Incarceration and Redemption: Reflections on Writing My Wrongs

As I turned page after mesmerizing page of Shaka Senghor’s memoir Writing My Wrongs, I immediately was reminded of this quote: "Either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what happens in the ‘hood'." These were the words uttered by rapper turned actor Ice Cube’s character Doughboy, in the now classic film Boyz N The Hood released in 1991. Prior to this film, with the exception of what was then being termed ‘gangsta rap’, seldom attention was paid to the dynamics of inner-city life.

Then with the rise in popularity of gangsta rap music and ‘hood movies’ (as well as the lucrative profits), there was a surge in books, particularly Sanyika Shakur’s  Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. I first read this book while incarcerated in the California Youth Authority. I struggled to accept the message of Shakur’s books—primarily because it cast a dehumanizing light on all young Black males incarcerated or “from the hood” in a manner that did not capture my own life or journey.

Enter Writing My Wrongs. For the first time, here is a story that captivated and created a surreal experience. As I read, line after line, page after page, chapter after chapter, I felt as if my own life was imprinted and shared for the world to behold.

Senghor’s storytelling ability is perfectly blended with a brutal honesty and unapologetic rawness that is rare, in print and in life. As we follow the tragic trajectory of a young Black male subjected to the inhumane conditions of 1980s Detroit, we share the experience and transition from a child hungry for love, attention, and acceptance, into a person who became a mirror and reflection of daily life in the ‘hood.

But (thankfully) Senghor’s story does not end there. As the author deals with a system that is in many ways more brutal and oppressive in prison, we learn about the undeniable redemptive quality that lies innately within. To be clear: it was NOT the prison that produced this metamorphosis, rather it was an individual decision to not conform to what the environment produced.

The piece that resonated most with me was the author’s epiphany concerning the impact of his violent conviction on his son. With moist eyes, I recalled the moment when my 12-year-old son tearfully recalled the pain and grief of being separated from a father in prison. The concern of how my son would view me, and how could I explain the violent crimes I was convicted of, continues to motivate me in like-minded fashion, to create a different legacy and impression through my current work in social justice. Too often the impact of incarceration on the family is ignored, by both society and the incarcerated person.

This book is a chronicle of human suffering, internalized trauma, and systemic inequity. But its crowning achievement is the demonstration of hope and change personified. The tenacity, persistence, and honest self-reflection that allowed the author to successfully navigate through nineteen years in prison, and the subsequent challenges upon parole serves as a model of inspiration to us all.

Truly, this book is a must read, and clearly illustrates the need for truth and reinvestment policies that will prevent young people in similar circumstances from falling through the proverbial cracks, as well as effectively assisting those caught up in the system’s snare.

Purchase a copy of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison here: beyondprisons.org