How Prison Sets Inmates Up for Failure after Their Release

Writer and Criminal Justice Activist
Shaka Senghor spent 19 years in jail — 7 of those in solitary confinement — after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. It gave him time to think extensively about the nature of prison system itself and why so many African-American men are incarcerated. He also found that it doubly failed him once he left prison. The world had changed enormously since 1991, and he almost wasn't ready for a digital culture (not least one that required you to say you'd committed a felony when applying for an apartment or a job, as all inmates are required to do). In this video, he tells us that the system is designed for failure once you get out as mental illness is left untreated in prison, and combined with the Department of Correction's inability or refusal to assist prisoners after they leave, often sends former inmates right back to jail. The day that Shaka left he was told he'd be back within six months. Luckily for us, he proved both them and the system itself wrong. Shaka's latest venture is Mind Blown Media.
  • Transcript


Shaka Senghor: The feeling of walking out of prison is something that I’ll never forget. It was June 22, 2010 one day after my birthday, a beautiful sunny day in Detroit and I walked out of prison with a lot of optimism despite being told by the officers that I would probably be back in six months. And when I walked out I thought that I was returning to a society that would be a lot more forgiving and a lot more open to me getting a second chance if I was willing to follow the rules of society. So get out, look for a job, prove that I want to work, volunteer in my community, figure out ways to add value and sadly and unfortunately society is not really forgiving and not really as open to second chances as I thought they would be.

And it’s really sad in the sense that 90 percent of people who are incarcerated will at some point return home and we have a choice in how we welcome men and women back to our community. I personally believe that there’s not a human being that isn’t without flaws, that hasn’t had a bad moment and nobody will want to be held hostage to that moment for the rest of their life. Once a person has served their time that means that they should come out with a clean slate and an opportunity to start over. And if we want them to have a successful transition it means we have to be willing to give them a true second chance and not keep bringing up the past unless they’re repeating that behavior, but in most cases most people want to just get out, move on with their life, find employment, find a safe place to live, and be free to enjoy the fullness of life.

So sadly the systems that are currently in place are very anemic and this is one of the reasons we have almost a 70% recidivism rate because prisons are doing a horrible job of preparing men and women to reenter society. And when you think about the reality of somebody being gone for decades... the world has completely shifted. When I walked out of prison after serving 19 years I walked into a very different world; the language was different, everything was about technology and digital and online and social media. And so when you think about walking out of somewhere 20 years and just being dropped into that and then told to move along with life without being prepared it basically sets a person up to return to prison because they just can’t cope with the reality of the world as it exists and we don’t have the mental/psychological services in place to help people process the trauma they just experienced as they return to society. Like, prison is a very traumatic environment, it’s a very volatile environment and so to take somebody literally from prison and drop them into the world as it exists now without giving them the tools that they need to cope is really just poor management and poor processes that we have to really kind of rethink. And the level of mental illness inside prison isn’t something people factor in, it’s that when men and women who have mental illness get out back to society they don’t have much support and places to help them manage whatever their mental illness is and so often times they end up right back in prison. 

The mental illness component... when I was in solitary confinement probably the most shocking thing to me was the treatment of the men who had mental illness, men who were incapable of defending themselves against the onslaught of police brutality, the starvation rituals, being denied access to psychologists or psychiatrists. Like that was shocking to me that we’re allowing this to happen in a country that supposed to be the leader of the free world yet we basically are torturing people who are mentally incapable of defending themselves. You don’t walk out of that environment without suffering from that trauma, even when it’s not directed toward you but you’ve been exposed to it for extended periods of time. So there are some prisons that are taking steps towards doing stuff that is meaningful that really prepares men and women to return to society and I would like to see more of those type of programs that’s really preparing people for how the world works now as opposed to how it worked 10, 15, 20 years ago.

My personal views on systemic component of my incarceration and even prior to that are very, very deep. I think about when I got shot I was 17 years old - I was taken to the hospital I was basically processed through as if I was a car in a car factory. No one stepped in and said how do you feel even though your experience this deep, deep trauma? No one said hey here’s an outlet for you to manage your emotions and a mental reaction to that environment. And so the systemic nature of that is that young lives of black inner city kids have no value in our society and the expectation that this is going to happen to them over and over and that it should happen has been accepted as a norm in society. 

When I think about my incarceration at one point I was taking college courses and I was averaging a 4.0 and then under the President Clinton administration they changed everything around with this crime bill he passed and it took college out and it took trades out and it took counseling out. And so basically in essence it was preparing the young men who I was incarcerated with to go right back out with no resources, no assets and to eventually become a liability to society because we just weren’t being prepared for life after. The racial dynamics of our prison system is no secret. The reality of police brutality that we see occurring within our communities at an alarming rate and sadly the fact that there is no justice on the other side of these actions speaks volumes about the systemic issues that contributed to a lot of my experiences inside prison and a lot of things I experienced once I got out of prison. You know, not having access to housing because I have a felony on my record and apartments can legally discriminate against you when you have a felony. You have to check a box about my past even though my past was 20 years prior to me trying to get an employment opportunity. So systemically there are so many different things that occur within the scope of our criminal justice system that is dysfunctional, is disproportionately geared toward minorities and people who live either right at or well below the poverty line and those are things that we have to fix. Systemically I think there is so much that needs to be done to correct the Department of Corrections.