Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Justice and Judgment

By Shaka Senghor

Justice and Judgment

It was an irony that vexed us to no end. In jail and in prison, when a confidential informant makes a statement against an inmate, it's enough to find him or her guilty of any charge. But when we have witnesses who are capable of exonerating us, their testimony is no good.(1.13)

Kind of ironic that the system which tries to administer justice runs by rules that seem unfair.

The county jail's pecking order was as clear as it was unforgiving. From the lowest of the inmates to the highest reaches of the prison staff, life in jail was a real-life human experiment in the survival of the fittest. (4.24)

Is a survival-of-the-fittest system just the consequence you face if you break the law? Or could the system be made fairer and safer while still restraining crime?

This was one of the 'hood's many contradictions. Affluent white men were free to come into our community to buy drugs and sex as they pleased. If they got pulled over for soliciting, more often than not they were given a slap on the wrist and returned to the safety of the suburbs. But for us, the parks we had once played in as children were no longer safe, and the streets that had once been a source of pride were now forgotten cesspools that the city would rather forget. (9.4)

This quote underlines how complex it is to work toward a just society. The problems in a particular community may relate to outside factors as well as to internal challenges.

With each book that they fed me, I felt a part of my soul growing and opening up to commune with my ancestors. I immersed myself in African history and imagined what it was like in ancient Kemet (which had been renamed Egypt by the Greeks). I thought about the pyramids, which have stood the test of time, and wondered how they had been engineered. I thought about Timbuktu and how that society had created a vast trove of knowledge that was the envy of the world. In the short time I was at Standish, I learned more about African history than I had ever learned during all of my years in school. (14.35)

Knowing that people like him made real contributions to society is a big part of what eventually helps Shaka want to give back to society too. Is part of having a just society showing how everyone can and does contribute to it?

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)

It seems important that Shaka isn't just waiting for someone else to make the system better. Even as a prisoner, someone who has relatively little societal power, Shaka knows he can make a difference by connecting with others and trying to help them craft a better overall situation.

I had acknowledged my guilt years before, but there was a difference between that and accepting responsibility for my actions. My son's words made me take that final step on my road to redemption. (19.61)

Shaka definitely cares about the justice of systems, and he also deeply values individual responsibility. It's partly a moving letter from his own son that helps him take full responsibility for his own actions and his individual part to play in making a more just world.

On that visit, we [Shaka and Ebony] discussed a wide range of subjects concerning life, love, and relationships. She shared with me her passion for urban gardening and how she believed it was necessary for Black people to have control over their own food supply, and I told her about my love of writing and my goals for life after prison. By the time our visit ended, we had discussed everything from privately owned prisons to the reasons behind the abundance of liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and inferior grocery stores in predominately Black neighborhoods.(21.4)

One reason Shaka is attracted to Ebony is her commitment to social justice. For her, justice isn't just about the legal system, though that's important. It's also about making sure Black people have access to healthy food and power to provide good things to their communities.

And that's the thing about hope. In the moment when you feel it, it can seem foolish or sentimental or disconnected from reality. But hope knows that people change on a timeline that we can't predict. We can never know the power that a word of kindness or an act of forgiveness will have on the person who needs it most. (Afterword.14)

Justice may involve philosophy and politics, but it's also about individuals keeping hope and kindness alive. For Shaka, that's not just an idea—other people's hope has been a key factor in his transformation.

We traveled through Zone 8, the neighborhood where Yusef had grown up gangbanging, and continued west into Rosedale Park, a nearby enclave of upscale, middle-class families. As the team looked at the big, beautiful brick homes lining the streets, I talked about the many contradictions and inequalities in our city. (26.48)

What causes the stark contrast between poverty and middle-class life in Detroit? Would improving the situation in one city provide hope for more equality elsewhere?

Watching Sekou grow, I realized that the desires I had expressed to the parole board were real— more than anything in the world, my dream was to give our son a better world than the one Ebony and I had inherited. (26.32)

This quote is a nice combination of seeing justice as about a whole community and seeing justice as about an individual's experience. It's a personal connection between Shaka and his new son Sekou that really brings home to him how much he wants to make the whole world better.

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