From POTUS, to the Hill, and even sheriffs, America’s legal and political powerhouses are finally confronting our overly punitive and discriminatory criminal justice system. The ever-growing list of the Department of Justice’s investigation into local policing practices has revealed a fuller realm of the effects of the 1994 crime bill. But as the wave of criminal justice reform takes the country by storm, will it reconcile racial injustice along the way? I spoke with Shaka Senghor, a formerly incarcerated man who is now an activist, author, and Director of Strategy for #Cut50, to get his perspective.

Senghor, who describes American prisons as “negative, volatile environments”, recently participated in a tour of German prisons alongside the Vera Institute of Justice and The Marshall Project. And while he noted myriad German prison policies that could be very successful in the U.S., one particular aspect of his visit stood out: most of the prisoners were white.

“The racial dynamic and racial implications are very different”, Senghor states. German laws limit how much information on their incarcerated population can be made public, but what little data that can be found suggests that the racial breakdown of minorities in these prisons can’t hold a candle to that of the U.S.

About 40 percent (or 1 million) of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in America’s jails are African Americans. When asked about the relationship between race and the focus on the European model of criminal justice, or even the narratives behind the criminal justice reform movement in general, Senghor stated that he “doesn’t think that the particular language at play addresses what needs to be done in the long term”.

“The cute, neatly packaged narratives are not as easy as they seem. I come from a different perspective as someone who was in prison and has friends in prison”, Senghor adds.

But, narratives aside, Senghor recognizes that there have been real steps taken towards ending mass incarceration by the government that once engineered it.

“The issue is a combination of federal and state policies. Most people who are incarcerated are in state jails, but it’s important that the federal government is now getting involved because it sets the tone”, Senghor claims. He also admits to a certain level of skepticism about the slow-paced bipartisan legislation on prison reform.

“Anytime both parties agree on one issue, that issue has to be looked at with a critical eye”, he states. And when one recalls the fact that bipartisan support is what pushed the ‘94 crime bill into law, it’s hard to disagree. At the time, Senghor was completing college courses with a 4.0 GPA while incarcerated—that is, until the program was cut in compliance with new prison laws.

That critical eye also extends to leaders within the Black community who greatly miscalculated in their decision to support the bill, including Congressional Black Caucus member Bobby Rush who recently apologized for his vote in favor of it.

To this, Senghor suggests that “[Black people] have been complicit in a lot of the damage done to our community because we align ourselves with those outside of it”. This trend is quite apparent when one analyzes Black voters’ seemingly unshakeable support of soon-to-be Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

But Senghor describes his work with #Cut50 in advocating for community investment alongside solid reentry programs as a way of cutting through the fog of rhetoric and working to prevent the exploitation of poor, often Black men and women in the criminal justice system.

“With all the numbers going, it’s important to remember that there are real people behind these numbers that we have to do more for.”


For a deeper look into Shaka Senghor’s life, check out his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison


Image via Jim Beckwith