Oprah recently interviewed criminal justice activist Shaka Senghor as part of her SuperSoul Sunday series. Shaka spent nineteen years in prison for second-degree murder at the age of nineteen, and seven of those years were spent in solitary confinement.
There are many parallels between Shaka’s experiences with the criminal justice system and the anecdotes in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Shaka, like many of the individuals Mr. Stevenson has represented, experienced physical and sexual abuse growing up, and he also turned to the streets and drug dealing as a way of gaining the support and acceptance he lacked at home.
Shaka also discusses the dehumanization that takes place in modern American prisons. This dehumanization almost certainly contributes to the high rates of mental illness in prisons, which Shaka describes as common and especially apparent when inmates were subjected to solitary confinement.
Shaka now visits classes and kids in his community to talk about his experiences, teaches classes at the University of Michigan, and has a fellowship at MIT’s Media Lab. One of his greatest challenges in his activism is figuring out ways to “empower young men and women in communities where powerlessness is the norm.” Shaka’s ultimate goal is to “raise awareness” that young people in communities and in prison are worthy, valuable, and redeemable. He says that “all [he] ever wanted was a fair chance to just be a human,” and his actions help spread that message in communities where youth are at higher risk of incarceration.
To watch the full episode, click here.