A Feature Review of
Writing My Wrongs:
Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison
Reviewed by Deborah Bloom
Is it possible for a violent murderer to change their ways and become a productive member of society? That is the question at the heart of Shaka Senghor’s engrossing New York Times bestselling memoir.
We first meet Shaka (birth name Jay) as he is growing up in an middle -class neighborhood on Detroit’s East side in the 1980s. At first Shaka is a happy child, an honor-roll student who dreams of becoming a doctor. But his life quickly unravels when Shaka runs away from home after his mother becomes more abusive after his parents’ divorce.
Shaka soon is homeless and turns to dealing drugs to make money. The drug dealing results in anger, self-hate and then violence. He is shot at 17 and then murders a man when he is 19. The murder lands Shaka in prison for second-degree murder for a 17 to 40 year sentence.
Shaka tries to reform in prison during his first years of his sentence. He tries to continue the relationship with his girlfriend, the mother of his second child. However, the brutality of,prison life encourages his self-hate and violent ways leading to multiple stints in solitary confinement (aka “the hole”) The longest stint of 4 and a half years happens after he nearly kills a prison guard.
Shaka’s spiritual and emotional awakenings happen slowly over the course of his 19 years in prison. Since most of his family (except for his father) and friends don’t visit, he becomes even angrier, inflicting violence on inmates and guards alike. Most of the other inmates are violent (often fatally). Many of the prison guards are violent towards the inmates, abusing their power.
However, he begins to want to change his ways after receiving a letter from his then 11 year-old second child, Li’l Jay:
My mom told me why you’re in jail, because of murder! Don’t kill Dad because that is a sin. Jesus watches what you do, pray to him.
This leads him to become part of a Muslim group, Melanic Islamic Palace of the Rising Sun (Melanics for short). The Melanics encourage him to seriously study African and African-African American history as well as the Bible and the Quran. Shaka is even inspired to start writing after reading Donald Goines, author of novels such as Dopefiend whom rappers such as Tupac and Ludacris have cited as a influence. Later Shaka’s prison newsletter article on his sister’s crack addition is published on the outside after a prison official shows it to his wife. In addition, a fellow inmate named Anthony gives him advise about how to publish his novels on the outside.
A few years before the end of his nineteen years in prison, Shaka meets and falls in love with an outside prison activist named Ebony. Ebony travels for many hours to visit him at the many prisons Shaka is transferred to all over the state of Michigan including multiple prisons in the Upper Peninsula.
Shaka is finally released from prison in 2010 a day after his thirty-eighty birthday. He fulfills his promises to the parole board to become a good example and mentor to young black men in Detroit and is invited to speak about his experiences all over the country, Also he and Ebony have a child on their own. However, Shaka has a hard time adjusting to post-prison life like nearly all ex-convicts. His record prevents him from most steady employment. A fulfilling job as a part-time reporter for the Michigan Citizen gets cut as a result of budget cuts. Shaka also tried to navigate the massive changes in life and technology since he entered prison in the late 1990s. He wonders why people are most likely to communicate by text or social media rather than face-to-face. He is also weary of keeping to the many restrictions the terms of his parole place upon him.
His luck changes when he attends a Knight Foundation meeting and meets Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and IDEO’s Colin Rainey. Shaka has been frustrated by previous meetings with groups that looked at Detroit as a “charity case”, “I had met a few well-meaning people, but they never seemed to follow through on the big plans we had talked about in our conversations and e-mails. They told me that they were interested in working with me and helping me get my life on track, but all it ever turned out to be was empty rhetoric.” Ito and Rainey actually take up Shaka’s invitation to tour the “real Detroit.” This meeting has led to Shaka working with the Media Lab to find real solutions to help revitalize Detroit. Senghor also now works with #cut50, an organization that is working to cut America’s prison population in half by 2025 and has given a TED talk on his activism and experience.
Senghor does briefly write about his relationship to his victim’s family Shaka shares the letter his wrote to his victim during the last part of his imprisonment and the afterword includes the first letter the victim’s godmother wrote to him in 1997. Some readers (including me) might wonder about the emotional impact of Shaka’s successful post-prison life upon the victim’s family.
My only other quibble is with the structure of the book. Flashbacks are not executed consistently which leads to confusion about the timeline of the book’s events.
However, these concerns shouldn’t drive readers away from this unique and compelling work. In an time when America is debating the impact of twenty year old crime legislation, Writing My Wrongs is a story that tells one story of the impact of how our cities and prisons treated one African-American man and how that man has does the spiritual and emotional work to forgive those who have wronged him and to work as a mentor to young men.