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“Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison”

3/23/2016, 1:27 p.m.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Even so, we do it all the time: we see someone’s outside ...

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

Even so, we do it all the time: we see someone’s outside and think we know what’s inside. We base it on his looks, or his youthful indiscretions – things, as in the new book “Writing My Wrongs” by Shaka Senghor, that he may deeply regret.

Little James White wanted to be a doctor when he grew up.

Enveloped by the love of his parents, he was secure in the idea that he could maintain his honors status and do good for people in his Detroit community. But then his parents split, reconciled, and split again; his mother took her frustrations out on him and she kicked him out of her house.

Jay was just “a little boy” of fourteen then, but it didn’t take long for someone to offer him a job selling cocaine at five dollars a “rock.” He started earning big money, wearing cool clothes, getting girls, smoking crack.

By seventeen, he’d been in trouble with the law and had been given many second chances. By eighteen, he’d been shot in the leg and foot.

By nineteen, he was in prison for shooting another man, killing him.

In his first six weeks in County Jail , Jay saw it all: rape, robbery, beat-downs, murder. He learned the “law of the jungle” and knew that he could never let small disrespects slide. It was a whole new world, but a sentence of up to forty-two years for firearm possession and murder put him in another universe.

Years later, transferred to various prisons within the state and carrying a new name and a new assault charge, Shaka Senghor promised himself repeatedly that he would change, only to have it beaten back by prison life and the deep anger and guilt he carried. Finally, mid-way through a four-and-a-half year stint in ad-seg, he “took a long and painful look” at himself and equipped his cell “like a classroom,” reconnecting with the Black history he loved and the religious studies he craved.

“But the real changes,” he says, “came when I started keeping a journal.”

I’m glad he did that. You will be, too, once you’ve started “Writing My Wrongs,” but don’t think for a minute that this is an easy book to read.

One expects passages of brutality in a book about prison, but author Shaka Senghor takes it a step beyond, to something of nightmares or movies. That he was moved from prison to prison makes the chaos even keener; prisoners, says Senghor, sometimes lose track of time and readers could be forgiven for the same. Enter the maelstrom from the safety of your sofa, in fact, and the ending of this book – Senghor’s hard-won redemption and afterlife – will remind you that you’ve been holding your breath awhile.

“Writing My Wrongs” may be right for a certain kind of book group. For sure, it’s something every young person should absolutely read. It’s uplifting, triumphant to the skies and, once you start it, you’ll be sorry to reach its back cover.