Study Guide

Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison Chapter 19

By Shaka Senghor

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.