Study Guide

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

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

This memoir starts off in a solitary confinement unit…so you know there's a dramatic story coming.

And it doesn't disappoint—pretty much every step of Shaka's journey is riveting. Shaka leaves home when he's fourteen to escape a tough home situation with his mother. He doesn't have an income, and he's living on the streets of Detroit, so when a drug dealer offers to hire him, he says yes. Shaka starts doing really long stints selling drugs (Weirdly, drug dealers don't seem to be too picky about child labor laws).

The drug dealing pays the bills and even lets teenaged Shaka buy fancy new clothes, but it also exposes him to all sorts of violence and betrayal. In the tough world of drug sales, people threaten Shaka, double cross each other, and do all sorts of weird stuff. Shaka slowly becomes desensitized to violence and suffering. He tries to quit street life occasionally, but it never works.

When a guy shoots Shaka over an argument, Shaka survives. But he's really traumatized, and he becomes more and more paranoid. He carries a gun everywhere because he sees it as the only way to protect himself. When he's nineteen, a drug sale gets out of hand and Shaka fatally shoots someone.

Shaka goes to prison with a sentence of seventeen to forty years, regretfully leaving behind his girlfriend Brenda, who is pregnant with their first child. Prison turns out to be a lot like street life, full of violence and people competing with each other to survive. In this brutal world, Shaka becomes tougher and tougher. In spite of his best intentions, he finds himself becoming more dependent on violence to protect himself.

But even in this harsh environment, Shaka slowly discovers some things that will help him change. He slowly discovers that he loves both reading and writing. He starts to read about Black history and activism and finds a sense of dignity and pride he didn't have before in the accomplishments of his ancestors and contemporary African American communities. He joins a Black Muslim community called the Melanic Brotherhood and learns more about his own spirituality and being part of a community. He finds mentors who have changed their lives for good and are now trying to mentor younger guys.

It takes a long time for some of these things to add up to real change in Shaka's life. But some crucial turning points come during a four and a half year period where Shaka is stuck in solitary confinement. The experience is terrible, and Shaka sees the other inmates there struggling with huge mental health challenges. He realizes that he needs to change to avoid ending up the same way. He breaks down and confronts all the emotions he's been hiding and all the hurts people have done to him over the years, and he finds a way to forgive other people and himself.

After this, he sets up his life as though he's taking college classes, using the time in solitary confinement to read and write. During this time, he slowly begins to realize who he really wants to be and to move in that direction.

About a year after starting that process of change, Shaka has another key turning point.
His son Jay writes him a letter about the murder Shaka committed. Jay's letter helps Shaka complete the process of accepting responsibility for his past and committing to become a different person in the future. Wanting to be there for his son is one of the biggest motivators for Shaka to change.

After those crucial moments, Shaka still has a lot of prison time to serve, but he grows more and more and finds ways to mentor younger guys. He finds publishing opportunities for some of his writing and plans ways to expand that work when he gets out. He also meets a woman named Ebony who works with an organization that helps inmates stay in touch with people on the outside and grow as people. They start a romance, and Ebony stands by Shaka through the rest of his sentence. Shaka and Ebony are even able to start a publishing company together. (23.6)

Finally, in 2010, Shaka is released from prison. He dives into mentoring and speaking work to try and help other teenagers make better choices than he did as a young man, and he continues writing and publishing. It's often challenging for him to make a living, since many regular jobs won't hire him due to his criminal record. But he perseveres and wins an award and grant from the Knight Foundation for the BMe (Black Male Engagement) program. He and Ebony also have a child together, Sekou, and Shaka is thrilled to have the chance to be an active father.

The book ends with Shaka connecting with innovators at the MIT Media Lab and a design firm called IDEO and collaborating on their efforts to support Detroit with new technologies. Shaka ends with a message of hope that individuals can change, and that society can support that change.

  • Prologue

    • Shaka starts by telling us about a crisis he faced after two years of being in solitary confinement.
    • He's staring into a sheet of steel that serves as his mirror (no real mirrors allowed in prison) and crying.
    • Why? Because this is the moment when he finally decides to confront his whole past—everyone who's hurt him and everyone he's hurt. Not easy stuff.
    • Shaka thinks back to all the people who picked on him in his childhood. Some of them made fun of him because they considered his head to be too large. Others made racist comments about his hair.
    • While the comments still hurt just as much, Shaka tells us he was finally ready to forgive the people who made them.
    • He forgives his mother, who hit him with a belt and often wasn't there when he needed her.
    • He forgives the guy who shot him when he was seventeen.
    • He forgives siblings and homies who abandoned him at the worst moment of his life.
    • Then he starts sobbing like he's never cried before.
    • No wonder. Revisiting your whole past is pretty scary. Especially if that past includes being the victim of abandonment, prejudice, and violence.
    • But Shaka also starts to feel a deep peace, one that's going to last.
    • That's because he finally gets forgiveness. He realizes it's not just about giving up grudges against other people. It's about getting free of his own anger and hurt, and forgiving himself too.
    • Sounds like a good realization.
    • Then—wham. Shaka hits us with a pretty big reveal.
    • He's a murderer.
    • That's why forgiving himself is hard. He doesn't feel like he deserves forgiveness. But he also knows deep down that he won't be able to forgive others if he can't forgive himself.
    • Shaka had read a book by James Allen called As A Man Thinketh, and that book had helped Shaka realize he was responsible for his own feelings of anger and for the way he acted on them.
    • Shaka lets us know it would still be eight more years until he finished the journey of self-discovery that began at this moment.
    • The process would be complete when Shaka finally wrote a letter to the man he had killed, as he was completing a therapy course and applying to be released from prison.
    • Shaka shares the letter with us now.
    • He describes the deep regret he feels and how saying sorry feels like such a small gesture in comparison to the harm he caused. He talks about how, at the time he committed the murder, he confused weakness and strength. He now knows it takes strength to walk away from a conflict, but at the time he thought he had to fight to show strength.
    • In the letter, Shaka also talks about how he had been shot sixteen months before the murder he committed. While Shaka was lucky enough to survive the shooting, he became fearful and paranoid as a result, using anger to cover up his fear.
    • He was carrying a gun on the night of the murder because he thought that was the only way to protect himself from the violence of others.
    • Now, seventeen years later, he knows how wrong it was to shoot his victim that night, but he didn't understand then how much more strength it takes to walk away from a fight than to stay in it.
    • Shaka takes responsibility in the letter for the guilt of killing someone, something he says he wasn't able to do when he was tried for the murder.
    • He pleaded guilty at that time since he knew he had broken the law, but he didn't face up to the full weight of his responsibility.
    • As the letter continues, Shaka says it took about ten years of prison for him to start seeing things differently.
    • The deepest change came a year after that process of realization began. At that time, his eleven-year-old son mailed Shaka a letter saying he knew why Shaka was in prison.
    • Realizing his son viewed him as a murderer really caused Shaka to start rethinking his life and taking responsibility for his actions.
    • Shaka tells his victim how sorry he is and asks for forgiveness in the letter. He imagines the life the victim might have had and wishes he could give back the life he took.
    • Shaka says he knows that apologizing can never give back a life.
    • But Shaka also says he believes in atonement, and he's now giving his life and his talents to try to make amends for the wrong he did.
    • He works with anti-violence groups that help at risk youth. He's also told his own story in the hope that others will be able to make better choices than he did.
    • Shaka says that doesn't change his past actions, but he does want the man he shot to know that his life wasn't in vain.
    • In fact, as the letter continues, Shaka says that it's the victim's godmother, Mrs. Weaver, who first taught him the power of forgiveness.
    • She wrote Shaka after he'd been in prison for about five years. She asked him why he had killed her godson.
    • It was one of the hardest questions Shaka could imagine, but he tried because he knew he owed the family closure. He tried to explain what happened and why in a letter, and he said that he wished more than anything that he could change what happened that night.
    • The victim's godmother actually wrote back, and she said that she forgave Shaka and told him to seek God's forgiveness, too.
    • Shaka listened to her and was able to forgive himself five years later.
    • He now thinks the godmother's response may have been the first thing that really encouraged him to change.
    • Shaka closes by saying he still has work to do in his life, but now he lives with meaning and purpose.
  • Chapter 1

    • Welcome to Section 1—this book is subdivided into sections, and this is the first.
    • The first chapter starts off dramatic. Shaka wakes up to the sound of sirens. Oh, by the way, he's in Wayne County Jail, and it's September 1991.
    • The next thing Shaka does is to talk to Satan.
    • He's actually not talking to the devil, just to a guy everyone calls Satan. The dude's actual name is Gigolo.
    • Anyhow, Satan/Gigolo is one of Shaka's few pals in prison. Friendliness rarely gets you far in prison, so Shaka is only friends with people who have a lot in common with him.
    • Shaka and Satan are trying to figure out why the sirens are going. They're a few cells apart, so they have to yell. Other prisoners start yelling out their opinions too.
    • Turns out that Shaka and Gigolo and a few pals were part of an escape attempt about fifteen days before.
    • Some other prisoner had made a confidential statement about the escape attempt, and even though there was no other evidence against Shaka and his friends, that was enough to get them thrown in solitary confinement for fifteen days.
    • An Internal Affairs officer tried to get the would be escapees to rat each other out, but they wouldn't do it, so Internal Affairs dropped the issue.
    • But an official in the prison still gave them fifteen days of solitary each.
    • Turns out, though, that the sirens mean something much worse than a response to a failed prison break.
    • Deputies start searching the cells in the solitary confinement section. The deputies seem sad, angry, and surprised.
    • One of the few guards the prisoners respect comes to Shaka's cell. This dude understands that prison is horrible, and tries to make it a little better for the prisoners, instead of a little worse (like most of the guards).
    • Shaka asks what happened, and the cool guard tells him that someone killed an officer named Sergeant Dickerson.
    • The prison officials don't think Shaka had anything to do with it, but they're taking extra precautions anyway, which is why they're checking all the cells.
    • Later, Shaka hears the whole story. The prison authorities claim that another prisoner who was trying to escape managed to smuggle a gun into the prison, then tried to use the gun to escape while en route to a court event later in the day.
    • In the following fight, Officer Dickerson was killed.
    • Shaka zooms out big picture and tells us he's only been in Wayne County Jail for six weeks.
    • He was sent there after being arrested and convicted for second-degree murder.
    • Just in the short time he's been in jail, he's seen rape, robbery, and murder.
    • Ominously, he says that was just the beginning of learning about the true nature of violence.
  • Chapter 2

    • Flashback time. Chapter 2 starts with Shaka's arrest six weeks before the events of Chapter 1. It's the second time Shaka has been arrested.
    • He's just turned nineteen, and he's facing a murder charge.
    • Shaka finds out he's going to Wayne County Jail. The place pretty much sounds like The Hunger Games, with everyone out to get everyone else.
    • As he's waiting in a holding pen with a bunch of other prisoners, Shaka wonders how he ended up here.
    • He remembers telling his mother years ago that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. Shaka thinks that he just needs one more chance, and then he could turn his life around.
    • Then we get some backstory. Shaka has thought this before.
    • Once he was sent to juvenile detention for drug possession and felony-level assault.
    • Afterward, he promised his dad he would change, and it worked for a while.
    • Shaka went to a job program in Kentucky, earned his GED, and did carpentry.
    • The trouble was, Shaka kept selling drugs while there. He also managed a loan-sharking ring. Those weren't quite the management skills the program was hoping to teach him.
    • When Shaka got caught, the program sent him home to Michigan on a Greyhound bus.
    • Shaka's father is not thrilled about this development.
    • More backstory: Another time, Shaka took a trip to Ohio. Sounds fine, right?
    • What's not so good is that he went to sell drugs, and his car was chock full of drug profits in cash on the way back.
    • Not to mention the guns in the trunk. When the police pulled Shaka over, he was arrested.
    • He decided to clean up his act after that, but when he succeeded at winning the case and went back to Detroit, he went back to his old patterns.
    • Basically, Shaka was stuck in a bad cycle at that point of his life.
    • If it looked like he might end up in jail, he got scared and resolved to change his ways.
    • But as soon as the threat to his freedom was gone, he went right back to his old patterns.
    • Spoiler alert: Shaka tells us it would take ten years and a whole lot of trouble before he was really ready to change.
    • Why isn't Shaka ready to change? He actually loves living in the streets.
    • He likes the money. He likes the cars. He likes the attention he gets from women.
    • And he likes his reputation—nobody wants to mess with him, because they know he'll shoot if he feels threatened. And that gives him a sense of power and control over his life.
    • Okay, backstory done. Shaka is in the holding pen when he notices some other guy glancing at him.
    • In the highly charged world of prison tensions, that in itself can be a threat. Fortunately, in this case the guy just remembers Shaka, because he lived on the same street as Shaka's sister at one point.
    • They talk for a bit about old times, and Jimmy says he's overheard the officers talking about Shaka.
    • He says the officers are pretty disturbed that someone as young as Shaka did something as violent as he did.
    • Older prisoners start listening in. They're fascinated when Shaka brags that he can beat a murder charge.
    • Shaka says that the attention made him feel like a celebrity, in a weird and twisted way.
    • Eventually, Shaka is transported to Wayne County Jail. He's strip-searched in a humiliating way, and then he has to change into a green prison uniform.
    • The prisoners are allowed to keep their socks and underwear, but the rest of their personal clothing is taken away.
    • Shaka sees this as just the beginning of a long string of things prison does to wear away at someone's sense of their own humanity.
    • The chapter ends with the steel prison doors clanging shut. That, and a reference to Dante's Inferno, a book about a guy who takes a trip through hell.
    • The Ominous Meter should be off the charts right about now.
  • Chapter 3

    • Chapter 3 zooms back to 1986, five years before Shaka's arrest on a murder charge.
    • It opens with someone holding a pistol to Shaka's head.
    • Shaka is just fourteen at the time, and he's terrified when he's attacked by Tiny and Tone. Tiny is addicted to both heroin and crack, and Shaka is terrified.
    • Why?
    • In the streets of mid-80s Detroit, everybody knows that drug addicts will do anything to get their next fix, even murder.
    • As crack got popular in the 80s, the situation worsened in inner cities and violence escalated as crack addicts attacked people for drugs.
    • Shaka is carrying drugs hidden in his underwear, which is why Tiny and Tone are threatening him. He knows they won't hesitate to kill him for the drugs, even though he's just fourteen.
    • Shaka has only been dealing drugs for a few weeks at this point, and he's expecting to die today. He gives the assailants the drugs they want, and they also take the money he has in his pockets. Shaka is expecting Tiny and Tone to shoot him and push his body down the basement stairs. Talk about scary.
    • Luckily, the addicts don't kill Shaka—they just chase him away.
    • As he struggles to make sense of what just happened to him, he makes his way to a Coney Island restaurant nearby.
    • He wants the people there to recognize that he's in trouble and reach out to him, but he's too proud to share his emotions with anyone, especially his fear and sense of shame over the fear.
    • Shaka finds a pay phone and calls his boss, Miko.
    • By this point, Shaka has talked himself into believing that he's just angry, not scared.
    • He won't risk telling any of the other drug dealers that he's afraid.
    • Shaka says he hadn't really thought about the possibility that he might die when he became a drug dealer.
    • He thought about the money he could make, and he hoped he could buy other things with it, like happiness, love, and safety.
    • But he didn't really think about the possibility that he might die or wind up in prison because of the drugs.
    • Miko says he'll meet Shaka at a large white house used as a drug spot.
    • Shaka doesn't like the house because it's a wreck and because the narcotics police are keeping an eye on it. But he goes there and waits for Miko.
    • As Shaka waits on the porch, he thinks back to how he left his mother's house and eventually wound up on the streets dealing drugs.
    • Yep, it's flashback time again.
    • It all started when Shaka's parents began to grow apart. Shaka says his life as a kid was filled with family, food, and great music.
    • Sadly, over time, his parents' marriage began to fall apart. They separated for the first time when Shaka was eleven.
    • Shaka's dad says he will always be his kids' father, but he'll be moving out because things aren't working in the marriage.
    • Shaka experiences his parents' separation as the end of stable, trustworthy family life.
    • Shaka's dad tells Shaka he needs to take on responsibilities like washing the car for his mother, taking care of his younger sisters, and maintaining his honor-roll grades.
    • Shaka and his dad cry, holding onto each other. They pack up things that belong to his dad.
    • Then Shaka's dad makes one of the most important promises of the whole book: Shaka's father says he will always be there for Shaka no matter what.
    • Shaka tells us that his dad has never let him down.
    • When Shaka's dad does move out, Shaka doesn't realize that it's just the start of a lot of ups and downs for his family.
    • His parents try getting back together about a year later, but it doesn't work.
    • Eventually they decide to separate again.
    • This time, Shaka's mother tells him that she can't keep raising him now that he's a young man; she tells him that he'll be better off living with his dad.
    • Though Shaka's mom does seem sad about the situation, and she says she'll love him no matter what happens, Shaka experiences her choice as a deep rejection of him.
    • The pain of that rejection and the ongoing struggles in his parents' marriage leads Shaka to pull away from trusting his parents and listening to them. It's a pretty huge turning point in Shaka's life.
    • Shaka's parents do try to get together again about a year after this. But this is no Parent Trap style happy ending.
    • In the meantime, Shaka's relationship with his mother has really been damaged. Shaka has been living with his dad. Though his father cares about him, Shaka is on his own when his dad is working during the day.
    • Shaka uses this freedom to start smoking cigarettes and to hang out with girls. He definitely isn't interested in living by his mother's strict guidelines.
    • When Shaka moves back in with both parents during their second reconciliation, his mother insists on her rules and Shaka rebels against them whenever he can.
    • His dad tries to support his mom, but basically Shaka has already settled into a belief that if he can avoid caring about anything, he can avoid being hurt.
    • So Shaka isn't interested in changing his life for the better at this point.
    • Shaka's mother reacts with frustration and begins to beat Shaka.
    • One day when he fails to do a chore the way she wants, she slaps him in the face, then makes him undress and hits his back and legs with a belt. When she's done, he has welts.
    • Shaka is going to church with his mother on Sundays, and she promises that Jesus will answer all his prayers.
    • Shaka hopes that prayer will change his mother, but she doesn't seem to treat him any better no matter what he prays.
    • Finally, Shaka decides he's going to leave his mother's house.
    • He's tired of the way she treats him, and he's afraid he'll lose it someday and retaliate by attacking her physically if she doesn't stop.
    • She regularly tells Shaka he can leave if he doesn't believe in her rules, so finally he does.
    • Shaka really wants his mother to worry about him and to come looking for him. But she doesn't do that, so he decides to live on the streets.
  • Chapter 4

