How Prison Sets Inmates Up for Failure: Racism, Mental Illness, Poverty | Shaka Senghor

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.


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Transcript: 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.


40 thoughts on “How Prison Sets Inmates Up for Failure: Racism, Mental Illness, Poverty | Shaka Senghor

  1. Truly important issue. Our prison system is messed up. Prisons in Europe focus on rehabilitating their inmates. We should learn from them and implement some of their systems.

  2. how tf is this still going on, i realize its hard to recognize when its happening but come on WAKE UP people! Down with privatized prisons! its criminal. Deeply disturbed about what is still going on in this country when we have the ability to change.

  3. Here is an idea….. don't do stupid shit that gets you sent to prison in the first place….. problem solved. Beyond that……if you blame all your shortcomings and inabilities to lead a crime free life on everyone but yourself, then you are the problem and prison is probably where you belong.

  4. You had some good points at first, we should absolutely have more post-prison job placement. That would certainly help with the recidivism. As for yourself, you never exactly mentioned the fact that you murdered someone! As a landlord, would I rent to you after finding that out? No, sorry, not until you had a positive history of staying out of trouble. As for the "systemic" mantra you keep repeating, even blaming (in part) your own incarceration on the "system," NO ONE made you murder! You have no one to blame but yourself for that – and guess what? The highly disproportionate amount of violent crimes committed by black people is the reason they are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate. If one compares the incarceration rate (right across all the races) with the violent crime arrest rate, guess what? They match almost perfectly.

    It is not "the system" that pushes young black males to violent crime, nor is it poverty. There are various subsets of blacks that hardly ever get incarcerated. Aside from that, there are plenty of Asian groupings (Burmese, Bhutanese, Hmong Chinese) that are much poorer than blacks and much less educated. Yet Burmese are 166x less likely to be imprisoned than black people, and over 30x less likely to be imprisoned than white people!!!

    Poverty does not make people commit crime, that's a myth, along with your myth of systemic oppression. I have crunched the numbers for years and can prove quite conclusively that this is not the case. I'm truly sorry you had a tough time integrating after 20 years, and I agree there are things we can do to improve the system, but what about some personal responsibility??? You MURDERED someone, that has consequences, so don't expect society to cry a bucket of tears for your plight. . . .

  5. Trick is what is the purpose of Justice system….. Is it only about sentencing people and satisfying the societal anguish and disgust over crime they commit or is retribution is the purpose of jailing people… My opinion will be just locking up people in conflict with law won't do any good if there is not an iota of improvement in violater.. Reformatory touch and making people in conflict with law realise that yes it wasn't a good what they did and reintegration with the same fabric of society is the real purpose of justice system which I personally think isnot followed in letter and spirit..
    Second phase of justice delivery system should be to identify and curb the source of crime or conflict and then reflect the countermeasures in policy framing stage and finally implementing them well of course it's the role of bureaucracy and finally lessons learned on case by case basis I'm saying this because justice system comes into act only when the violation has already occurred one needs to curb the source of crime as well and that's where they need to act.. Lots of undertrials and people under preventive detention are kept ..simply because they don't have protection of law and lack knowledge of jurisprudence. And it actually aggravates the situation more.

  6. Blows my mind that it was thought OK to take out teaching crafts, educational programs, etc.
    it seems obvious that people who are locked up are bored out of their minds. that seems, in fact, be part of the punishment.
    But in this very controled environment, it seems equaly as obvious that you have to put into the system what you want to get out. Like, given opportunities to learn something constructive, these prisoners will have something to carry back to society.
    If you take out constructive learning possibilities, the only subjects that remain are those that the inmates carry. And what you can learn under those topics is what got these men and women into trouble, and then prison, in the first place.
    Basically, if you deny them the opportunity to better themselves in constructive ways, they're going to better themselves in ways that you do not want. You turn the prison system into an extended learning experience on how to become a better criminal. It's like takeing 1-on-1 tutoring seminars on Burglary, Minimizing Forensic Evidence, Deafeating Electronic Security Systems, Armed Robbery 101, See also: Crowd Control, plus everyone wants to get out, so you might as well host self-taught seminars on legal loopholes and exploiting jurisdicial procedure.

