Despite being out of prison for seven years, Shaka Senghor’s prison number–219184–still flirts with him.
“Subconsciously I see my number on a lot of things; I see some variation of it on license plates and always in my email. I’ll say to myself ‘why do I have 21,000 emails that need to be responded to?’ “Senghor reflected. “I always see those numbers, always. It’s been embedded in my self-conscious for a long time.”
When Senghor says “a long time” he means 19 years, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement. In 1991 at 19 years old Senghor shot and killed a 33-year-old married man and father of three during a drug transaction, which merited him a second-degree murder charge and a 17-40 year prison sentence.
It was in solitary Senghor recalls enduring 23 hour lockdown and “some of the most barbaric and inhumane environments anyone can even imagine.” Senghor, a father of three, says he laid on the cement floor and yelled from under the door to speak to fellow inmates on a different tier, and that some inmates went as far as removing the water from the toilet bowl to communicate with one another. It was also in solitary where Senghor began growing his locs, journaling, writing and reading. During that time he also forgave himself for killing a man.
“It was a process. I had to really step back and ask myself some tough questions. How did I land in this space? How did I go from being an honor roll, scholarship kid with all this potential to taking a man’s life? Once I started journaling and really going back and being able to identify the abuse and all the different levels of trauma I experienced in my life, it made sense to me how a young person’s mind can be shifted to thinking they have to be defensive, paranoid and have a hyper-violent reaction to the things they’re experiencing in their life and it’s something they don’t really talk about”
It would be reflecting behind bars on his life–running the streets at 14, getting shot multiple times at 17, and then killing a man 16 months later–that he penned his memoir Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death And Redemption In An American Prison. A few years after his 2010 release, Oprah received his book and after reading it invited him on for a Super Soul Sunday interview. However, Senghor’s life and work would finally be put to use when Oprah commissioned him to be a consulting producer for OWN’s newest docu-series Released.
Airing Saturday nights, the eight-part reality show chronicles the lives of several men and women who are first introduced to viewers upon their release from prison. The honeymoon phase of freedom is short lived as cameras follow convicts turned citizens as they transition back into society.
Viewers will first meet Kevin who spent 19 years in prison for stealing $160 worth of baby clothes. While he’s greeted by family and enjoys a cooked meal at a restaurant for the first time in two decades, it’s at the airport before boarding a plane that Kevin comes face-to-face with all the changes that have taken place in the 19 years he’s been gone, namely being overwhelmed by the array of options of candy and snacks, and resorting to a bag of chips he’d often purchase while in prison. The moment proved brief, but during a confessional video Kevin spoke about how his time behind bars is so deeply cemented in him.
Seeing that moment, and countless others in the series have helped Senghor to undo a lot of the damage from prison.
“There’s always going to be moments when you realize you think you got a hold on and you really don’t and working on this docu series really highlighted some blind spots for me that I hadn’t even thought about. Being able to watch these guys in their own journey was so powerful and it was validating in a lot of ways.”
Released airs Saturday night on OWN