    • Chapter 4 jolts readers back to Wayne County Jail in 1991.
    • Shaka's roommate is rolling a cigarette and talking to him. As the roommate's story unfolds, other prisoners start listening in.
    • The roommate tells how one inmate raped another man in the prison that morning. It's the first time most of the prisoners in the room with Shaka have really confronted the fact that rape by other inmates is a huge risk in prison.
    • Not only are the details of the story pretty brutal—the assailant put the guy in a chokehold till he passed out and then raped him while he was unconscious—but nobody did anything to stop it. Both the prisoners and the deputies were too shocked to respond, and besides the unwritten code for prisoners is to mind your own business, even if what's happening is truly awful.
    • This moment really makes Shaka think, unsurprisingly.
    • He makes a promise to himself that he won't come out of prison a worse person than he was at the beginning.
    • He understands the weight of what he's done in selling drugs and committing a murder.
    • But he also promises himself that he will never rape someone or rat other prisoners out to get favors from the guards.
    • But he also says that he was about to learn that being in prison makes it hard to keep the kind of promise he's just made.
    • Shortly after this moment, Shaka is moved to the cell block where he'll stay until being sent to a prison in northern Michigan.
    • He knows he'll have to be tough to survive in the brutal pecking order of prison life.
    • He's with other violent offenders, and he looks around to see if he recognizes any enemies or potential allies from his time on the streets.
    • He feels like everyone is watching him, and he sees two dudes who seem to be at the top of the food chain.
    • When they keep looking at him, he gives them a glare to show that he'll fight back if attacked. But he also looks away to show that he isn't interested in starting anything.
    • This balance is something he's already had to learn on the street in Detroit; he knows how to show people that they shouldn't mess with him, but he's not planning to start a fight over nothing, either.
    • Sadly, it's a crucial survival skill both in prison and in the street environment Shaka is used to.
    • Shaka heads to his cell and has a moment of panic about being in prison. Seems pretty reasonable, given the circumstances.
    • A dude Shaka describes as dark-skinned and bald comes to Shaka's door, and Shaka prepares for a fight in case the guy doesn't like him.
    • To his surprise, the dude just asks if Shaka smokes. Shaka says he does, and it slowly dawns on him that the guy is his roommate.
    • The guy offers Shaka some roll-your-own cigarettes, which is a better start than it might be.
    • When the cell block goes on lockdown for the night, Shaka and the roommate introduce themselves.
    • The roommate goes by "S," and Shaka is going by "Jay" at the time.
    • S and Jay have both faced murder charges, and S has already been sentenced to life in prison, but he still seems hopeful he can get out.
    • They talk late into the night. S gives Shaka a basic education in surviving prison, but he also says that maybe Shaka can win the case and go free.
    • After they talk, Shaka thinks about the trouble he's in and about the life he wants to be living instead. He wants to be a doctor, not someone who kills other people.
    • Shaka thinks about his girlfriend, Brenda, who's four months pregnant with their child.
    • Shaka has a daughter from an earlier relationship, but his ex has kept him out of that child's life. Shaka was very excited about being an involved father to the child Brenda is expecting.
    • Now he's deeply sad as he thinks about the possibility that he won't be there when their child is born.
    • Right before being arrested, Shaka promised Brenda that they would move away from Detroit and start a new life that would be good for their son.
    • But now he's not sure that can happen.
    • Then Shaka thinks about how disappointed and embarrassed his own father is about the arrest. Shaka stopped speaking to his father, mother, and stepmother after the arrest.
    • Shaka felt like he had to bear the consequences of his decisions without their help, since it was his own decision to live on the streets.
    • He didn't understand yet what it's actually like when you're a parent—after years and years he would learn that his father was lying awake at night thinking about him, but he didn't realize it then.
    • Shaka keeps thinking, and his thoughts don't get any happier. Next he thinks about how it felt when he fired the shot that killed his victim.
    • Then he thinks about how the people he saw as friends on the street betrayed him after the murder.
    • His best friend actually turned him in to the police, and others have made statements against him or taken the clothes or money he left behind on the outside.
    • Finally, Shaka thinks about how he's betrayed himself, which is kind of the point where this train of thought hits rock bottom for him.
    • He feels like he never really gave himself the chance to be who he could be. He realizes that a bunch of mentor figures asked him why he was wasting his potential.
    • In fact, the officers who arrested him asked him that. Shaka realizes that in some weird way the arresting officers actually believed in him more than he believed in himself.
    • That's a pretty tough realization for Shaka.
    • At the end of this freight train of tough realizations, the only thing Shaka can get himself to care about is the fact that he's facing a life sentence.
    • As he falls asleep, he just keeps thinking that it can't end this way.
    • Shaka spends a few weeks learning how to survive in prison.
    • It's a scary environment where you need to prove yourself and use whatever resources you can to survive.
    • Violence and money are the only ways to gain the respect of those around you, much like in the tough street environment Shaka had just been part of.
    • Soon, Shaka calls a woman named Georgia he knows from his neighborhood.
    • She helps him talk to his girlfriend Brenda. Shaka says he'll be home before their baby is born. Brenda is upset and says she needs him to be with her now.
    • They talk for a while, and Shaka realizes how much he really does love and care for Brenda. He makes a promise to himself that he'll get out of jail to give her the support she deserves, or die trying.
    • As Shaka walks back to his cell, he's feeling emotionally drained.
    • Another prisoner named Twin overheard the conversation with Brenda and makes a joke about it. Expressing emotion seems like a weakness to the guys in prison, so they hassle Shaka about the emotional conversation with Brenda.
    • Shaka knows Twin is just having fun, but he's annoyed, so he tells Twin to stay out of his business. An older dude named L, who's kind of a mentor figure to the other prisoners, tells Shaka to let it go.
    • L and Shaka talk for a while in Shaka's cell. Then Twin turns up to apologize, and Shaka apologizes for snapping at him. At least that conversation ended okay.
    • Guys in the cell gradually start looking up to Shaka as a leader after this incident, and L keeps giving Shaka advice.
    • Shaka makes another pal, his friend Gigolo. They sit and talk in Shaka's or Twin's cell most days. They take turns looking out of a few spots in the window that let them see the outside world.
    • Twin's girlfriend must really love him, because she stops by this window every day and stands there for a while so Twin can see her and know she's thinking about him. Shaka and Gigolo always move away from the window at that time so Twin can be there for her.
    • Shaka and Gigolo really respect Twin's girlfriend for this, and weirdly this eventually gets them into a physical fight.
    • A new guy starts hanging out with them in Twin's cell. One day they realize he's stolen a picture of Twin's girlfriend and vanished.
    • Twin, Gigolo, and Shaka end up fighting the guy. When a deputy breaks up the fight, they explain what the dude wanted the picture for.
    • The prisoners and deputy all find this funny, and that's the end of it.
    • Life in Wayne County Jail has been slightly better than expected, due to Shaka's friends, but soon an inmate named G gets sentenced to eighty-five years in prison for pretending to be a police officer and robbing some drug dealers.
    • He was hoping for a ten-year sentence, so this is a big jolt.
    • G comes to Shaka, says he knows how they can escape the prison, and shows Shaka a steel pipe he's been hiding.
    • And that's the end of the chapter. For a memoir, this book sure has a lot of cliffhanger moments.
  • Chapter 5

    • The next chapter sure doesn't relieve the suspense at the end of Chapter 4.
    • Instead, it flashes back to the beginning of Shaka's life on the street.
    • He describes how he's feeling hungry and dirty two weeks after leaving his home. He helps a woman load her groceries in her car in the hope that she'll help him get something to eat.
    • She gives him some change and a food stamp worth a dollar. He buys soda, chips, and cookies and eats it quickly.
    • Shaka's realizing that he really wasn't ready to leave home, and he doesn't know how to survive on the street.
    • People in his neighborhood make jokes about him, making him even unhappier.
    • So when a drug dealer named Miko offers Shaka a job selling for him, Shaka takes him up on it. Miko says he'll pay $350 a week and $10 for food on top of that. Shaka has to sit in a known drug pickup spot 24-7, but the money looks pretty attractive, so he signs up.
    • Shaka says he goes by "Pumpkin," a nickname from his aunt. Miko isn't impressed with this. He suggests a new nickname, Jay (Shaka's given name is James).
    • Miko finds out that Shaka hasn't eaten yet, so he buys him something at Burger King.
    • Then Miko takes Shaka to a rundown duplex house that's part of his drug operation.
    • He teaches Shaka the basics of selling "rocks," small units of crack that cost five dollars each. He tells Shaka to keep the bag of rocks in his underwear.
    • He also introduces Shaka to a sawed off shotgun and tells him to shoot it if necessary. Pretty grim stuff.
    • Shaka is taken aback. It hasn't occurred to him that he might shoot people if he's a drug dealer. He doesn't know how crack affects people—he's seen people fight after drinking alcohol or smoking pot, but he doesn't realize he's about to see people become killers because of crack.
    • Then Miko leaves Shaka in charge of his very own drug spot.
    • He has help from a woman named Dee, and Miko says he'll also bring a guy named Tee to be Shaka's partner, but basically Shaka is in charge.
    • Not exactly the kind of summer job his parents were hoping for.
    • Shaka makes his first sale ten minutes after Miko leaves, and he's soon doing a brisk business.
    • After a week, Shaka has made $275, and he's feeling rich.
    • Miko takes him to the mall to spend some of his new dough, and Shaka gets the hottest shoes of the time, a pair of Filas.
    • He's never been able to buy whatever he wants without worrying about money before, so he's pretty excited about the shoes.
    • Miko buys some stuff for him and treats him like a younger brother.
    • Shaka feels like a superstar the next time he walks around his neighborhood. Everyone pays attention to his flashy clothes, and he loves the attention.
    • Shaka keeps raking in the cash, and spending it even faster.
    • He's proud of his money and the things it can buy. But he's also lonely and overcompensating for the lack of love and acceptance he feels.
    • His drug sales partner is older than he is and they don't have much in common, and Dee and her husband are always high.
    • One day a regular customer named John invites Shaka's outfit to sell drugs out of his house. Shaka calls Miko, who congratulates him on coming up with ways to expand their business and promises to reward him if it works out.
    • John actually has a pretty nice brick house. He's lost his job and his family because of his crack habit, but he hasn't lost the house yet.
    • He's desperate, and he says that letting the drug business operate out of his place will let him hold onto the house and the drug habit.
    • The drug dealers see this as a great deal and move in the next week.
    • Quick history fact: it's the beginning of the crack epidemic when all this happens, and at this point Shaka's neighborhood is still one of the better places to be on the East Side of Detroit. Houses still look nice on the outside, but families in the area are starting to struggle with addiction.
    • Miko's operation sets up in John's house, which works out really well for them. Lots of John's friends have steady jobs and crack habits, and Miko is one of the first drug dealers to work in their upscale area.
    • The drugs business is booming.
    • Pretty soon Shaka is sitting in the basement of the house with a sawed off shotgun, watching people do drugs.
    • Since teenaged Shaka doesn't really understand addiction, he finds the crazy things people do while on drugs funny.
    • Though he doesn't notice at the time, he's becoming desensitized to how other people feel. He's also getting a pretty twisted view of adults and authority, since most of the adults he knows are drug addicts or dealers.
    • The drug dealing life is disorienting for Shaka.
    • Money keeps pouring in.
    • He's too young to drive, but he can rent expensive cars in exchange for drugs. He can also get clothes, TV sets, and even handguns.
    • Grown women who are addicts trade sex for drugs, and Shaka starts to lose touch with girls his own age, who aren't ready to do the things drug-addicted women do.
    • Shaka's parents had raised him to respect women, but that goes out the door in the crazy setting of a crack house.
    • Basically, Shaka says that drug dealing wore away at respect and ethics, period. The addicts didn't respect themselves, and it was hard for drug dealers to respect them. Addicts became deceitful, so people working with them grew suspicious.
    • Shaka says the big take home was that crack destroyed people and families, a process he saw over and over again.
    • Miko and Shaka keep having a lot of business success, expanding and making money. But being part of a drug operation means that Shaka is being exploited, even though he doesn't notice it as he keeps making money.
    • He doesn't have any plan for getting out of the life.
    • Shaka's losing his respect for his community and his sense of self. He describes himself as becoming a callous predator.
    • He's not as prone to anger or violence as the dudes he hangs out with at this point, but he says that anger and violence were the only way to survive in the world of drug dealing.
    • He ends the chapter ominously by saying it wouldn't be long before he employed them.
  • Chapter 6

    • The next chapter heading takes us back to Wayne County Jail in August 1991, but the beginning of the chapter is a brief glimmer of hope. Brenda and Shaka embrace outside the jail, in their own home.
    • Bad news. That whole Shaka going home and hugging his girlfriend thing? Dream sequence. He's still in jail.
    • But Shaka doesn't seem too upset. He's happy when he wakes up, because he believes he's really going home soon.
    • He believes that because he's planning a jail break. G, the guy who got sentenced to eighty-five years, is waiting to talk to him. G says Gigolo and Jabo want to be in on the escape. G and Shaka go to talk to them, and the four of them plan to bust out five days later on Sunday.
    • The four of them gather as many sheets as they can find. When Sunday night comes, they slip out to one of the Plexiglas windows and start bashing it with the pipe segment they've been hiding.
    • It makes a lot of noise, and one of the other prisoners starts shouting for them to stop, but they eventually succeed at getting one edge of the window to give.
    • They use the pipe to try and widen the hole. They plan to tie a bunch of sheets together and lower themselves to the ground outside.
    • But when they try to figure it out, someone spots them from the outside.
    • They don't know it yet, but she's a deputy. Not so good for the escape plan.
    • Soon there's a police car with flashing lights pulling up.
    • The guys abandon the escape attempt and decide to head for their cells.
    • Shaka is almost there when he realizes they've left the pipe out in an obvious place. Shaka runs back and throws it out the window.
    • Then he rushes back to his cell and does his best to make it look like he's been there all the time.
    • The deputies rush in and start interrogating the prisoners. They even do a strip search.
    • They threaten to hit the prisoners with flashlights if they don't confess.
    • But the friends who tried to escape aren't giving anything away, and they've actually done a pretty good job of hiding their identities from the other prisoners.
    • The deputies are mad about this, so they tear the prisoners' belongings out of their cells and throw their stuff on the floor in the dayroom, where the broken window is.
    • This actually works out pretty well for the escape crew, because it means that all the prisoners now have broken glass on their stuff.
    • It's impossible to tell who the escape team was with the evidence confused like that.
    • Eventually someone rats the guys out anonymously, probably a fifth prisoner who had planned to go with them but then backed out.
    • Shaka goes back to his bunk, and it sinks in that he's stuck. He's been in denial, but now he starts to realize how bad his situation is.
    • Shaka winds up in solitary for a while, which sounds just as bad as everyone says it is.
    • He's so bored he watches the roaches crawl along.
    • Sometimes he can talk to other prisoners through the bars, and he realizes that most of them come from tough home backgrounds, abuse, and neglect.
    • He starts to realize that they're all a mixture of failure and potential.
    • Just one week later, Shaka receives a sentence of seventeen to forty years in prison.
  • Chapter 7

