Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Freedom and Confinement

By Shaka Senghor

Freedom and Confinement

I loved living in the streets. I loved the fast money, fast cars, and fast women. Above all, I loved the reputation I had earned in the 'hood.(2.15)

It's kind of weird to hear someone say they loved living in the streets. But Shaka explains here why there's a lure to street life for some kids who do have other options.

I learned that jail wasn't much different from the streets; it was a power-based environment where the only means of gaining respect were violence and money.(4.53)

Hmmm. It's hard to see how prisoners are going to change in a system that looks just like the one where they committed their crimes. Does going to prison actually make some people more violent than they would have been otherwise?

I had never thought about the fact that by getting locked up, I was also imprisoning everyone who loved or cared about me.(4.55)

Imprisonment isn't just an individual thing. While Shaka's friends and family aren't literally in jail because of him, they're metaphorically held hostage as long as he's in jail.

I found myself thinking about how I had arrived at this point in my life. Growing up, I never imagined that I would end up caged in a cell, living out my life like an animal. I'm too smart for this s***, I thought angrily as I stared up at the paint-chipped ceiling.(12.32)

Shaka is smart, but it takes more than just brains for him to escape the actions that put him in prison. He needs real transformation of his whole self, not just his mind.

At some point, all inmates begin to wonder if their existence is really a nightmare, from which at any moment they could wake up and be back home in their own beds. But as the years of your incarceration stretch on, you soon learn that prison is all too real. (12.33)

Nobody likes the idea of prison, but it sounds even worse when Shaka describes what it's really like. Does his clear description of the experience change how we think about it?

It was through these letters that I realized writing could serve as a means of escape. With a pencil and a piece of paper, it was almost like I could travel outside of prison and go wherever I desired. I could stand on the corner in my neighborhood, and no one could stop me. I could drive down the freeway to see my ex-girlfriend in Ohio, and the bars and wired fences couldn't hold me back. Writing was freedom, so I wrote till my fingers were sore.(12.36)

When he's in prison, Shaka finds out that writing makes him feel free in a way not much else can do. What makes writing so powerful?

Eventually, they sent me to the Maximum Security Facility at Standish, where a new level of hell awaited. (12.42)

One of the great things Shaka does as a writer is to subtly weave in references to Dante's divine comedy. This is one of the moments when he compares his journey to Dante's travels through hell. It gets the reader's attention, and it suggests that Shaka, like Dante, is slowly transforming for the better through the experience. See Symbols for more.

But this didn't mean that everything I learned or did in the Melanics was positive. This was still prison, still a place ruled by the law of the jungle. And it was through our organization that I became even more practiced in the art of calculated violence. (14.41)

Prison life is full of weird and disturbing contradictions. Example? The Melanics provide Shaka with awesome community support, mentorship, and encouragement to grow in his spirituality and knowledge of African history. But because of the eat-or-be-eaten world of Maximum Security, they also feel like they have to organize to fight back with violence when someone hassles one of their members. It's a strange dynamic, and just one example of how the weird world of prison lands people in complicated situations.

At Standish, we brothers from different organizations had kept to ourselves, but back at the Reformatory, I began reaching out to other crews because I felt that it was important to find common ground with the fifteen hundred young men who were sharing our space. We held different philosophical and theological views, but we had all come from the same hopeless backgrounds, and we were all caught in the gears of the same heartless machine.(14.56)

Shaka eventually starts to turn his talents to connecting different organizations within a prison. It may not solve all the contradictions he experienced with the Melanic Brotherhood, but it's a step in the right direction. The fact that they're all stuck in the same place gives them some common ground to start with, at least.

When I stepped outside and inhaled my first breath of freedom in nineteen years, I felt like a baby taking in air for the first time. The air tickled my lungs, and I smiled from deep within. I was officially afree man, and this time, I would do freedom the right way.(26.2)

Shaka grows from seeing freedom as the chance to do whatever he wants to seeing freedom as the chance to contribute to his community.