  7. We need to free blacks from all this systemic racism and and oppression, we need to give them a slice of America that corresponds size-wise with their population size and leave them alone to flourish.

  8. Do you really expect that people who are clearly capable of comitting a crime, who are locked up with several other guys that did the same thing, who got pressured in jail, who got very sexually frustrated and who come out of jail in a totally different environment than when they got in. Do you really expect them to behave? You must be very ignorent.

    The whole prison system has to change. You have to either don't give prisoners a second chance and lock them up till death (which is just unhumaine at least), or you have to make them do a program to re-integrate into society, like they have in Sweden. In Sweden they get it, and the best thing is, it works over there.

    The prisonsystem now is totally wrong, and people don't even seem to care

  9. if you wanna help people you gotta be willing to sacrifice, bottom line. But its also true that if you want to plan for the best possible future with the highest standard of living, you have to be willing to help people.

  10. Then I suggest you don't go to prison. And the "reason so many African Americans are in prison" is simple, they commit a large percentage of crime. As a matter of FACT, over 52% of all violent crimes are committed by African Americans. In other words, 13.2% of the population is committing more than 50% of all violent crime(s). . .As Larry Elder says, "black men are crushed by Excuses, not racism."

  11. "DINDUNUFFIN I is a good boy." Give me a fucking break, you should have been killed when YOU decided to take another persons life. Bleeding heart libtards are going to be the end of modern society.

  12. It would be better for inmates to have a marketable skill and prepared for life outside of prison. I'm sure many people will disagree. Oh well. Thanks

  13. We need tuition free college/ university and a living minimum wage to get people off the streets and give them a way to make money other than gangs. Also, we need more rehabilitation, less incarceration. When people get out of prison, we need to help them get back into society.

  14. Even in Western Canada, even if you are not in prison, a mental health patients won't get any help others then more and more pills. The pills they gave me, almost caused me killed my whole family. They also mistreated me.

    No one is responsible.

  15. Is this twat actually for real, he murders someone then complains that society wont accept him and forget his past, he says we all make mistakes, oh yeah killing someone is just a mistake, something to be forgotten about, serving a prison sentence may absolve you in a legal sense, but morally u are not absolved.

  16. Everyone's born innocent until they are judged and mistreated, and so they get angry, confused and lash out.
    Prison should always be focused on helping people, further judging people does no good at all.
    They, we, all have the same potential to open our hearts and live as saints.

  17. When a felon gets out and has to answer weather or not they've been convicted of a felony on job applications is total bullshit. That should be considered a form of double jeopardy and should be totally illegal.

  18. People and the system itself is very forgiving to people that have a bad moment. These guys are career criminals. They have many many bad moments. Bad moments over and over again. People rightly should try to avoid those type of people.

  19. The people that are incorrigible criminals usually end up in prison (unless they are smart and get into politics or finance). What is prison doing wrong that these people keep committing crime? Letting them out into society again. #notall just the proper wronguns.

  20. I do agree though. There is no such thing as reintegration. Once you commit your crime, it forever stays there. Well, not really…. it's just those faggot police officers and their modern technology that store it for everyone to see. Those damn heat signatures saw me in the bushes and got my ass. Basically, the more money and tech these police have, then the more people will be in prison to justify it's cost and purpose.

  21. No offense, but I don't even think that you understand society lol. The economy and society are integrated based solely on trust. The loans you take to succeed, the relationships you make with people, and the relationship with the government and your income. The society is basically telling straight up to your face that they don't like you. You will always be discriminated against and continuously will be denied the right to live well. The society can deny you the right to live, get higher education, and earn an income. Your best bet would be to find another place to pay your taxes to because you are wasting your money paying tax to a state that wants you dead.

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