    • Chapter 7 starts out with a bang, literally. The police are hammering on the front door of the crack house where Shaka works in East Side Detroit. That's right, we're back to Shaka's teenage days as a drug dealer.
    • As you may recall, Miko's drug business has recently leveled up to a much fancier house, courtesy of a guy named John. In exchange for a supply of crack, John lets them use the nice house he bought back when he was living a steady middle class lifestyle, before he became a drug addict.
    • Anyway, the police are trying to knock down the door of the house, so Shaka rushes to hide all the crack.
    • Then John opens the door and eight police officers hurry in with drawn guns.
    • The officers don't have a warrant, and Shaka isn't sure whether they asked John's permission to come in. They say one of the neighbors saw a shooting in the backyard.
    • John tells them that no one has been shot or killed there that evening. This is true. But the police search the house anyway.
    • Unfortunately for Shaka and the other drug dealers, it's pretty clear to the officers that they're running a crack house.
    • Maybe it's the leftover food and booze that give it away, or the way the door is set up with equipment that most drug dealers were using at the time.
    • Or maybe it's all the customers in the basement high on drugs.
    • Anyway, the police figure it out. They aren't too happy about this. Surprise, surprise.
    • The police officers start beating the customers and searching the house and the drug dealers. One of them takes all the money in Lee's pocket, but gives it back when Lee shows him his check stub.
    • As a young white officer searches the drug dealers, he randomly punches Shaka in the nuts with no provocation, then takes all the money out of Shaka's pocket.
    • An older black officer demands to know where the dope is.
    • Shaka, who's on the floor in pain at this point, doesn't really manage to respond aloud.
    • But he tells the reader that this is the moment when he lost his small remaining respect for the police. He's only fourteen, and he says the police had no right to beat up a kid, even if what he was doing was wrong.
    • The police change tactics and ask Shaka where he got the money.
    • He says his uncle gave it to him.
    • The police say he's lying, haul him off the floor, and slam his face into the wall. Then they handcuff Shaka and take him down to the station.
    • No charges result, but the police department does keep the confiscated money as evidence. Shaka's not saying not all police officers are corrupt, but he implies that this event was a pretty unfortunate example of police corruption.
    • He says too many of the police officers he knew as a drug dealer were opportunists looking for an advantage, much like the drug dealers. It's not a great moment for Shaka's trust in authority.
    • The police raid doesn't seem to hurt business at Miko's drug house. The whole drug sales crew is making money.
    • They're addicted to the life of drug dealing, with all the money and excitement. The "excitement" includes lots of alcohol and pot, not the greatest life choices.
    • But it all gets worse when the dealers start lacing the pot with crack.
    • An older guy named Lee gets Shaka started on this, in spite of the fact that Miko has warned Shaka not to smoke crack himself. Shaka may have sold crack before this, but he didn't do it. This is one more step in his downward spiral.
    • Within about a week, Shaka's regularly smoking the crack-laced weed. Pretty soon he's spending more than he's making on his own drug habit. And he's still just fourteen.
    • Things go really bad not long after when Shaka and a pal try to set up on their own selling crack. They steal one of Miko's bags of crack, worth a thousand dollars.
    • But the business end of the plan goes awry when they smoke the crack instead of selling it. Shaka doesn't have anywhere else to go, so he's in his usual neighborhood when Miko comes looking for him.
    • Miko's pretty shocked when he finds out Shaka has been smoking crack. Guess even drug dealers can be surprised by what drugs do to people.
    • But Miko's hired muscle, two guys who are there to intimidate people, aren't surprised.
    • The two guys want to beat Shaka up, and Miko knows he'll lose his street cred if he doesn't let them do it.
    • As the dudes are hauling Shaka into a house to beat him, he begs Miko to relent and promises to work off the money he's just cost Miko.
    • Miko says, "How you gonna work off a sack when you a crackhead?"(7.26)
    • This is kind of the moment when it all sinks in for Shaka. He's even more upset about being called a crackhead than he is about the imminent beating. But he has to admit to himself that he's now an addict.
    • Miko punches Shaka in the face and his hired guys beat Shaka till he's literally lying in a pool of blood.
    • Miko does stop them, but not till Shaka's in pretty bad shape. Miko tells Shaka to stand up and clean himself off, and to wait at the house until they return.
    • Shaka considers trying to shoot them with a rifle he knows is in the house, but he doesn't have the heart to shoot anyone even if he could get to the gun.
    • Shaka decides that it's all his own fault. He knows that he betrayed Miko, and that Miko actually stopped the beating a little sooner than he usually would have. But Shaka also feels betrayed, because he thought of Miko as a big brother, and now Shaka realizes that he's basically just hired help to Miko.
    • This is a pretty tough moment, because Shaka feels like he can't trust anyone. Shaka promises himself that he will kill the next person who physically attacks him.
    • Shaka lurches to the bathroom and inspects the damage. He's worried that Miko and the muscle will come back and kill him, but he hears them leave the house.
    • Shaka thinks about his parents and their belief in God (specifically in Christianity). He wonders how God could let this happen to him, and he curses the blond-haired, blue-eyed version of Jesus he learned about in church. He wonders where his parents are, too.
    • Eventually a woman named Sharon who lives upstairs comes down and finds Shaka. Sharon clearly feels sorry for Shaka. She asks if he's okay, then washes his face with cold water.
    • She also tells him to get out of the drug game and stay away from Miko.
    • Shaka feels ashamed and resentful, but he knows Sharon is 100% right about that.
    • The next day Shaka goes to his sister's house. Her name is Tamica, and she starts to cry when she sees Shaka's injuries. Shaka and Tamica have fought for each other over the years, and she says Shaka can stay with her as long as he needs to.
    • He tells her most of the story, but leaves out the fact that he's been smoking crack-laced marijuana.
    • The ominous just keeps coming. Shaka says this was a chance for him to walk away from drugs, but unfortunately the pathological behavior of drug dealing had gotten into him already.
    • He says it was just days until he headed back to it.
  • Chapter 8

    • Back to, you guessed it, Wayne County Jail. But not for long. Shaka is back to the courtroom in this chapter. He takes a picture of himself and Brenda along.
    • When Shaka is in the holding room near the courtroom, he thinks he recognizes a guy with a long ponytail.
    • Turns out it's Seven, the guy who raped another prisoner back in Chapter 4.
    • Shaka doesn't think Seven looks like the kind of guy who would commit a brutal rape.
    • But there's not too much time to think about it, because Shaka is soon staring at the county judge. Shaka is just nineteen at this point.
    • Shaka's parents, his current girlfriend Brenda, and his ex-girlfriend Nycci have all turned up to support him.
    • Shaka really doesn't have any idea how the sentence will turn out. His lawyer is confident that the judge will be lenient since Shaka is young and is himself a victim of gun violence (he was shot not too long before).
    • In fact, the lawyer is sure that Shaka can get off with ten years or less. Shaka takes his advice and pleads guilty.
    • Shaka is smart, but he's not a lawyer, and he thinks his lawyer has already made a deal to get him a ten year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.
    • So it's an awful surprise when the judge tells Shaka that there's no preexisting agreement in place and Shaka could get any sentence, including life in prison.
    • Shaka is overwhelmed by trying to navigate the complexities of the legal system, so he doesn't try to get extra time or take the case to trial. He pleads guilty on the spot.
    • Shaka apologizes to the victim's family and asks the judge to be lenient. He gets two years for felony firearm possession, and fifteen to forty for second degree murder.
    • While Shaka is reeling from this terrifying news, he winds up back in the holding room and sees Seven luring another guy into a tiny bathroom area inside the holding pen.
    • In addition to overwhelming anger and loss, Shaka feels disgusted that he'll be around guys like Seven for at least the next seventeen years.
    • Shaka is soon transferred to Riverside Correctional Facility in upstate Michigan. All Michigan prisoners under twenty-one got quarantined there.
    • Weirdly, the lawns outside the prison are well-kept. Better kept than lots of the decaying schools in Detroit, in fact.
    • Shaka comments that it took him years to understand the politics behind this, but it seemed as though the state was more willing to invest in prisons than schools.
    • Shaka goes through a similar intake process to the one he's already experienced at Wayne County Jail.
    • Prisoners have to take off their regular clothes and dress in state prison blues. In the meantime, they're forced to stand around naked with a lot of people around.
    • Shaka starts to feel detached from his own body in response to these humiliating circumstances.
    • Then Shaka gets a prisoner number, and is told to remember it the way he remembers his name.
    • Next is a prison orientation. Prisoners are warned that they'll be locked down into their cells or put in solitary confinement if they break rules.
    • The officer in charge of the orientation also warns the prisoners against the following:
    • gambling,
    • borrowing money,
    • gay sex,
    • and basketball.
    • The officer says these (rather different) things are all big sources of conflict in prison.
    • The officer then explains that some people will do easy time in prison, some will make mistakes and bring trouble on themselves, and some won't make it at all.
    • He doesn't explain this scary sounding last idea, but Shaka says it didn't take long to learn what he meant.
    • That night, Shaka stares out the prison window and feels incredibly sad about how he's messed up and about the two children he can't be there for.
    • Shaka starts to pray. He gets angry with God, his parents, his teachers, and everyone else who he thinks has failed him.
    • He feels like no one loved him enough to stop his slide into drugs and violence. He doesn't think about how he's failed himself at this point, something he notes as he looks back at the event.
    • As time goes by, Shaka doesn't make a lot of friends in prison. He feels lonely, but he doesn't want to hang out with guys he sees as fake or as not sharing his values.
    • He also spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to get back to his family.
    • Shaka does connect with his father and Brenda sometimes as he can. He misses home a lot.
    • In Shaka's first call to his dad from prison, his father breaks down and cries. This is really the first moment when Shaka actually knows how deeply he's hurt his dad.
    • His dad does say he'll come and visit Shaka, though, and Brenda and a friend named Georgia are planning to visit as well.
    • When Brenda does visit, Shaka is incredibly excited to see her. Georgia has come along, and they update Shaka on life in his neighborhood.
    • Brenda says she wants to marry Shaka when he gets out. She promises to be there for him always, but Shaka finds himself shutting down his hopes for a long-term relationship with her. He knows deep down that Brenda may not be able to handle the long haul challenges of dating a prisoner.
    • That gut hunch turns out to be true—in fact, this visit is the last time Shaka sees her in his entire time in prison.
    • The next week Shaka's family visits for the second time. His dad, stepmother, stepbrother, two younger sisters, and Brenda all come.
    • But unfortunately there's some sort of problem with Brenda's ID, and she's not allowed to see Shaka.
    • Shaka's family talks with him about how he's doing in prison, and he realizes how much he's failed as a big brother. But Shaka appreciates their visit. In fact, he says it's the only reminder he had at the time of his own humanity.
  • Chapter 9

    • Meanwhile, back in Shaka's teenage years in Detroit, things are not going well. He's living with his sister Tamica, and unfortunately he's discovered that her three-story apartment building is full of drug addicts who are potential clients.
    • He's managed to stop smoking the crack-laced pot, but he's soon selling crack again.
    • Shaka starts buying stuff with his drug gains and gets the attention of neighborhood girls by being generous with his drug money.
    • Tamica lives not far from Palmer Park, a spot known for prostitution and drug use.
    • Middle-aged white men from the suburbs often turn up in the neighborhood looking for drugs and sex, and Shaka and his friends hang out at a local restaurant and laugh at them.
    • But now as he looks back on it, Shaka sees this as one of the sad contradictions of his community at the time.
    • Rich white men could just turn up and pay for sex and drugs, and they rarely got in much trouble for breaking the law, even though they were feeding money into a situation that made urban neighborhoods unsafe for the people who actually lived there.
    • Shaka keeps selling drugs that year. When his two older brothers move to Detroit from Chicago, they work together in the drug trade.
    • Shaka eventually moves in with his brother Alan in their old neighborhood. Alan's girlfriend and the couple's daughter also live there, and their presence makes the house feel like a home to Shaka.
    • But one day when Shaka is hanging out, his neighbor runs down the street crying loudly. The neighbor, a girl who goes by the name Pig, says her cousin Shannon Bell has died from a gunshot.
    • Shaka is startled because he knows Shannon slightly, and now he's dead. Shannon was only fifteen.
    • Detroit is experiencing a lot of violence at the time, so no one is very surprised. But everyone gets worried and tense as they wonder who else will be killed and when.
    • Shaka becomes desensitized to life and convinces himself he doesn't care if he lives or dies.
    • It actually gets even worse than that. Shaka starts to look forward to death.
    • This warped idea gives him some sense of control over his life. He becomes deeply afraid of living, because it just seems too painful when he's constantly afraid of being shot and killed.
    • Shaka starts to believe that it's only a matter of time until he has to choose between killing someone or being killed himself. Looking back now, he wonders how a child could live in his world at the time and not go insane.
    • Eventually, a violent act does happen at Shaka's house.
    • He hears loud noises and looks out the window to see a man pointing a gun at his brother Alan. Alan's girlfriend is also there, with her hands in the air.
    • Shaka runs outside with a pistol and tells the guy to back away. The guy shoves Alan but then leaves. Shaka fires a few shots after him but fortunately misses.
    • Nobody gets hurt, but Shaka gets an adrenaline rush. He's never shot at anyone before.
    • Alan moves to a different neighborhood soon after this incident. Shaka keeps living in the same house, now with an old friend of Alan's and her daughters. The friend tries to take care of Shaka, but she can't stop his dangerous behavior.
    • Shaka's brother Art tells him to move off that street.
    • Shaka decides to clean up his act, and he calls his dad and says he wants to come home.
  • Chapter 10

