Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Chapter 12

By Shaka Senghor

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.