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.