    • In this chapter, Shaka gets out of quarantine and gets transferred with other prisoners to the Michigan Reformatory.
    • People call it "Gladiator School" because it's just as violent as the Roman Coliseum, where people watched lethal fights for entertainment. Shaka hears that people get stabbed there daily.
    • The guys in the prison van getting transferred are pretty scared, but they cover it up.
    • Shaka and his friends are joking around with the only white guy in the prison van, a dude named Kevin. They like Kevin, who Shaka says is considered one of the few white dudes cool enough to hang out with them.
    • When Shaka arrives at his cell in the Michigan Reformatory, it smells like sewage. There's plenty wrong with the prison facility, including the fact that the plumbing is actually a hundred years old.
    • Flushing a toilet sends the waste to somebody else's toilet, but not necessarily anywhere else. Yuck.
    • It's fall, and the new arrivals go out to the prison yard. The inmates are sizing up the new guys in a predatory way. A few of them manage to walk off with Kevin.
    • His pals from the prison van are really worried about him, but there's nothing they can do to stop it. Shaka doesn't say exactly what happened to Kevin, but we're left to surmise that it was likely rape or some other horrific form of bullying and violence.
    • By that night, Kevin has committed suicide.
    • By breakfast time the next day, Shaka has seen a stabbing, the first one in his prison experience. A guy stabs another prisoner in the neck several times on the walk to breakfast and then drops his shank into a mailbox to get rid of it. He doesn't even look stressed out about it.
    • That night Shaka sits up into the night trying to figure out how to make his own shank, an improvised prison stabbing weapon.
    • He describes how prisoners could make these from items available in the prison.
    • Shaka feels like this prison is totally living up to the Gladiator School name, and he feels like he'll have to participate in the violence to survive.
    • Fortunately, Shaka and most of the guys who came to Michigan Reformatory with him get sent to newer prisons. They don't all end up at the same one, but at least they're out of Gladiator School.
    • Shaka ends up at a prison in Carson City.
    • The good news: it's significantly better than Michigan Reformatory. The buildings are newer and better kept, and feel less like a medieval dungeon.
    • The prisoners actually get exercise and relatively decent food. And the inmates are more hopeful and less violent than the ones at Michigan Reformatory.
    • Unfortunately, a better setting doesn't necessarily mean better treatment from the prison staff. Shaka is still really angry at the system and has trouble adjusting to the prison rules.
    • He's kind of puzzled by the older inmates who ask him to cooperate with prison authorities and seem content as long as they have microwaves and exercise opportunities.
    • Shaka soon meets another prisoner named O'Neal-El. This guy is writing a book of short stories loosely based on his own street experience as a member of a famous drug operation called Young Boys Incorporated.
    • O'Neal-El offers to let Shaka read one of his stories. At the time, Shaka finds it amusing that a prisoner would try to write a book. He's pretty bored, though, so he reads the story.
    • To Shaka's surprise, he loves the story.
    • He keeps reading O'Neal-El's work, and O'Neal-El also gets him started on reading other books in the prison library.
    • This gets Shaka into reading an author named Donald Goines. At this point, Shaka becomes obsessed with reading.
    • Around this time, Shaka is transferred to a new room and gets a roommate who goes by the name Murder. In spite of the guy's menacing name, they get along very well.
    • Apart from reading, Shaka also loves music and uses it as a way of mentally escaping his tough surroundings.
    • Many of the other inmates like to freestyle or perform famous rap songs, so he often goes to listen to them in the dayroom.
    • One of these guys who likes to rap goes by the name DJ X. As he's rapping one time, he says a lot of names like Huey P. Newton, George Jackson, and Malcolm X.
    • Shaka has heard these names in other music, but he really doesn't know who these guys are. When he asks DJ X about them, the guy is really surprised. He tells Shaka to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
    • Shaka does pick up Malcolm X's autobiography.
    • He's seen a few t-shirts with pictures of Malcolm X on them, and he's heard that Spike Lee is making a movie about Malcolm X.
    • But he doesn't know very much about all this except that white people seem to be really upset about the movie, and they also got really upset when someone named a school in Detroit after Malcolm.
    • Shaka gives the book a try, and he says now that reading it was one of the most valuable decisions he's ever made.
    • Malcolm X gets Shaka started on reading with purpose. Shaka becomes passionate about learning through books, and especially about learning Black history.
    • This is completely eye-opening for Shaka, because the Black history he learned in school didn't teach him much about Africa or empowered African Americans.
    • Now he's learning about important African kingdoms in history, like Mali and Ashanti. When Shaka was in school, what he learned there about African American history made him feel like he had to wait for a better future until white people felt sorry enough to change society.
    • Learning that Africans made huge contributions to the world and to human civilization really helps to grow Shaka's sense of self-worth, and he says that studying freedom fighters like Nat Turner and Malcolm X really helped him feel empowered.
    • As Shaka comes alive to the power of Black history, he also starts to have a new take on religion and spirituality.
    • Shaka was raised going to church, but the blond-haired, blue-eyed version of Jesus he learned about at his mother's church didn't seem satisfying to him. He also felt like that church discouraged raising questions or criticism.
    • Shaka did keep praying to Jesus whenever he got into bad trouble.
    • At those times, Shaka says he was more excited about the possibility of getting out of danger than he was about a real relationship with God.
    • But he also says deep down there was a small part of himself that did desire a real connection to God.
    • Reading Malcolm X makes Shaka reconsider the Christianity he grew up with. Malcolm points out the ways that Christianity had been used to try to make Black people passive when faced with the horrors of American slavery.
    • As Shaka explores further, he becomes further disenchanted with Christianity, particularly the white American version that affected his church experience growing up.
    • At the same time, he gets more and more interested in Islam. Malcolm X described Islam as a religion without discrimination, and that gets Shaka interested in joining an Islamic organization in prison.
    • He does some research and decides to visit the Melanics, an Islamic group that Shaka describes as holding a strong Afrocentric ideology.
    • The Melanics turn to both the Quran and the Christian Bible for spiritual inspiration, and they're open to learning from a wide range of religious texts beyond that.
    • Their spiritual advisors try to help people think through their everyday lives in prison, not just ideas about what eternity may be like, and Shaka is attracted to that.
    • Shaka says that in prison there tended to be a negative stigma attached to attending Islamic services—the prison administration wasn't thrilled about prisoners joining in unity around anything, including Islam.
    • Some of the more predatory prisoners also disliked the way the Islamic brotherhoods protected vulnerable members.
    • Shaka thinks hard before going to an Islamic service because of that stigma, but finally he visits the Melanics.
    • When he does go to one of their services, Shaka is really impressed. He's especially moved by a prayer pyramid, where ten of the Melanic brothers move in precise rhythm with each other to honor their ancestors and call out praise to God as Creator.
    • The brothers invite Shaka to come back, and he says he'll consider it. He visits occasionally, but mostly he's staying up until two or three a.m. reading, so he often doesn't want to get up at seven a.m. to prepare for a service.
    • But he does keep building relationships with the brothers as he keeps reading Black history.
    • Shaka sees his spiritual and intellectual growth as one of the most important things that ever happened to him, but he also says that something even more important was happening that winter.
    • By now it's late December, and Brenda is almost ready to have their child. Shaka and Brenda have only been able to talk occasionally, because long distance phone calls cost too much.
    • On January 7, 1992, Shaka calls their friend Georgia and finds out that the baby has arrived.
    • The baby is healthy, and Brenda has named him after Shaka, so all of that is cool. But Shaka is heartbroken knowing he can't be there for his son.
    • He's really worried that his child will also wind up stuck in a cycle of drugs and violence someday.
    • The longer Shaka thinks about this, the angrier he gets. But eventually that emotional turmoil leads him to make a vow to himself: he promises himself he will find a way to be a father, even from prison.
    • The good news as this chapter ends: Shaka makes a commitment to himself to transcend his old self and become a strong, proud African man and father to his children.
    • The bad news: Looking back, he tells us that it would take eight more years before his desperate longing to change would actually become the transformation he wanted.
    • Till then, he says, his desire for something better was in a struggle against his old instincts and emotions.
    • Guess that means there's plenty left to happen in Section Two of the book…
  • Chapter 11

    • Section 2 of the book opens back in 1987 with teenage Shaka in his pre-prison years in Detroit. He's contemplating killing himself.
    • He's in a friend's basement hanging out with new friends and drinking alcohol. He hopes they'll notice his sense of desperation, but they seem to be having a good time.
    • Shaka decides to joke about killing himself instead of telling them seriously that he's in need of help.
    • His friends laugh or blow off Shaka's comment. Although Shaka was often around guns and violence as a teenager, no one around him ever talked about suicide, and he didn't understand depression or the mental health risks he was experiencing.
    • Now he wonders what had happened to all of them back then, why they could laugh off the thought of suicide.
    • But at the time, he didn't know how to cope with his feelings. He and his friends keep drinking for another half hour, and then Shaka heads home to his father's house.
    • Though his dad and stepmom and other family members have tried hard to make a good space for him in the basement of their house, Shaka feels like he doesn't belong in their home.
    • He's also having trouble fitting in at school, and he feels burdened and depressed.
    • As he walks, he decides to commit suicide when he gets home. He has a sawed off shotgun hidden under his mattress, and he plans to use it to end his life.
    • Things are so bad in the world of Shaka's mind that he even smiles as he thinks about how his parents will feel guilty when they find his body.
    • He thinks maybe they'll regret their decision to get divorced, and maybe his mom will regret ignoring him and saying she wished he'd never been born.
    • As Shaka comes into his house, he does feel guilty when he thinks about his stepsister and his nephew, who live there too. He knows they'll be really upset if he goes through with the suicide plan. But he hides those emotions and keeps going into the basement. He doesn't even turn on the lights.
    • Shaka sits in a reclining chair next to his bed and smokes a cigarette, then thinks about life since he's moved into his dad's house.
    • Lots of good things seem to be happening, including a real sibling connection with Shaka's stepsister, some friends in the neighborhood, and a nice home environment.
    • But Shaka has trouble settling into his new home. He can't get over being rejected by his biological mother, and that makes it hard for him to accept the loving home his father and stepmother are trying to give him.
    • Shaka knows his dad is worried about some of Shaka's behavior. His grades aren't as good as they were and he often skips school or gets kicked out.
    • Shaka says that the most troubling thing about this time in his life is that nobody stopped and asked him what was wrong.
    • Much later, his father told him about his own struggles at that time. His dad was coping with being divorced recently.
    • He was also trying to build his new relationship with Shaka's stepmom while, not to mention watching out for his three biological children and three stepchildren.
    • But Shaka doesn't know that at the time, and he continues to brood about his situation, thinking about all the times his mother has beaten him.
    • Once, he tried to show her a good grade on a test and she threw a cast iron pot at his head. Shaka continues thinking miserable thoughts until he feels bold enough to grab the sawed off shotgun.
    • Shaka keeps thinking about his mom's abandonment of him, and then he tries to resent his father for not taking a firmer stand against his mother when she beat him.
    • But Shaka can't really blame his situation on his father. His dad isn't perfect, but he really is a good guy, and he definitely loves Shaka.
    • Shaka knows his father will be heartbroken if he commits suicide, but he plans to go ahead anyway because he feels so terrible.
    • He gets as far as taking the safety off the shotgun.
    • But fortunately, he realizes the sound of the gun would wake his nephew, and after that he can't bear to pull the trigger.
    • Shaka lights another cigarette and then goes upstairs to try and find some prescription medication. He plans to overdose.
    • Shaka actually takes a bunch of pills in an effort to overdose, then goes back to the basement and waits to die. But again, the thought of his nephew helps him.
    • He's afraid his nephew will come down to the basement the next day and find him dead, and Shaka just can't stand that thought. He's starting to feel dizzy from the medication, but he goes to find his stepsister Vanessa.
    • When Shaka tells her what he's done, she gets his dad. Shaka feels cared about, even if he's in desperate straits. He goes back to his room in the basement.
    • Shaka's dad comes down, asks what's wrong, and checks his pulse. After Shaka tells him what he has taken, his dad goes upstairs. Shaka still doesn't know what his dad did during this time (maybe checked to see what the medication was?).
    • Then his dad brings down some coffee and he and Shaka sit and smoke for a while drinking it. Shaka's dad talks to him for about an hour, saying how much he loves Shaka and how he sees how smart Shaka is.
    • Shaka realizes his dad means it. As time goes on, they both realize Shaka will be okay. Luckily, the pills weren't as dangerous as Shaka thought. Shaka's dad sits with him as Shaka drifts off to sleep.
    • Shaka's family doesn't really say anything about his suicide attempt the next day.
    • No one suggests counseling, and his biological mother doesn't get in touch.
    • Shaka does come to the realization he won't try to kill himself again, which is a definite positive. But he still feels terrible emotionally, and he doesn't know what to do with his emotions.
    • Things keep getting worse for Shaka after that. He gets back into selling drugs, has conflict with his dad due to lax school attendance and late hours, and watches his older brothers get sent to prison.
    • After being arrested on a drugs charge, Shaka gets sent to a Job Corps program in Kentucky.
    • The program doesn't sound too bad—it basically teaches trade skills and helps people finish their education. And it's on a campus in the middle of some nice woods and mountains.
    • What's not so awesome is that this is one of Shaka's first full-on encounters with racism. He grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, and his parents encouraged their children to treat all people equally.
    • But someone from the nearby town calls the Jobs Corp and threatens to blow up the building if the African Americans in the program don't leave town.
    • Shaka and his colleagues get evacuated at three a.m., and while they're waiting for the building to be checked out, they see a cross burning in the forest near the campus.
    • But in spite of this awful encounter with racism, the program continues, and Shaka actually is getting something out of it. He gets a GED and also learns how to do carpentry.
    • What's less cool is that he's also back to selling drugs.
    • When a security guard calls Shaka "boy," Shaka has a fight with him. The authorities cut him from the program and stick him on a Greyhound to Detroit.
    • As he rides back on the bus, Shaka thinks about how he's heading right back to his old life, and how disappointed his dad will be.
    • This time, though, Shaka says the consequences of his choices will really land hard. And that will change him permanently.
  • Chapter 12

    • It's May of 1992 at the beginning of this chapter, and Shaka is in Carson City Correctional Facility.
    • Shaka finds himself getting more and more angry after the birth of his son. He says he was coping with guilt for not being there for his son, but he hadn't figured out how to take responsibility yet.
    • Partly as a result of this growing anger, Murder and Shaka plan to rob another prisoner, a middle-aged white guy who sells black market merchandise.
    • Even though that dude is actually pretty much like any of the other prisoners, Shaka says at the time he felt like the guy was in the same category as the guards because he was white.
    • In some weird way, at the time maybe Shaka feels like he'll be getting back at the prison system he hates by robbing this guy.
    • The attempted robbery goes really bad. Instead of a basic theft, they end up with a big fight that the guards have to break up.
    • At the end of it, Murder and Shaka are in trouble for assault.
    • While the guards are dealing with Shaka afterward, one of them almost breaks Shaka's arm by putting pressure on his handcuff, and then hassles him about attacking a white guy.
    • At the end of this Shaka is bleeding.
    • But another of the guards notices the blood and shows genuine concern. He offers Shaka a chance to see a nurse. Shaka calms down at this point and says he's all right.
    • But there's bad news when Shaka is on the way to a cell. One of the other officers says the guy Shaka and Murder attacked is in the hospital, and things are looking bad for them.
    • Subtext: If the guy dies, they'll be facing a murder charge.
    • The officer asks why Shaka is wasting his life, and Shaka doesn't have an answer.
    • He feels like his life is already over, so it can hardly be a worse waste from his perspective.
    • In the cell, Shaka starts to think about what just happened.
    • He knows his dad will be really disappointed if Shaka gets charged with another murder.
    • Shaka also thinks about the weight of what happened—he's not hopeful that he'll ever be free, but he sure doesn't want to have a second death on his conscience.
    • Shaka gets several bad charges, but no murder ones yet.
    • He and Murder get sent back to the Michigan Reformatory within a few days.
    • That's bad: it's the one with lousy, old infrastructure and a particularly desperate population. But that's not the only bad thing.
    • Shaka's put on what they call long term segregation status. It's better known as solitary confinement, or in prison terms, "the hole."
    • Shaka's been in solitary in the past, but never long-term solitary. The stories he's heard about it are pretty horrible. Inmates are sometimes found dead in grisly apparent suicides. There are also stories that officers come by and beat prisoners up.
    • Shaka's not optimistic. He's just hurt an officer and threatened a different one in the fight that got him transferred, so he's worried the officers at Michigan Reformatory will want to get back at him.
    • When Shaka arrives, they stick him in a cellblock called "Graves." It's just as bad as it sounds. The tiny cells have no natural light unless an officer cracks a window, and inmates can't even tell if it's day or night most of the time.
    • At least it's quiet. That's nice. Wait, no, it's not. Shaka later learns it's just quiet because most prisoners sleep all day and then get crazy loud after they're woken up for their final meal of the day.
    • Shaka tries to get some cleaning supplies to improve the dirty cell, but he's told the porters won't bring them until it's time for lunch.
    • Shaka keeps standing up, since he sure doesn't want to sit down on the mattress in the cell before giving it a solid cleanup.
    • It just keeps getting worse. Prisoners in solitary only get about half the food that Shaka is used to getting when he's not in solitary.
    • He also quickly learns that returning a food item to the porters can lead to being punished with "food loaf." Unfortunately, this is just what it sounds like: a hard loaf of mashed food.
    • Shaka also quickly learns that there's another reason he shouldn't throw anything away in solitary. Anything edible can be traded for something he wants more.
    • Shaka eventually gets to clean his mattress, and then he settles down on it for some thinking. He remembers things like kissing Brenda or laughing with friends and thinks about everything he's lost.
    • It's no shocker that thinking back on these things makes Shaka wonder how he ended up here. He says all prisoners sometimes wonder if they're just in a nightmare, but as life in prison drags on it becomes clear that it's all too real.
    • Then he says that things were about to get more real than he'd ever imagined.
    • Shaka listens in on the conversations the other prisoners in solitary have at night. They talk about politics and religion, and they tell stories about their lives. These stories sound a lot like Shaka's, even when the other dudes are from a different city than Detroit.
    • Shaka gets bored after a while, so he writes some letters.
    • Sounds like no big deal, but it turns out to be a huge moment for Shaka. He realizes that when he's writing, he feels free.
    • Through writing, he can travel to all the places he's not allowed to go and reach out to the people he's far away from. Major epiphany moment right here, folks.
    • At midnight, the lights go out and Shaka hopes he can get to sleep. Nope. Turns out in solitary the other guys like to spend the whole night making loud noises, keeping everyone awake, and shouting racial epithets and homophobic remarks.
    • If that weren't bad enough, some of the dudes even stuff sheets into their toilets and flush them over and over until the water floods the cell block.
    • People have also figured out how to set trash and sheets on fire, and they throw them out of their cells.
    • Eventually Shaka does figure out how to get some sleep in this bizarre environment, just about in time for another change in his status.
    • The authorities are still trying to figure out how to punish him for assaulting an officer at the Carson City prison when Shaka gets sent back to the county jail for an appeal hearing on his initial charges.
    • He ends up being sent to the Maximum Security Facility at Standish, which he describes as a new level of hell.
    • Oh great. Because solitary sounded so nice before that.
  • Chapter 13

    • Wow. That last chapter was pretty grim.
    • Good news: in this one, we get to revisit Detroit in 1990, while Shaka was free.
    • Bad news: this chapter is pretty much traumatizing for him, too.
    • It starts with Shaka's dad picking him up from the Greyhound station after Shaka gets sent home from the Job Corps program in Kentucky. Shaka's dad is pretty disappointed that Shaka got kicked out of the program, and he's not very sympathetic to Shaka's point that the security guard he fought with spoke to him disrespectfully.
    • He tells Shaka, "There is never an excuse to allow someone's words to stand in the way of your success."(13.1)
    • Shaka and his dad have a misunderstanding here.
    • Shaka wants to explain that he encountered intense racial prejudice for the first time in Kentucky, and he felt like he was standing up for other Black people by fighting with the security guard.
    • But what Shaka hadn't thought about was how his dad's early experiences might shape his response to the incident.
    • Shaka's father grew up in the sixties and seventies, a time when racial tensions were high in a lot of parts of America, and he'd signed up for the military when he was seventeen.
    • He'd experienced a lot of even tougher stuff than the prejudice Shaka faced in Kentucky, so he basically tells Shaka he should have been able to cope with it and find a way to succeed anyway. At this point in Shaka's life, he just can't understand why his dad isn't angrier about the racism Shaka has experienced. And his dad can't understand why Shaka didn't shrug it off and work around it.
    • But Shaka is glad to be home. He starts hanging out with a lot of his old friends.
    • Unfortunately, he also starts selling drugs again part-time. His friends Mack and Coop are selling cocaine on the same block, but they don't mind if Shaka sells a little too.
    • But one night things go really bad.
    • Shaka's sleeping on the couch at his sister Tamica's house when Coop wakes him up at two in the morning.
    • Coop is out of drugs but has a customer, so he asks Shaka for a few of his rocks.
    • Shaka gives him a bag and asks Coop to come by and tap on the window when he's done selling.
    • Shaka starts to go back to sleep, but then he hears someone screaming his name. He eventually realizes that Coop's baby's mother is shouting to him from across the street.
    • Pretty soon Coop rushes through his mom's front door with a gun.
    • As Shaka crosses the street toward the house where Coop is, Coop is shouting that someone tried to rob him. Shaka is still trying to figure out what's going on, until he walks into the house and sees a guy lying on the living room floor.
    • The guy is bleeding like crazy, and he says he's dying.
    • Coop shouts that he's planning to shoot the guy in the head. He claims the guy threatened to kill his entire family.
    • Shaka gets Coop to settle down enough to explain what happened.
    • The guy lying on the floor was a customer who had come to buy drugs from Coop earlier in the day. Then the guy had come back for more, and that's when Coop went to get a few rocks from Shaka.
    • When Coop got back to the house, the guy threatened him with a gun and also threatened to kill everyone in the house unless Coop showed him where the whole drug stash was.
    • Coop's daughter, mother, sister, and daughter's mother were all in the house, so Coop was terrified for their safety. He fought back, managed to get the gun, and shot the attacker in the chest.
    • Shaka thinks they should get Coop's mother to report the robbery attempt, and he says that will keep Coop from being charged with anything.
    • Coop was acting in self-defense, not to mention the defense of his family, after all.
    • But Coop is too panicked to think straight, and he wants to stick the body in the backyard of an empty house near Tamica's place.
    • Shaka tries to convince him that's a bad idea, but it doesn't work, and at the time Shaka says he didn't have the courage to insist on the right thing.
    • Once they get the body to the vacant lot, Coop actually fires more shots into the dead body. Shaka thinks Coop was covering up his fear and vulnerability by acting tough.
    • When the police do investigate, it's obvious to them that the body has been moved across the street. They say no charges would have been filed if the body hadn't been moved out of the house.
    • Eventually Coop gets five years in prison for what happened.
    • Before he goes to prison, Coop tells his brother Boe that Shaka would make a good employee in Boe's drug operation.
    • Coop and Boe click with each other and work together. The neighbors love them, for the most part, and they're very popular with the girls on their street.
    • But things are about to get much worse than they've ever been for Shaka.
    • Shaka has a misunderstanding with an ex-girlfriend who hasn't been honest with him, and he says some harsh things to her.
    • Two days later her new boyfriend comes by and gives Shaka a hard time about it. Shaka escalates the conflict and encourages the dude to fight.
    • But what Shaka doesn't know is that the guy isn't looking for a fistfight.
    • The guy pulls a gun and fires on Shaka, who is unarmed. He hits Shaka two times in the leg and once in the foot as Shaka runs for cover.
    • When Shaka gets to safety, he's overwhelmed by fear, loneliness, and anger. He can't understand why the guy tried to kill him.
    • His sister Tamica finds Shaka and takes care of him at her house. He's so upset that he tries to grab a gun and get revenge, but fortunately Tamica and Coop's mother calm him down.
    • No ambulance arrives for Shaka after a call to 911, which unfortunately is pretty standard in his neighborhood. Boe eventually takes him to the hospital.
    • At the hospital, Shaka almost feels like he's being cared for by robots.
    • It's sad, but in Detroit at the time it was no surprise to see a kid who'd been shot in the ER. The hospital staff do their jobs, but they don't get emotionally involved.
    • If the hospital workers seem stoic, the police officers who come by later are even more focused on work.
    • They ask a ton of questions and are pretty confrontational even with Shaka, who's the victim of the shooting.
    • Shaka says he doesn't know who the shooter was. That's because in his neighborhood there's a code that nobody tells the police about someone else in the community.
    • The police can tell Shaka is lying. They aren't too happy about it. One of them gets really mad, blames Shaka for getting shot, and calls him a bunch of names, mainly racial slurs.
    • Shaka says he felt victimized all over again, especially since the police officer didn't seem to care at all about his injuries.
    • Finally, a doctor turns up to treat the wounds. Shaka is hoping that he can tell the doctor about his fears and needs.
    • But the doctor doesn't say much to Shaka. He pretty much just digs the bullet out with needle-nosed pliers.
    • Oh yeah, a few bits of Shaka's flesh and bone come out with it. Bedside manner is definitely not this doc's strength.
    • Shaka goes to sleep after the procedure and wakes up to find his father, stepmother, and mother nearby.
    • Shaka's family is obviously concerned about him. But they're traumatized by it all too, and they don't really know how to help him.
    • In fact, nobody knows how to help Shaka.
    • Nobody offers him counseling or knows how to help him make sense of what he's feeling.
    • No one warns him that he'll become paranoid if he doesn't find a way to deal with his fear.
    • He doesn't even get a hug from anybody.
    • The only way Shaka knows to deal with all this trauma is to become angry, and to try and protect himself by carrying a gun everywhere.
    • He closes the chapter with one scary line: "Fourteen months later, I would be the one pulling the trigger." (13.42)
  • Chapter 14

    • To make this chapter a little easier to follow, we're giving you some up front details:
    • Setting: Standish Maximum Correctional Facility
    • Standish, Michigan
    • When: 1992, one year into Shaka's prison sentence (he's twenty)
    • Shaka adjusts to Maximum Security. Officers have tons of power, prisoners are locked down most of the time with even less freedom than in Shaka's previous prison experience.
    • How tough is it?
    • Shaka is even put in a restraint arrangement that's kind of like a leash.
    • And the window shutter on his cell door has to stay closed most of the time.
    • Shaka feels really alone for first time in his prison experience.
    • At least Shaka's neighbor across the hall slips him a note and some magazines.
    • This neighbor is in because he cut up the face of someone who owed him.
    • But the guy seems cool and mild-mannered, so Shaka attributes this to the general brutality of prison and how it messes people up.
    • There is one bright spot to where Shaka is now: the library is good, and Shaka starts enjoying Stephen King and Roots and Terry McMillan.
    • The not so bright spot: Shaka becomes more aware of the psychological disorders that many inmates struggle with. Budget cuts have pushed these people into prison instead of clinics, and now they have to cope with mental illness and prison.
    • Shaka is surrounded by people who are seriously disturbed.
    • Related incident: Shaka is nice to a dude called Reed and shares half his food with the guy for two weeks. At the end of it, the dude insults him.
    • It seems likely Reed is struggling with mental health issues.
    • Shaka plans to stab the guy so other prisoners won't get the message they can disrespect him. Prison is a tough place.
    • But the guy never gets out of the hole into general population.
    • Turns out some prisoners stay in solitary to protect themselves. Whenever they might get out, they break a new rule and stay in.
    • This has got be one of the bleaker ways to game the system, but there you go.
    • Finally Shaka gets out of solitary, after almost a year.
    • Here's a quick rundown of some of the stuff that he comments on:
    • Afterward, he actually has trouble adjusting to walking without handcuffs/shackles.
    • He feels lonely and doesn't have much to do: no radio or tape player.
    • Lack of money from family and friends means no TV.
    • No TV means Shaka is bored and can't participate in conversations about TV.
    • Worse, this makes Shaka feel like family and friends aren't supporting him, since they haven't sent money.
    • The next day Shaka meets somebody he knows called Day Day.
    • Day Day sends him some chips and candy and offers to help if Shaka needs something else. Day Day also introduces Shaka to the Melanic brothers locally.
    • Shaka officially joined the Melanics in Carson City, and he likes the other Melanic brothers, but he also has trouble fitting in. Lots of them are older than he is.
    • Shaka tries playing on the basketball team with Day Day and friends from the Melanics.
    • Turns out basketball here is pretty cutthroat.
    • Unfortunately, we mean that literally. Lots of people use it to prove they can win at something after being told again and again that they're losers.
    • It can get really violent, and nonfatal stabbings often result.
    • Sometimes it's even worse, and murder and riot are real risks.
    • This leads to a big conflict. KO (another Melanic Brother) shouts at a member of another Islamic group who's refereeing and it looks like a hands-on fight is going to start.
    • Shaka prepares to fight. Fortunately the fight doesn't actually happen, but Shaka later finds out the guy he was going to challenge used to be a hit man.
    • The other guys are impressed that Shaka was willing to stand up to him. That's good for Shaka's reputation, but he decides one season of basketball is enough.
    • He's worried that the tensions involved in basketball and the way KO picks fights will get him in trouble, and he's got no desire to go back to solitary.
    • Shaka gets transferred to another unit and finds some community and learns awesome stuff with the Melanic brothers.
    • Shaka grows in appreciation of African contributions to world, and his African heritage.
    • He learns from Baruti, an older guy who becomes a wise mentor figure.
    • Shaka also finds community by reading Black authors with the Melanic brothers.
    • But there were some less positive things Shaka did or learned in the Melanics, as cool as they were in many ways.
    • Unfortunately, they also taught him more about organized violence in prison environment. Organizations like the Melanics may be seen as soft and easy to target if they don't organize to get revenge on people who insult their members.
    • When somebody hassles a Melanic and Shaka gets involved in the retaliation, Baruti tries to stop him with wise advice.
    • Shaka helps out with the retaliation operation anyway and is wildly successful at getting revenge. Unsurprisingly, things like this lead to Shaka being conflicted about the Melanics: The group does all these great things for him and other members, but also pulls him into violence in some cases.
    • Shaka moves back to Michigan Reformatory after a year at Standish.
    • Time for some spoilers:
    • Spoiler 1: Shaka's going to be forever connected to Baruti, and will meet his son at Michigan Reformatory.
    • Spoiler 2: This time at Michigan Reformatory is going to be the thing that really transforms Shaka.
    • Spoiler 3: It's gonna get pretty bad before that awesome transformation occurs.
    • A few important things happen here once Shaka does transfer back to Michigan Reformatory:
    • Shaka Meets Baruti's son Yusef, and they become friends.
    • Shaka works to bring different groups in the prison together and cut down on violence among them, and is pretty successful at it.
    • Shaka gets a key visit from family including his son, now two years old.
    • Shaka notes that he and Brenda have broken up by now.
    • The family visit is deeply moving and challenging.
    • It takes Shaka's son a while to warm up to him.
    • Shaka feels horrible that his son has to leave and he can't go along.
    • Shaka has to endure a standard strip search after this emotionally wrenching separation.
    • What happens, you ask?
    • Shaka had been trying to settle down and just focus on getting through his imprisonment when his son comes to visit, but afterward he's really angry in the wake of seeing his son and realizing he's cut off from helping him.
    • Shaka takes out his anger with violence against other prisoners.
    • He reflects at the end of this chapter how much he regrets taking out his anger on other guys around him, particularly other Black guys who are suffering from the same problematic results of racism and systemic injustice that Shaka is.
    • He says he was full of self hate and his actions didn't live up the man he was trying to become. (14.66)
  • Chapter 15

    • Here are more details, right up front:
    • Starting location: Brightmoor, West Side Detroit
    • Time: March 1990
    • Shaka comes back from the hospital after getting shot—he's reasonably okay physically, but deeply traumatized emotionally.
    • He's completely lost his innocence now, and he starts carrying a gun everywhere.
    • Seriously, he even takes the gun along on bathroom breaks. That's how obsessed he is. And he's ready to use it if a situation gets even a little bit confrontational.
    • Shaka does a brief stint zipping from Detroit to Ohio frequently to sell drugs.
    • He's making double or triple what he'd make in Detroit, so this is financially profitable.
    • But—surprise—the local drug dealers in Ohio don't like having competition.
    • It becomes obvious to Shaka's team that they can't win a long-term fight over clients on someone else's turf, so they give up and focus on local business back in Detroit.
    • Business is slow for a while.
    • Then Shaka meets a girl. That's nice, right? Except that they meet when she asks to borrow a pistol, and pretty soon they're dealing crack as a team.
    • Turns out, this girl is Brenda, so we already know she and Shaka will later have a child together. Shaka likes Brenda a lot.
    • Brenda turns out to be the kind of big sister who would do anything for her siblings.
    • But in the rocky environment she's grown up in, that means dealing drugs and fighting dangerous people.
    • Shaka and Brenda are both pretty hurt from dysfunctional aspects of their home lives, not to mention the drugs and violence dominating their neighborhoods.
    • So it's not a surprise that their relationship has a lot of ups and downs.
    • They start living together and dealing crack from their house.
    • It's probably clear that dealing drugs isn't great for a relationship or a healthy lifestyle. Shaka says it was also a bust financially. Brenda and Shaka are basically risking their lives for about the same money they'd get working at McDonald's.
    • In a few months, they do start making some more money when they begin working with the guy who's dating Brenda's cousin.
    • They also discover Brenda's pregnant, making the extra dough especially attractive.
    • Brenda and Shaka also start planning to leave the drugs business behind so they can give their child a better life. They really do want that, but they really don't know how to get out.
    • No lie, the ending of this chapter's a bit of a downer, with Shaka saying the desperate cycle they're in will soon claim him for good.
  • Chapter 16

    • Where we start: Michigan Reformatory, Ionia in—you guessed it—Michigan.
    • When: 1994
    • Shaka's back in solitary. At least this time he knows what it's like. He sleeps in the morning when it's quiet and reads late at night while the other people there make tons of noise.
    • Shaka's dad comes to see him and gives him some news from home. His younger sisters are growing up.
    • Brenda is trying hard to raise Jay, the son she and Shaka have together. And Jay is growing up without Shaka.
    • Shaka is depressed by all this.
    • After six months or so, Shaka manages to get back out of solitary. He keeps growing spiritually with his Islamic brothers, and he becomes a spiritual advisor.
    • That means he gives talks at services and becomes a counselor for others. He's also in charge of communicating with other religious groups in the prison.
    • Shaka uses his new spiritual advisor position to advocate for better education methods in his brotherhood, writing study guides to help other guys understand what they're learning.
    • He also gets them reading more revolutionary literature.
    • Shaka also gets a job in the rec center, which turns out to be where lots of the shady deals go down.
    • He uses this position to make it easier to coordinate revenge strikes by the brotherhood.
    • But Shaka's getting tired of retaliating when other groups do something. He doesn't like the tension of telling everyone that white supremacy is the problem, but then coordinating attacks on other Black inmates.
    • Not surprisingly, this stresses Shaka out a lot. He starts to rethink his life, but he also doesn't know how to get out of the cycle.
    • Then something new happens, and it does change Shaka's life. He writes an article for the prison newspaper. It's about his sister's struggle with drugs and his emotional response to it.
    • Shaka's supervisor is so impressed he takes it home for his wife, a magazine editor, to read. She thinks Shaka has a future as a writer.
    • This is news to Shaka, so he's pretty excited.
    • In fact, this is the first time Shaka's gotten a compliment that doesn't have to do with violence in a long time.
    • And it's a game changer for him. He feels like he can be talented at something other than harming others or selling drugs.
    • And another good thing starts happening. Shaka gets a rep for being fair and a diplomatic negotiator among the other inmates.
    • He might be in prison, but he's learning key skills and he's actually making the situation better for other guys.
    • But new tensions start up between a couple of the inmate organizations and the prison officers. As they escalate, the officers set up some of the organization leaders.
    • Eventually one of the officers gets Shaka transferred to Carson City Correctional Facility.
    • Shaka just keeps getting transferred around for three years.
    • The prisons themselves are nicer than they might be—they look like recreational centers. But one of them, Gus Harrison Correctional in Adrian, has more racial tension between inmates and guards than Shaka is used to.
    • Shaka does keep connecting with the Melanic brothers at each place, and he keeps working to educate younger guys and build healthier relationships between organizations.
    • When he's at Adrian, Shaka hits the halfway mark on the low end of his sentence. Halfway is eight years.
    • His dad, son, and stepmom come to see him and his dad congratulates him on working to stay out of trouble.
    • The good news as this chapter wraps up? Shaka says he was going to find light at the end of the tunnel.
    • The bad news? He says that didn't happen right away.
    • Instead, he got sent to Muskegon, where he faced a test of everything he'd learn.
    • A test he says he's going to fail.
    • Well, at least we know not to get our hopes up.
  • Chapter 17

    • Where: Brightmoor, West Side Detroit
    • When: 1991
    • This chapter starts with Shaka getting asked to DJ a party. He's super excited about the chance to be creative musically, and he's having a great time.
    • When some pals turn up and invite him to drink with them, he hands off his DJ duties and joins them. He and Brenda start dancing together.
    • They're loving it, until the gunshots start. Shaka draws his gun and tells the people in his crew to come with him to the front of the house.
    • Someone tells them that a guy called Derrick shot somebody else in the chest. This is bad, for a bunch of reasons beyond the obvious one.
    • Derrick is part of Shaka's crew, which means it's possible that someone will come after Shaka and his other pals to try and get revenge on Derrick.
    • Nobody can find Derrick, so they can't ask him exactly what happened.
    • Shaka decides that he and Brenda should go back to their own house. Shaka is "paranoid" (his word) that something terrible will happen on the short walk back. (17.7)
    • A Jeep pulls up, and Shaka has his finger on the trigger of his gun. The gun is in his pocket, but Shaka plans to shoot through his jeans if the situation gets sticky.
    • Turns out, the driver just wants directions. Whew.
    • But as Brenda and Shaka are opening the door to their house a few minutes later, a white car stops there.
    • Shaka is really worried that someone in the car may be out to get them. But it turns out to be a customer he really likes, a guy named Tom.
    • Tom is a white guy who lives in the suburbs, but he's popular with Shaka because he talks like someone from the 'hood and spends a lot of money on drugs.
    • Shaka calms down a bit. He suggests that Brenda go into the house, then he and his friend Mark go over to the car.
    • But when they get there, Shaka gets really nervous.
    • Two white guys he doesn't know are in the front of the car, and Tom's in the back with a huge amount of money.
    • It feels like a police setup to Shaka, and he and Tom end up arguing with each other.
    • Eventually, Shaka says they've got five minutes to leave before something bad happens.
    • One of Tom's friends starts arguing with Shaka and won't back down.
    • As they fight verbally, the guy leans forward and Shaka thinks he's going to leap out of the car. Shaka draws his gun.
    • Mark talks Shaka into leaving the argument and heading toward the house.
    • But then Tom's friend does open the car door. Shaka kind of panics, remembering when he got shot. Then he fires at the car a few times.
    • As the car races away, everything sinks in for Shaka.
    • Even though he didn't really see where his shots went, somehow he knows deep down that the guy he shot is dead.
    • Shaka goes back into the house, and everyone looks at him like they know the guy is dead too. He and Brenda decide to lock the house and stay with her cousin that night.
    • At her cousin's house, Shaka tells Brenda that he knows he killed the guy he shot. She breaks down and cries as they realize the consequences of their lives are catching up with them.
    • It's even worse because they know Brenda is expecting their child, and Shaka may not be around to care for his son.
    • A detective comes to arrest Shaka the next day, and Shaka learns that pretty much every friend he trusted has made an incriminating statement to the police about him.
    • Shaka expected those friends to honor the street code of not talking to the police, and he's bitter for years about their betrayal.
    • But looking back, Shaka says he wasn't in much of a position to judge right and wrong at that moment.
    • He says he was a fool at that time, and he had been for quite a while. He'd been gambling his future by living the lifestyle he'd chosen, and now he was out of luck.
  • Chapter 18

    • Where: Muskegon Correctional Facility
    • Muskegon, Michigan
    • When: 1999
    • It's summer. Shaka has just been transferred to Muskegon Correctional Facility.
    • Upside: Muskegon is considered the best prison to be in. Prisoners can even ride a bike or play golf there.
    • Downside: It's also one of the riskiest prisons to be in. People feel secure because of the nice environment and forget all the dangers of prison life until one creeps up on them.
    • Shaka gets into his by now normal routine, and things seem to be going pretty well. He works out. He studies. He builds community with the people in the prison. He also starts taking a class on being an automotive tech.
    • Things keep going well for a while. The Melanic Brotherhood holds their Day of Remembrance. This is a yearly ceremony to honor Africans who died or were enslaved during the Transatlantic slave trade. Shaka gives a speech about Nat Turner.
    • Some younger Melanic brothers find Shaka after the speech and say how much they respect his approach. They want to learn from him.
    • Shaka is still feeling ambivalent about being in an organization like the Melanic Brotherhood because of the challenges, like disagreeing with some brothers who Shaka describes as having a "might makes right" mindset. (18.7)
    • But the chance to mentor the younger brothers makes Shaka excited about being involved here.
    • Things are going pretty well by the time fall arrives.
    • Shaka is growing as a person, he's getting closer to freedom, and he's becoming the kind of leader he wants to be, inspired by his explorations of African history.
    • But in October, Shaka faces a huge test.
    • One day, after a pretty regular morning, Shaka is heading back after his automotive tech class. He really, really has to visit the bathroom.
    • Okay, why is this a problem? Because a siren goes off, and Shaka realizes that means everyone has to rush back to their own cell for a monthly count the prison authorities do.
    • There are no toilets in the cells, so Shaka has to rush to get to the bathroom and back before the count begins.
    • Bad news. When Shaka gets to the bathroom, the officer stationed there is a guy who doesn't like him.
    • Shaka and the officer had recently had a debate about prison policy.
    • Shaka was right, but the officer was annoyed and has been out to get him since then.
    • The dude won't let Shaka into the bathroom, although other prisoners are still going in.
    • Shaka knows he's down to only two options:
    • 1) get in minor trouble for disobeying a direct order, or
    • 2) do what the officer says and wind up urinating in his cell. Shaka feels like Option 2 would insult his dignity.
    • He brushes past the officer to use the bathroom.
    • Things get worse from there. The officer accuses him of an assault on staff.
    • This is just plain false. Shaka did ignore what the officer said, but he didn't assault the guy.
    • Shaka does manage to use the bathroom, but the officer won't let him leave.
    • The guy actually plants himself in the doorway so Shaka can't get out.
    • The officer demands to have Shaka's ID as Shaka is leaving. Shaka tries to stay calm and says it's back in his cell.
    • Things just keep escalating, with the officer bullying Shaka about the ID over and over. Shaka really doesn't have the ID with him, but the officer seems to be having fun hassling him about it.
    • There are still a few other inmates around, and they make a plea to the guy to let Shaka out, but he doesn't listen.
    • In fact, the officer just keeps ratcheting up the tension. He threatens not to let Shaka out until Shaka comes up with an ID—even though that's genuinely impossible.
    • Meanwhile, Shaka is getting more and more upset. He gets more and more stressed, and the frustration from years of being mistreated by guards builds up.
    • He starts thinking about all the horrific violence Black people in America have endured, including rape and lynching.
    • It all builds up until Shaka finally does attack the officer.
    • In the rush of the moment, Shaka actually feels like it's better to die or be in prison forever than it is to have his dignity attacked.
    • Eventually other officers manage to handcuff Shaka and take him to solitary. The guard he attacked is now unconscious.
    • As Shaka is hauled off to solitary, he's shocked to see the way the other prisoners look at him. They seem to be judging him, not the officer, even though they had disagreed with the officer earlier in the confrontation.
    • He says their judgment was worse than anything the government could do to him.
    • Then Shaka is locked up. In solitary. For four and a half years.
  • Chapter 19

    • Where it starts: Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee, Michigan
    • When: October 1999
    • Shaka is transferred, again.
    • When he gets to Oaks Correctional Facility, the officers have to do a complex procedure to switch the handcuffs and shackles Shaka is wearing.
    • In the midst of this procedure, they discover that the officer at Muskegon had put the shackles on upside down. The officers try some things to get the switch to work and hurt Shaka in the process.
    • Then one officer actually kicks the shackles—while Shaka is wearing them. This hurts Shaka, and he threatens to put the officer in the hospital if the officer kicks him again.
    • The officer stops kicking Shaka, but is also upset with him.
    • As the guards are strip-searching Shaka and taking him to a temporary cell, he can tell they're terrified. At the time, this makes him laugh inside.
    • Shaka's first few days in Oaks feel pretty weird to him. People keep coming by to gawk at him because of what he did in the last place, and rumors about how dangerous he is spread all over the prison.
    • Shaka says that neither he nor the officers who came by to stare at him could have predicted how their views of each other would change.
    • He also says he was about to experience a huge transformation.
    • But first, he'd experience something like hell on earth. Oh great.
    • The next section starts out with a description of solitary at this prison. It smells awful. The beds are concrete—and unfortunately, that's not a metaphor. They have a steel toilet and sink, too, but that's it for furniture.
    • Prisoners do have footlockers, but they use them to make horrific clanging noises that wake Shaka up when he'd rather be sleeping.
    • At least Shaka gets to go outside. But it's only for an hour a day, and it's literally in a cage. Shaka says it was like a dog kennel.
    • The other guys in solitary play chess by calling out moves from their cells. Shaka finds this cool, but quiet interludes like that weren't the main experience.
    • In spite of being stuck in individual cells, the guys in solitary actually have arguments over everything from religion to gambling debts.
    • Turns out, chess games are a major gambling scene in solitary confinement. People bet using toiletries and stamped envelopes instead of money.
    • Even though they can't physically fight with each other (they're in different cells), the inmates sure find ways to make their displeasure known.
    • Unfortunately one of the main methods revolves around firing feces at each other.
    • Shaka managed to stay out of these fights, but he couldn't avoid having them happen nearby. Sleep deprivation via noise is another method, obviously one that bothers everybody nearby and not just the individual target.
    • Shaka says it was terrifying how psychologically disturbed others on the floor seemed to be.
    • He says the isolation of solitary is damaging to humans at the deepest level, and he tells some pretty chilling stories to prove this point.
    • Then he reminds us that he had no idea when he'd get to leave solitary.
    • About two years into this time of solitary confinement, Shaka knew he'd have to change or end up like the seriously disturbed people all around him.
    • At this point he has the breakdown he describes at the beginning of Writing My Wrongs and forgives the people he's been holding grudges against.
    • At this point, Shaka really wants to stop hurting other people and himself. He sees how destructive his anger is.
    • But he really doesn't know where to find help. The prison guards don't have much investment, and most of the other prisoners in solitary aren't able to help.
    • So Shaka starts trying to change on his own.
    • He designs classes just for himself and works through them using books from the library. And they're heavy duty: he covers psychology, religion, political science, and African history, to name a few. He even gives himself tests.
    • More even than the amazing courses he's making for himself, though, Shaka finds journaling to be a source of change in his life. When he's mad at someone, Shaka starts jotting down why he's upset and what he'd like to do for revenge.
    • But when he reads what he's written later, once he's calmed down, what he sees on the page really starts to worry him.
    • Through this process, he starts to move beyond his current perspective and rediscover how to have empathy.
    • Shaka says it's hard to describe how much this journal writing changed him. It helps him get over the fear he's felt and see others with compassion.
    • He feels like he's finding his real self through the journaling process.
    • And he starts to realize that he's full of rage in a way that isn't helping him. He puts it like this: "I thought I had been fighting for my dignity and respect, but I hadn't realized how undignified and disrespectful my anger caused me to be." (19.31)
    • Shaka continues to struggle, and he continues to write down the stories of the struggles between the inmates and the guards.
    • Sometimes he thinks he just can't make it through, but writing helps him do it.
    • Shaka also continues to read books on spirituality and faith, going still deeper into these topics. He comes to appreciate Eastern philosophy, and he starts reading the Bible again, as well as other religious works.
    • He sees spirituality as something that connects all people, even if they don't all have the same religion.
    • Writing also reveals Shaka's emotional issues in a new way.
    • He starts to realize how deep some of his past hurts are. His damaged relationship with his mother is the largest of these injuries, and he remembers many specific hurts like being beaten for small things or verbally hurt by hers.
    • As he really addresses these issues for the first time ever, he slowly realizes that they aren't his fault and he doesn't have to feel ashamed of them.
    • Shaka just keeps writing about his past hurts—his parents' divorce, the violence that has been directed at him over the course of his life, and more.
    • He discovers as he writes that he had convinced himself no one really cared about him, so he didn't need to care about anyone else either.
    • He realizes he might actually have post-traumatic stress disorder from the challenges of his early life.
    • And he realizes he's suppressed most of these feelings because he just didn't have someone to tell about them, or the tools to deal with them.
    • But writing really does help Shaka to process all of this. Journaling helps him feel like he's actually getting tense emotions out instead of suppressing them. Shaka also starts writing novels.
    • Shaka feels himself getting stronger as a person, and as he does he also becomes more empathetic and kind to others.
    • He starts giving cigarettes to a neighbor, and he even starts counseling other guys in solitary through the bottom of the door—even though they're the ones who've been keeping him awake with noise and making life unpleasant for everyone.
    • Things are still tough in solitary, but writing helps decrease the power of the crazy things happening around Shaka.
    • And it's not just writing in his journal that helps.
    • The next part of the chapter talks about how writing letters home to family helped Shaka too. In the midst of his new growth, he's actually excited to tell people what's happening in his life.
    • The letter writing is a great outlet for him, and it also helps him feel connected to absent friends and family.
    • Shaka has a letter writing relationship with his son, L'il Jay. He talks in this chapter about the first letter he received from L'il Jay.
    • L'il Jay wrote "I love you daddy" (19.45) at the bottom of the letter.
    • That's awesome, but it made Shaka feel incredibly guilty since he felt he hadn't done anything to earn his son's love. They continued their writing relationship, and it let Shaka and his son grow in their relationship.
    • And Shaka says that three years into his stretch of solitary in Oaks, he got the most important letter of his life from his son.
    • At that point, Shaka had been reading and journaling for a while.
    • Those activities were changing him, but he had a sense that something was still missing.
    • He could keep himself from basing his actions on fear and anger, but he still felt them, and he still had to be pretty tough to survive prison.
    • In the middle of feeling this way, Shaka gets a letter from his son. It turns out to be a huge revelation: in this letter, Li'l Jay writes:
    • "MY MOM TOLD ME WHY YOU'RE IN JAIL, BECAUSE OF MURDER! DON'T KILL DAD PLEASE THAT IS A SIN. JESUS WATCHES WHAT YOU DO. PRAY TO HIM." (19.52)
    • Shaka has never really let it sink in that his son might see him as a murderer, and now he's devastated.
    • Shaka wasn't planning to withhold knowledge from his son. But he had hoped to have a face to face conversation where he could explain the story of his crime at a point when his son was ready for it.
    • Now he doesn't even know what kind of conversation Brenda and Li'l Jay had about the murder. Shaka doesn't know how to talk to his son about the past.
    • At this moment, Shaka realizes that he really has to change the direction of his life. It seems like the only way he can prove to his son that he's "not a monster," (19.56) in Shaka's own words.
    • Shaka talks about the rest of the letter, which expresses his son's sadness and anger at missing him, and also the sense of responsibility Brenda is building in Li'l Jay by telling him he is the man of the house and he has to control his anger.
    • Shaka is very moved by the letter. He feels like he's failed his son and other young Black men who might follow in his footsteps and end up in jail or worse. He's scared for Li'l Jay and for other young men whose fathers are in prison.
    • That realization leads to a huge change for Shaka. Here's how he says it:
    • "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 writes back to his son and tells him all about his life and the events that led up to the murder. He talks about how getting shot as a teenager changed his thinking and actions. And he promises never to kill again.
    • After writing this letter, Shaka feels worn out, but also the best he's ever felt.
    • He's glad that he no longer needs to justify the shooting—he can admit that it was a senseless choice that caused disaster. But he also knows he can start trying to make things better in his own life.
    • Shaka closes the chapter by reflecting on how he worried that he couldn't save his son from ending up in the same unhealthy cycles. But, while thinking about this letter, he realizes that his son has saved him.
  • Chapter 20

