation encourages recidivism and crime? Why aren’t more people of conscience standing up and saying that we must do whatever it takes to fully restore those who would undoubtedly be of greater service in their communities than behind bars?

Probably because Senghor’s story isn’t just one of hope and renewal – it is also a mirror held up to the darkest parts of ourselves. The part of us that is afraid. The part of us that throws people away, gives no second chances and would rather collect bodies in cells until there is no more room than do what it takes to heal, restore and work to change the violent, oppressive systems that drove them there in the first place.

Even the most liberal bleeding hearts among us hedge and couch our statements about prison to sound politically practical, socially acceptable and incrementally progressive by talking only about non-violent offenders. Our frightened, tepid approach to criminal justice reform isn’t a response to our political realities. It is a response to our own personal discomfort with the ideas of mercy, redemption and human transformation. That discomfort in turn shapes our political realities. What makes us comfortable and uncomfortable politically is often a sign of what makes us comfortable and uncomfortable spiritually.

And perhaps that is why despite Bernie Sanders’ pledge to dramatically shrink the U.S. prison population by the end of his first term, Hillary Clinton’s admission that her support of the 1994 crime bill and resulting role in mass incarceration was a “mistake”, and both of the Democratic candidates’ plan to restore the right to vote to convicted felons (a huge step forward), we have yet to hear a resounding rallying cry around criminal justice reform that calls violent offenders by name and holds them up as the true evidence of our belief in hope and change.

In fact, our collective unwillingness to believe in transformation and redemption seems to be a part of our cultural DNA. We can’t help it. It shows up in the silliest of places. Just this week Kim Kardashian penned an impassioned plea for the public to move beyond her infamous sex tape and included the following line: “I shouldn’t have to constantly be on the defense, listing off my accomplishments just to prove that I am more than something that happened 13 years ago.” If America can’t forgive a woman for making a consensual albeit, in her words regrettable choice, with her own body, how will we ever begin to forgive those who have committed the ultimate sin?

Well, we only need to look at the mother of Shaka’s victim for an example. In a particularly powerful moment in the book, we see a letter that she sent him in prison where she wrote:

“What I want you to know, other than these painful things you have brought upon my family is that I love you, and I forgive you…you may think your life is a mess, but you are special. And God is able to pick you up and help you to go on. He can clean up your messes, no matter what they are.”

What will it take for the rest of us to understand that bad deeds, even when they cause irreversible damage and have undeniable consequences, are seeds. And that as each seed falls into the ground we have a choice: We can either water it and help it grow. Or we can waste it, despite a society desperately crying out for trees, communities crying out for the men and women, the mothers and fathers, that are arguably best equipped to stop the cycle of violence and help dismantle the systems of poverty, racism and neglect that feed it.

Undoubtedly, Shaka’s made-for-TV-movie ready life is the kind of story that we love to hear. His calendar is filled with events, book signings and talks for people clamoring to be inspired. He is charismatic and, as Writing My Wrongs displays, a fantastically gifted writer. But even without the teller, the story remains: thousands of young men and women, bursting with potential, wasting away, imprisoned by a nation that kills people all over the world every single day – but won’t invest in second chances at home.

How we treat the violent offender will be the ultimate predictor of how wholly and completely we can right our wrongs as a society that fosters violence and crime and clearly has not figured out how to stop it. 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.

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