“Released” is the groundbreaking docuseries featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) that’s been giving viewers first-hand insight into life after prison. While many docuseries on prison life focus on heinous crimes and ruthless interactions between inmates, staff and those connected outside of prison, “Released” provides a perspective that often goes without exploration, the breakdown of the family structure and the inmates’ transition back into society, particularly concerning people of color.
The show’s true identity, however, is wrapped in the life of its producer, Shaka Senghor, who spent more 19 years behind bars, 7 years of which were spent in solitary confinement for a second degree murder conviction in 1991. Today, Senghor speaks to groups of people all over the world, sharing his testimony of redemption, and serving as a criminal justice reform advocate, author and mentor.
Recently, the Sentinel had the opportunity to interview Senghor about his tumultuous journey, his thoughts on the criminal justice system, how he chooses to raise youngest son, and the reason he embraced a new name. For starters, we asked Senghor about the high profile Meek Mill probation violation case, considering the origin of the “crime” itself nearly 10 years ago.
“When you look at Meek Mill’s situation, it was such an egregious sentence for cases that were dismissed, that he’s done community service for, and yet he still ends up with 2-4 years,” Senghor said. “People can say well that doesn’t seem like that much time, but I always say like if you have children and you know what they’re growth spurt is like in two years, then you can really piece together what happens in our lives in two years.”
Senghor says that Meek Mill’s situation is “reflective of the “61,000 men and women who are imprisoned for technical or probation violations.” Senghor recently held a rally on Meek Mill’s behalf and says that “once the cameras go away and everybody’s got past the media part of it” the real work begins within collaborating with professionals who work in policy change to discover how certain policies negatively impact underserved communities.
As a native of Detroit, Michigan, which is known for having chart topping murder rates, Senghor stated that he’s happy he can now show represent the people of Detroit in a positive way. “ I always where a D hat. It’s not about the team, it’s about those kids who really need to see somebody reflect back their possibilities,” Senghor said. “My community is incredibly supportive, I get so much love at home,” he added.
As it pertains to the docuseries, Senghor explained the importance of “Released” as a platform for criminal justice reform and one’s post-release transition back into the real world. “A lot of time people just take for granted that you just get out and go on with life, but in our society, unfortunately we’re very unforgiving,” Senghor stated. “There are 40,000 collateral consequences of having a felony on your record, and that includes lack of access to employment, lack of access to housing, but more importantly, we want to show the authentic way in which people succeed or they fail, whatever happens. We didn’t put into place anything to determine any of the outcomes, this is reality,” he continued.
Senghor says that part of his road to redemption began with his own identity, and that changing his name brought forth value and enlightenment. “I grew up with my legal name which is James White, I never had an emotional connection to that name because nobody in family ever used it,” he said. “As I started to evolve in my own thinking and my transformation, I knew that I wanted to have a name that reflected something meaningful to me, something that spoke of our ancestral power and our historical legacy and I wanted to mirror that,” he continued.
As the father of three including a young son, we also asked Senghor about how he’s working to break the generational cycle of oppression within his own family or those within his sphere of influence. Senghor says he adopted a technique called “asset framing” from his friend Trabian Shorters, whose Black Male Engagement organization teaches the art of framing powerful personal narratives. “With my son what I do is every night, I’m very intentional about one of our rituals, which is through affirmations. When he asks me why do I do that, I say my responsibility as a father is to tell you who you are, before the world tells you who you aren’t,” he said.
“I don’t have a fear about my son being a Black man in America because I’m raising him to understand his rights, understand who he is, understand his power, and to not shrink himself because of other people’s ignorance,” he declared.
Senghor says that the Black community in general must do a better job understanding our own value. “As a Black man in America, we’re constantly bombarded with these negative images of what we can’t be, the various impediments in our way, the policy brutality, the racism in the workforce, and a lot of times we focus so much on the deficits, that we don’t really get an opportunity to focus on our assets,” Senghor said.
“We say, well there’s 1 out of 4 Black men who are going to end up incarcerated, well there’s also 3 out of the 4 who are not. So, we want to really start focusing our energy on what are our assets, how to we build them up, how do we support those structures and really build something meaningful,” Senghor affirmed.
Senghor says that there is now a “Released” Facebook group, where family members and prior institutionalized individuals can logon to share their journeys and support one another. “If you fall, there’s always an opportunity pick yourself up, but you’ve got to have the courage to do it,” Senghor stated.
Recently, Senghor was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday”, where the media mogul said that her interview with Senghor was not just one of the best she’s had in her career, but in her life. Senghor has received many awards and spoken on numerous platforms, including TED, CNN and Detroit Free Press. His book, “Writing My Wrongs” has been revered as a striking story of redemption and freedom to the mind of those who remain in the struggle. The season finale of “Released” premieres on OWN Saturday, November 18 at 10/9C. To see our exclusive interview with Shaka Senghor, visit www.lasentinel.net.