Van Jones Talks Prison Reform With Shaka Senghor, Who Spent Seven Years in Solitary

If Shaka Senghor had a theme song, it should be Drake’s “Started From the Bottom,” says CNN political commentator Van Jones.

Senghor, a criminal justice advocate who works with Jones at #cut50, which aims to safely reduce the U.S. prison population by half by 2025, went to prison in 1991 for second degree murder. He spent 19 years there, about seven of them in solitary confinement.

“There’s not much lower you can go in society,” Jones said. “And he somehow transformed himself to kind of human being who touches everyone from Oprah Winfrey to [venture capitalist] Ben Horowitz to kids on the street to people who are locked up. It’s not everybody who can give a presentation that moves from everyone from prisoners to college presidents, but he does that.”

Jones, a Yale-educated lawyer who worked in President Obama’s administration, taught at Princeton, and founded various organizations working for social and environmental justice, says our prison system is clearly not working and a humongous shift is needed in what we’re doing.

“We’re spending 80 billion to lock people up and about 70 percent come home and still get in trouble,” he said. “What other industry could have a 70 percent failure rate and still be in business?”

We need lots more prevention, pathways to reentry, alternatives to incarceration and a strong jobs program, Jones says. He thinks prison should be for people committing the most serious and dangerous crimes, and we shouldn’t be sending people away for 30 years on a minor drug charge.
“People of color and poor people go to jail for things rich white people don’t even
get arrested for,” he said. “How much dope is getting smoked in Pacific Heights this weekend and nobody gets arrested?”

Jones says hearing a story like Senghor’s about how he ended up in prison – and how he transformed through art, literature and religion (told in his book, Writing My Wrongs) can help people understand and change their minds about prisoners and realize how much potential and talent is being wasted.

Jones calls Senghor, who he met at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, a “spiritual and intellectual giant” and a great leader. He says most people would be broken by so many years in prison and in solitary confinement. And most would be spoiled by being invited to the White House and on Oprah Winfrey’s show. But Senghor is different.

“He’s just as centered and grounded now, despite all the success, as he was when I met him a couple years ago, despite all the setbacks,” Jones says. “To survive at both ends of the spectrum and be so human and so real – it gives me goosebumps. It makes you wonder how many more Shakas we have just thrown away for a mistake they made as teenagers.”

Beyond Prisons: A Conversation About Criminal Justice Reform, Shaka Senghor in conversation with Van Jones, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, April 13, 6:30, $10-75, (415) 597-6700

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories