Over the last few weeks I’ve heard several talks focused on an individual’s ability to radically change who they are and their future no matter who they were or what they did in the past. This topic is especially prominent when it comes to those labeled as criminals.
Last night I heard Ben Horowitz interview Shaka Senghor. Shaka was imprisoned for 19 years, spending 7 of those years in solitary confinement, after fatally shooting another man during a drug deal gone bad while in his late teens. After experiencing the brutality of prison life and moving up the ranks of the power chain by resorting to violence and using the broken prison system to his advantage, he begin to realize the need to change his life. He reached this realization after another inmate recommended he read a particular book. This lead to him reading more and more and eventually he had soaked up the philosophies of Plato, the passion of Malcolm X, and the literary movement of the Beat Poets. All these new ideas challenged his status quo and inspired him to seek change.
Shaka is the first to admit that he was extraordinarily lucky to have entered into prison as a literate and resourceful individual. Having lived on the streets since he was 9 years old, he had the life experience to learn the hierarchy of the prison system and climb the ranks in order to protect himself. In addition to his ability to read, Shaka sought out and achieved what most people in the prison system do not – the desire to change.
Prisons are not designed to rehabilitate. They are designed to turn a profit. They are paid per inmate and the more inmates they have, the more cash flows in. Top that off with the fact that the recidivism rate in the US ranges from 40% - 70%, which means most inmates will return to jail after release. This statistic is an obvious indicator that the current system fails. It fails those who are released and it fails tax payers that have to pay for their incarceration.
The most widespread reasoning of recidivism is the lack of preparation to reenter society. And now that many of the laws passed during the War on Drugs campaign are being reversed, more inmates will be released far before they had ever expected to be. Those who have spent the majority of their lives behind bars have completely missed out on the technology boom that’s happened over the last 20 years. No smart phones, no email, no job training, no education, no Facebook, no Twitter. As Shaka explained it, he felt as if he walked out of the Flintstones and into the world of the Jetsons. Those who are literate can teach themselves many of the skills required to live in today’s world, however most inmates were not so fortunate. A prisoner’s average reading level is 3rd grade.
I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with friends after hearing these talks and getting other’s perspectives and ideas on the topic of prisons and incarceration. Why should we care about prisoners? Do we spend money there or do we fund projects that help people who have managed to stay out of the criminal system? There’s a stigma that those who go to jail are bad, that they are there for a reason. While I do believe some people will never change, I think that’s an ignorant assumption to make of the majority. It’s easy to forget about prisoners as they are mostly kept out of sight, locked away far outside of the cities. This makes it easy to ignore the huge problem we face.
Unless we start putting some thought and effort into rehabilitation and skill based learning inside of prisons, we’re going to end up with a lot of people being released into a world where they do not know how to function. They will be unable to become active members of society and will most likely find themselves back in jail. As a citizen, as a tax payer and as a someone who knows people can and do change for the better, this is unacceptable.
If you’re interested in learning more about Shaka and his journey to self-reformation, you can read his book titled Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison.