Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Chapter 10

By Shaka Senghor

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…