    • This chapter starts with Shaka waiting to find out if he can get out of solitary. A counselor turns up and says that Shaka can go back to general population.
    • Shaka is thrilled, but also shocked. He'd really felt like he might be in solitary for twenty years.
    • Shaka is also thrilled when he finally leaves the solitary confinement building without having to wear cuffs and shackles. It's the first time since he came to the hole four and a half years ago.
    • Shaka gets a word processor as fast as he can.
    • He starts typing up the books he's written on paper while in solitary. He's in the midst of his third book, a detective story set on the street.
    • Shaka's word processor is old, so its memory gets full every time he writes thirteen pages. He has to print the pages and clear the memory before he can go on.
    • He pretty much spends all day typing for a few days until he has his manuscripts printed. Because he's in a single cell, he has plenty of writing time.
    • The prison Shaka's in makes some changes and gives him a roommate, who turns out to be a guy named BX.
    • Shaka knows BX by reputation and has a lot in common with him. They share:
    • Being in the same religious group, the Melanic Brotherhood
    • Having a lot of the same beliefs
    • Working in the law library at the prison
    • Caring a lot about their sons
    • BX is doing at least fifty-two years of prison time, and he keeps encouraging Shaka to get free and tell his story to change things in his community.
    • This really encourages Shaka to keep improving his life.
    • When Shaka gets transferred to Carson City, he's sad that BX won't be nearby anymore.
    • But surprise: BX gets transferred too, and they live in the same part of the Carson City facility. They collaborate to organize and to facilitate study groups with the other Melanic Brothers.
    • Their organizational skills are really needed, because racism is a giant problem at Carson City, much bigger than in many other places in the Michigan prison system.
    • BX and Shaka are able to improve the system somewhat by training the younger guys in how to use the prison grievance system to respond to problems.
    • They also organize events like a Kwanzaa celebration.
    • Then the administration asks them to do a Black history month program. They plan a set of activities and reach out to freed prisoners to help with it.
    • An organization called Helping Our Prisoners Elevate (HOPE) sends two people to help with the Black history month program.
    • One of them turns out to be Ebony, a woman Shaka has corresponded with but never met in person before.
    • When he does meet Ebony, Shaka is really impressed by her passion and commitment to helping Black communities and encouraging inmates to transform their lives and communities. He also thinks she's beautiful.
    • Shaka feels like he can't start anything romantic with Ebony—he needs to focus on making the program work and on his own growth and sanity.
    • Not long after this program, Shaka goes a Level Two unit. This is good, because it's only medium security and Shaka has more freedom.
    • But Shaka is also worried that the good changes to his character may not stand the test of being back in general population with inexperienced prisoners and guards hassling him.
    • As it turns out, Shaka gets moved to a different prison within two weeks.
    • He's back to the place he started serving his sentence way back in 1991, a prison called Riverside. It's gotten a lot stricter since Shaka was there way back when.
    • Here, Shaka really sees how much of the prison lifestyle he needs to leave behind.
    • He tries to focus hard on preparing for freedom, and that includes trying to avoid usual prison conflicts like tension with the guards or fights with other prisoners.
    • Shaka is able to establish pretty solid routines here, using the same patterns that had helped him before: reading, exercise, and writing.
    • He also connects with community, going to a Kwanzaa celebration and joining the National Lifers Association. Shaka's not serving a lifetime sentence, but he knows he can help others who are by using his organizational skills in this association.
    • Shaka also takes a business computer technology class.
    • Most inmates don't get much of a chance to keep up with technology, so they often are not prepared for jobs when they get out.
    • But this class is a great opportunity for Shaka to prepare for life on the outside, and he really finds it intriguing too.
    • One evening when Shaka is exercising with the brothers, he meets someone named Anthony who has actually started a publishing company outside of jail.
    • Anthony gives Shaka a lot of good advice on publishing his writing, and they often spend time together planning to collaborate in publishing after they're freed. This really helps Shaka to stay motivated.
    • Shaka's father and two of his sisters come to see him while he's at Riverside. This means a ton to Shaka, and he really enjoys joking with his family and looking forward to the future.
    • By now, it's 2006, and Shaka could be released in two years if the authorities go with the shortest sentence option.
    • Shaka can tell his dad is really looking forward to his release, and that really makes Shaka want to be free and to honor his family in the way he lives on the outside.
    • One day, Shaka receives an envelope with Ebony's name on it. But he thinks it's probably official HOPE business, so he doesn't get too emotionally invested. He sticks it on his desk and heads to lunch.
    • He and Anthony talk about publishing over lunch. They want to launch their own companies.
    • Shaka gets a pleasant surprise when he goes back to his cell.
    • The letter from Ebony isn't about the organization HOPE. It's actually a personal letter saying that Ebony would like to correspond with him because she knows how important correspondence from a sister can be to someone who's incarcerated.
    • The letter is nice and encouraging, but not exactly overflowing with heart emoji.
    • But Shaka is super excited.
    • He realizes he has to tell her how he feels about her.
    • He says, "I was at a point in my life where I knew it was going to take a special woman to help me break through the rest of the walls that prison had constructed around my heart." (20.41)
    • He really admires Ebony's character and determination, and he knows that he wants a relationship with her if she's open to it.
    • Shaka types a letter to her and says that he wants to build a friendship with the hope of it becoming a romantic relationship in time.
    • Ebony's letter back is pretty encouraging. Their correspondence gets off to a great start, and they really seem to be connecting with each other.
    • Not too long into their letter writing, Shaka asks Ebony to come and visit him.
    • She does, though she has to do it at Lakeland Correctional Facility, since Shaka is transferred there after he invites her to come see him.
    • Shaka's super-excited and kind of nervous when Ebony arrives, but he calms down when he's actually in the same room with her. As he puts it, "In the cold, cruel world of prison, I hoped I had finally found someone who could love all of me." (20.46)
  • Chapter 21

    • This chapter is pretty much all about Shaka and Ebony's growing romance. Ebony comes to visit Shaka.
    • She looks different–she's wearing a scarf around her head and her long hair seems to be shorter, and she's recovering from what looks like pretty severe acne.
    • Shaka is a little bit worried about this, but not because he's sexist or shallow. He respects Ebony for who she is and really wants a relationship with her.
    • But Shaka's also heard stories about how sometimes people who are going through a change in their appearance build relationships with prisoners more as a way to boost their own confidence than out of sincere romantic attraction.
    • But Ebony does seem genuinely interested in Shaka, and he quickly gets over his worry. They have long conversations about social justice, urban gardening, writing, and more.
    • Shaka reflects on how clear it is that Ebony is the kind of woman he's looking to date.
    • He needs someone who will challenge him to become everything he can be and who has the courage and stamina to stick with him as he works to be freed and transition back into his community.
    • Ebony is all those things, and Shaka is excited to see that she clearly returns his affection.
    • Shaka has to be realistic, though: he knows that the way the prison system is set up often makes it super-hard to maintain relationships.
    • Among other problems, most of Michigan's prisons are in the north of the state, but most prisoners come from the southern parts of it, so it's hard for friends and family to make the trek to see them.
    • Soon after Ebony visits him, Shaka is shipped to a different prison.
    • They're both excited, because it's closer to Detroit and that will make visiting easier. It's also minimum security, and that's an important step for Shaka.
    • The prison, called Cooper Street, is a transitional step to the camp system. What is the camp system? It's basically a network of the lowest security prisons. Prisoners there can even work outside the prison.
    • But like so many things in prison, getting one step closer to the camp system is sort of a good news/bad news deal for Shaka.
    • Upside: he's closer to release and re-integrating back into normal life.
    • Downside: some of the prisons in the camp system are in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Believe it or not, that means Shaka could end up a twelve hour drive from Detroit.
    • Obviously, that wouldn't be so great for Ebony's chances of visiting him often.
    • But Ebony encourages Shaka to hope for the best case scenario, and he does know some people who managed to stay in the same place at a similar point of their incarceration rather than get shipped to the Upper Peninsula.
    • Shaka also finds hope in the atmosphere at Cooper, the facility he's currently in. Because it's a place people get moved not long before their release, most of the inmates there are hopeful and optimistic.
    • Shaka and Ebony manage to keep up a routine of talking on the phone and seeing each other, even though they face challenges like phone calls costing eight dollars apiece for fifteen minutes. Prison guards also watch them kiss and sometimes stop them almost right away.
    • But in spite of these troubles, Shaka's relationship with Ebony is going fantastically well. He describes just how awesome it is and closes the chapter.
  • Chapter 22

    • Where it starts: Cooper Street Correctional Facility
    • Jackson, Michigan
    • When: June 20, 2006
    • Shaka has finally stopped worrying about whether he'll be transferred far away from Ebony.
    • And then, that's exactly what happens to him.
    • He gets transferred further north.
    • He's petrified, because he really wants his new relationship with Ebony to succeed, and he knows that the distance is hard on all relationships.
    • He also remembers that his romance with Brenda fell apart under the pressures of the prison system.
    • Shaka calls Ebony to tell her and she cries. Shaka feels terrible.
    • Even though he really wants to be with her, something in him also wants to tell her not to get more involved with him because he knows dating while he's in the prison system is going to be hard on Ebony.
    • Ebony was going to come the very next day for Shaka's birthday, and she had planned to sing a song for him as a birthday celebration.
    • She does manage to pull herself together and sing it by the end of the phone call. Shaka is deeply moved by this, and he imagines them far away on a beach in Kenya together as she sings.
    • But once Shaka gets back to his cell, he's worried.
    • He finds it hard to believe that Ebony will keep dating him. His dad is pretty much the only person in his life who's been there for him even in really tough times, so he finds it hard to believe that Ebony can do it.
    • To insulate himself from the pain, Shaka adjusts his thinking as if Ebony has already broken up with him.
    • He spends the next day, his thirty-fourth birthday, being transferred to Camp Manistique. It's a six hour drive, and he spends it all feeling like he's losing the best relationship of his entire life.
    • When he gets there, he calls Ebony. Super nice surprise: Ebony is planning to come see him that weekend.
    • Shaka thought she would wait until she could pull together more time and money, but she's willing to come right away.
    • Unfortunately, this doesn't work out because the state system transfers Shaka again. In some other camp, an inmate killed another prisoner, so the state tightens up security and sends Shaka to Baraga, nine hours away from Detroit.
    • Ebony does figure out a way to visit Shaka there eventually, and she stays for four days. Shaka realizes how determined Ebony is to be with him, and how willing she is to fight the system on his behalf.
    • She needs that determination, because Shaka has a nonviolent disagreement with a guard shortly after this, and others in the prison system retaliate by making his life harder.
    • It's a great moment in that Shaka has learned to fight injustice with his head instead of with violence—he responds by using the prison grievance system.
    • But the other officers unfairly make Shaka's life a lot more complicated in response. He gets moved around a lot and ends up with extra time in solitary and also a trip back to medium security level.
    • His loved ones don't know where he is for some of this time, making everything that much worse.
    • Because Shaka had assaulted a staff member of a prison in the past, some of the harsher treatment he receives is explained as a response to that. But he's pretty sure that it's mainly the guards' reaction to his nonviolent recent disagreement with one of their colleagues.
    • Ebony eventually does figure out Shaka's back in a medium security prison, and she works hard appealing to the administration in Lansing, Michigan.
    • Meanwhile, Shaka's trying hard to stay out of a stabbing battle the other prisoners have gotten into. He really doesn't want to get involved in violence and prison vendettas again.
    • Ebony manages to visit Shaka. They spend time planning how to get Shaka moved back to a lower security scenario closer to Detroit.
    • There's kind of a wrinkle that puts Shaka in a tough position. His friend BX realizes that Shaka is at the same prison that houses a guy who molested BX's son and niece.
    • He writes and asks Shaka to punish the guy.
    • Shaka has trouble deciding what to do. He's given up on violence as a solution to problems.
    • On the other hand, he really cares about BX and feels a lot of empathy for him.
    • Finally, Shaka pays someone to stab the guy. It's the last time he participates in violence in the prison system.
    • Shaka goes to Ojibway next. It's not even in the same time zone as Detroit—that's how far away it is.
    • On top of that, it has a reputation for violence among the population.
    • To make things even worse, racial tensions are huge when Shaka arrives.
    • Not long before Shaka's time there, a white officer let a white inmate stab a black inmate. The prisoners then rioted.
    • So it's not a great time to be there. But Shaka does his best to focus in on reading and on getting in what time he can with Ebony. Phone calls are tricky here, and Ebony has to make a ten-hour drive to visit.
    • But they do their best.
    • Sometimes Shaka can find another prisoner he trusts whose girlfriend also wants to visit, and Ebony and the girlfriend will split travel and hotel expenses.
    • Even if they're less often than they'd both like, Shaka finds Ebony's visits/calls/letters to be a huge help in these hard moments of his life.
    • He focuses on their plans for the future to help him get through the difficulties.
  • Chapter 23

    • Where it starts: Ojibway Correctional Facility
    • Ojibway, Michigan
    • When: 2008
    • Shaka actually finds himself getting more worried as he gets closer to his parole hearing. That's because he needs to complete ten months of group therapy in a program called the Assaultive Offender Program (AOP) in order to be cleared for release.
    • But it has a huge waiting list.
    • The parole board pretty much refuses to release people who haven't completed this program, but there aren't enough spaces in the program for all the people who want to take it.
    • You can see why this looks like a bad situation to Shaka.
    • Shaka and Ebony both work hard at trying to get him on the list.
    • They aren't having good luck, and Shaka's parole hearing is coming up.
    • They ask their friends and families and other people from their communities to write the parole board for Shaka.
    • He's still worried. But he also makes an effort to stay hopeful that the good changes he's made will convince the board.
    • Early in 2008, Shaka finally gets a slot in the program. Then the whole program is cancelled. He realizes he's going to have to go to the parole board without even starting AOP, let alone finishing it.
    • Shaka and Ebony do some major strategizing for his parole hearing. His current life shows an impressive turnaround, but his prison record before that turnaround is fairly intimidating.
    • He has thirty-six misconducts, one officer assault, and seven years of solitary on his record, and he's afraid that his case will be judged mainly by those marks on his record and not by who he now is.
    • But Shaka is still planning hopefully for the future. His goal is to start doing mentoring right away when he gets out, since he feels he can help people who will otherwise be headed down a similar path to his own earlier unhealthy one.
    • He's also already done some publishing, including starting a press with Ebony and getting pieces into anthologies and magazines.
    • He really wants to be free and to use his freedom to help people in similar situations.
    • Ebony collects letters for Shaka to share with the parole board. Community leaders, educators, and bookstore owners say how important it is for him to get out and do the mentoring and awareness work he's planning on.
    • His family shares how he's grown over the years. Ebony, Shaka's father and stepmother, and Jay (Shaka's son) all come to visit right before his first parole hearing in August 2008. It means a lot to Shaka that they've come.
    • Shaka's dad tells him how much it matters to him for Shaka to be freed and come home. Shaka hasn't cried much for the past seventeen years in prison, but now he breaks down.
    • He feels like his incarceration has metaphorically imprisoned Ebony and his family, and he desperately wants to be free for them as well as for himself.
    • But he also tries to prepare them for the possibility his sentence will last longer. His father promises to be there for him no matter what.
    • Shaka can't sleep that night, but he does have a good night of prayer and meditation.
    • The first parole hearing doesn't seem to go very well. The officer is interviewing Shaka by video conference.
    • She doesn't seem very interested in Shaka's story of his character change or in anything his dad has to say.
    • She closes the interview by saying Shaka should take AOP before he's set free and he'll get a decision in the mail soon.
    • But Ebony encourages Shaka to stay positive, and that helps.
    • It continues to be hard to get into AOP, but eventually Shaka gets sent to a prison that's only an hour and a half from Detroit, and he's told he can take AOP there.
    • Shaka continues some good habits at this prison. He studies things he'll need when he's free, he writes, and he hangs out with guys he knows who are focused on getting their freedom.
    • He also gets to take writing and arts classes sponsored by the University of Michigan, and they give him a way to use his creativity.
    • But he's still waiting on the parole board's decision about his release. He's hoping for a deferral, which means he might be able to be released soon after finishing AOP instead of waiting until the next regularly scheduled hearing.
    • He does make friends with some student volunteers who come from the University of Michigan at this time. They grow together as artists, and end up performing together. Shaka realizes that he really loves writing for theater and acting.
    • Shaka's parole board letter finally turns up, and it says he has at least another year to go before he can be released. He's not excited about this, but he kind of thought it might happen, and at least now he's actually in the AOP class, so overall he's feeling hopeful.
    • Shaka finds out he'll be taking the class with Dr. Skinner. Lots of people think Dr. Skinner throws people out of the program without good reason, and there are rumors that he's a racist.
    • But when Shaka actually meets Dr. Skinner in the class, he realizes that these stories aren't fair to him.
    • Dr. Skinner does value accountability and isn't excited about excuses, but Shaka actually winds up agreeing with the way he runs the class.
    • Shaka's tired of listening to excuses too, and he values Dr. Skinner's approach even if it sometimes seems tough.
    • In fact, Shaka gets a huge amount out of the group therapy class.
    • He learns a lot about how he thinks and why he had problems with conflict in his early life.
    • He also finds listening to others in the group really satisfying and learns a lot of empathy in the process.
    • He does have a weird incident where Dr. Skinner says out of nowhere that he doesn't think Shaka will ever be released.
    • The other people in the class challenge this and ask him why, but Dr. Skinner says it's his own opinion based on observing how things go for people with records like Shaka's.
    • Dr. Skinner elaborates on this idea, and he's smirking while he does it. Shaka knows part of Dr. Skinner's strategy is to say provocative things and see if he can throw someone off.
    • Instead of getting mad, Shaka just says he's confidant he'll be free eventually and that when he is he'll do something productive with his life.
    • Dr. Skinner nods in response to this. He doesn't stop smirking, and Shaka isn't sure if Dr. Skinner thinks he won't be released or actually believes Shaka but won't admit it.
    • Weird interlude over, Shaka moves on to how fast the time finally seems to be going. Ebony visits him at least once a week.
    • On one of these visits, Ebony gets caught in a snowstorm and her car is stuck by the side of the road.
    • Someone finally does stop to help her after about fifteen minutes, but she's stuck with no cell reception in the cold till that happens.
    • Ebony does make it to the prison to visit Shaka, but she's kind of shaken by the experience of getting stuck.
    • Shaka feels terrible—it just emphasizes how much Ebony is bearing to make the relationship work and how little Shaka can currently do for her.
    • They don't talk about it, but both of them are wondering whether the parole board will keep Shaka in prison for the entire maximum sentence of forty years.
  • Chapter 24

    • In this chapter, Shaka gets a second parole hearing. This one goes a lot better than the last one. The interviewer seems fair and is genuinely interested in Shaka's story, and she's clearly impressed.
    • She even says she's never encountered another inmate who's so prepared for life after incarceration. (24.8)
    • But Shaka still gets denied parole when the final decision is made by the board.
    • Because of the positive parole interview, Shaka and Ebony had started planning for his life outside of prison.
    • But when Shaka gets the bad news about the board decision, he feels like it's not fair to Ebony to keep her waiting on his release.
    • So he plans to break up with her and let her go on with her life.
    • Shaka comes to a sense of peace that breaking up is the right thing to do, but when he actually sees Ebony he falls apart crying as he breaks up with her. He also tells her he's not planning to apply for parole again.
    • Basically, it feels like a game he can't win, so he's planning to quit.
    • Ebony refuses to break up, and she refuses to let Shaka quit applying for parole. She says, "We are in it to win it. I will never give up on you. Giving up is not an option, Shaka."(24.25)
    • Shaka loves Ebony's passionate response, and it reminds him why he fell in love with her in the first place.
    • Ebony gives Shaka a world class pep talk about everything they've already accomplished together and all the obstacles he conquered even before meeting her. Shaka says, "By the time she had finished, I felt as if I could pick up the prison with one hand." (24.27)
    • After that, Shaka feels completely confident about the relationship. And he realizes he can keep going on his quest for parole. They start planning the next things to do.
  • Chapter 25

    • Where:
    • Cooper Street Correctional Facility
    • Jackson, Michigan
    • When: December 2009
    • This chapter is short, but oh so sweet for Shaka and his family.
    • A few months go by, and Shaka is moved back to Cooper Street in Jackson, MI>
    • Ebony and Shaka keep working for his release.
    • Shaka has a challenging but awesome interview with an older Black gentleman on the parole board.
    • The interviewer seems impressed, and he even thanks Shaka's dad (who's there to support Shaka) for being a good role model.
    • Shaka gets parole. It's an awesome moment.
  • Chapter 26

    • Nobody can explain the beginning of this chapter better than Shaka. He says:
    • "On June 22, 2010, the day after my thirty-eighth birthday, I walked out of prison a free man." (26.1)
    • Shaka's been in prison for nineteen years, so when he finally gets out, he almost feels like a new baby starting a completely new life.
    • Jay and Ebony come to meet Shaka.
    • One of Shaka's friends who's also being freed that day buys a book from him, and that's Shaka's first official book sale as a free man.
    • Shaka and Ebony and Jay been planning a fancy lunch at a nice restaurant, but it happens to be closed that day, so they have Subway instead. Shaka says it was still the best meal of his life.
    • Lots of family members come together to celebrate, including Shaka's daughter and her son, Shaka's grandson. Lots of awesome celebrations ensue.
    • Once they've all had a great time celebrating, Shaka starts working on his writing and publishing business.
    • He also has to catch up on some normal life stuff, like taking the driver's test and learning how to use a Blackberry. Remember, it was 2010.
    • Shaka does have some challenges adjusting, though. Most of the basic stuff people learn to do as young adults he missed.
    • Paying bills, buying a house, getting a normal job—all these things are harder if you were in prison when other people your age were learning to do them. Plus, it's much harder to get hired if you've been incarcerated, so that makes it tough too.
    • On top of that, technology exploded in the nineteen years that Shaka was in prison, so he's catching up on things like iPhones and Facebook.
    • Along with all that, Shaka needs to keep up with parole requirements.
    • These can be pretty tough, including avoiding lots of parties his friends are going to.
    • Shaka's even supposed to avoid places where kids are using water guns.
    • But Shaka's enjoying life in spite of these challenges. He goes to see the Detroit Tigers for the first time ever and also has a great time on his first airplane flight when he goes to give a talk for the University of Wisconsin.
    • Shaka gets a writing job with The Michigan Citizen and really enjoys building his writing experience.
    • The paper unfortunately has budget cuts soon afterward, though, and he's not able to make enough on the job. So he starts exploring other options.
    • Some great things start happening in 2011. A Detroit filmmaker is looking to make a documentary about Shaka, and Shaka also gets an acting role in The Mocha Monologues.
    • Shaka and Ebony get a nice new townhouse and also discover they're expecting their first child.
    • They're super excited. Shaka also feels more focused on making money.
    • Shaka's contributing to their income through rising book sales, but Ebony is still bearing most of their living expenses, and Shaka wants to make enough that she doesn't have to worry so much about it.
    • But finding a job is harder than Shaka hopes.
    • The economy isn't great, and it's hard to get hired as someone who was in prison—even for jobs like counseling guys with felony convictions, where you'd think making it out of the prison system as a changed person could be pretty helpful experience.
    • Ebony's really supportive even though all of this is taking a while, and Shaka keeps volunteering and sharing his story with local high school and college students.
    • He also keeps selling books as he can.
    • Then Shaka finds out that the Knight Foundation is running a pilot program called BMe (which stands for Black Male Engagement). It offers awards and grants to Black men doing positive things in their communities, and Shaka gets nominated.
    • He and Ebony write a proposal for a mentoring program built around helping at-risk youth use writing to process their emotions.
    • Shaka soon finds out that he has won a BMe award, and his mentoring project will get grant funding from the Knight Foundation.
    • Shaka is thrilled, and he's even more thrilled about the baby he and Ebony are expecting. They decide to name him Sekou Akili (translation: Scholarly Warrior).
    • They do have some challenges during the pregnancy.
    • Mainly, Ebony really wants to do natural childbirth and not a C-section, and little Sekou is turned the wrong way for that to work for quite a while.
    • But eventually, just a week before Ebony expects to have the C-section, Sekou turns the right way.
    • Everybody's thrilled, but they're even more thrilled when Sekou is actually born.
    • Shaka loves holding his new son. And he realizes how deeply he wants to give Sekou a better world.
    • Not long after Sekou's birth, the BMe program holds a reception for the award winners. Shaka's friend Yusef, who had been in prison with Shaka at one point, has also won a BMe award.
    • It's pretty awesome that they could both come out of prison and start doing positive things in their community.
    • Shaka loves going to the ceremony and being able to share the occasion with his father. His dad has been so supportive of him over the years, and Shaka is thrilled to invite him along.
    • The mentorship project Shaka runs with the BMe funds goes incredibly well, and he loves seeing the students learn to express themselves in writing.
    • Many of them have really sad stories of abuse in their pasts, but Shaka can see hope in their newfound ability to express themselves.
    • Shaka finishes up his parole in June of 2012 and feels great knowing that he can finally live life completely free of the prison system.
    • Unfortunately, Shaka continues to have a hard time finding a job after the BMe grant finishes, and book sales and speaking engagements aren't happening fast enough to provide a full income. Ebony is really supportive, but Shaka is stressed out and feels discouraged. He keeps networking and applying for jobs, but it's hard for him to feel like it's working.
    • But by July, Shaka does encounter some people who will change his life.
    • The Knight Foundation invites him to an event. Shaka's been to meetings and events like this before that don't really go anywhere, so he's skeptical.
    • But he turns up, and this time something really cool happens.
    • The presenters are Joi Ito, director of MIT's Media Lab, and a guy named Colin Rainey who works with a design company called IDEO.
    • Shaka isn't sold at first—he's seen a lot of outsiders turn up in Detroit and think they can help without really understanding the challenges.
    • But as Shaka listens, he thinks that Joi and Colin actually have some good ideas, and the MIT Media Lab has some technologies that might really help in Detroit, with practical ideas like improving lighting on the street or helping citizens figure out the quality of the air they're breathing.
    • Shaka thinks these solutions to real problems can actually help, but he also wonders if Joi and Colin really understand the issues Detroit is facing.
    • Sometimes people get a romanticized idea of what the city is like and don't really see the actual problems and the citizens who are already working hard to solve them.
    • In Shaka's own words, "I raised my hand and told them that their ideas sounded great, but if they really wanted their work to make a difference, they needed to include the real Detroit in the conversation." (26.43)
    • After the presentation is over, Shaka meets Joi and Colin and offers to introduce them to people who are already doing incredible work in Detroit. They agree instantly.
    • They can't do it that day because they're scheduled to go back to Boston, but they promise to do it as soon as they can.
    • Before fifteen minutes are up, Joi sends Shaka an email. Within a few days, Shaka gets invited to go to the MIT Media Lab. He's never visited the Boston area before, so he's excited.
    • Shaka loves visiting the Media Lab, which is pretty cool-looking. He gets a tour and finds out about all sorts of cool projects, including folding cars (to make it easier to park in small spaces). Another project he likes is Makey Makey, which lets you plug in whatever you want and make music with it. Shaka is really excited about what people at the Media Lab could do in Detroit.
    • Soon, Media Lab folks do come to visit, and Shaka gives them a tour of the city. Watching their faces, he can see a bunch of different emotions as they tour, including sadness but also hope and intrigue.
    • He tries to describe the history of Detroit and the many societal challenges that have made it what it is today, but he has trouble finding words.
    • It's probably best to quote Shaka's own words at the end of this chapter:
    • "There was no easy answer, no way of neatly describing what it was like to grow up here and have the weight of this city press on your soul. I couldn't put that feeling into words. So instead, I simply said that there was so much hope and potential there, even amid the violence and the disorder. Even amid the pain, fear, and destruction I had experienced and inflicted in these streets, there was still hope. And there still is." (26.51)
  • Afterword

    • Shaka ends with a short but powerful afterword. He talks about looking through the locker he kept with him in prison. He finds a letter written by the godmother of the man he shot.
    • She sent it when Shaka had been in prison for about six years.
    • It came at a really important moment in Shaka's life: he was super conflicted because he wanted to grow into a different person but he didn't want to give up his old instincts.
    • But the powerful letter his victim's godmother wrote expressed a profound hope.
    • She really thought Shaka could change, and she said so in the letter. She told him about the pain of losing her godson, and how it still affected her and others in her family.
    • But she also said she loves and forgives Shaka. She's a Christian, so she believes that God loves Shaka, and she does too. And she makes it clear that she believes Shaka can actually change, through God's help.
    • Shaka wrote back to the letter, and they wound up corresponding. It took about five years for the changes his godmother hoped for to really start happening. But they did.
    • Shaka says this is basically how hope works. It might seem misguided or even silly to some people.
    • Yet years later a kind word or an act of forgiveness may really be one of the things that gives someone power to change.
    • Shaka says that his own life could have turned out lots of ways, and that bad things are not inevitable for anyone.
    • He says he was angry and lost, and lots of other teenagers are too, but he thinks no one was born stuck in anger and loss, and there's hope to come back even for someone who's in that cycle.
    • We really do need to give Shaka the last word here. Here's how he closes the book:
    • "That's why I'm asking you to envision a world where men and women aren't heldhostage to their pasts, where misdeeds and mistakes don't define you for the rest of your life. In an era of record incarcerations and a culture of violence, we can learn to love those who no longer love themselves. Together, we can begin to make things right."(Afterword, 16).