(WJBK) - What began as a life of dealing drugs in Detroit ended in gunfire, with Shaka Senghor pulling the trigger and taking a life. He spent 19 years in prison - several, of which, were in solitary confinement. But now he's spending his time working to keep other young men in Detroit from ending up on the path that led him to prison.
Shaka has also written a compelling memoir, "Writing My Wrongs." He joined us on FOX 2 News Mornings to tell us more about his experience and the inspiration for his book. You can watch the interview in the video player above, or read a summary of the segment below.
He says he grew up in a "beautiful middle-class neighborhood" on Detroit's east side, but that crack eventually devastated the community.
"I mean, it was tree-lined streets, landscaped, and within a couple of years that was all no longer," he says.
The pivotal age for him was 14.
"I decided to run away from home and got caught up in the street culture, kind of seduced into the crack trade. And I experienced every imaginable horror that comes with that culture," he says. He says his childhood friend was murdered, his brothers were shot and even he was shot multiple times when he was just 17 years old.
He was dealing with post-traumatic stress from the shooting, which he says is common in the community but that no one really talks about it. He says he responded by carrying a gun so he could feel protected and that he could take care of himself.
"Sixteen months later I got in a similar conflict, 2 o'clock in the morning over a drug transaction that didn't go right. As the argument escalated, I ended up firing what turned out to be four fatal shots, and was subsequently sentenced to 17 to 40 years in prison," he says.
He was 19 years old at the time, and his girlfriend was pregnant.
"It was devastating because I realized that ... I was raised by my father but here I was; I was leaving a child out here to be raised without a father, and that's one of the things that just devastates our community," he says.
He says, at first, he took the ways of the streets to him in prison, but eventually realized he needed to turn some things around and change. He received a few transformative letters that helped him, one from his son, who was 10 years old at the time, and another from his victim's godmother. He says that was one of the most powerful letters he's ever received, as the woman told him that she not only forgave him but that she also loved him.
Shaka got out of prison on June 22, 2010 and says he immediately started mentoring. He thinks the PTSD involved with seeing or experiencing violence in the community needs to be addressed to get the violence down.
"I think it's really important to activate mentors who come from the streets, who come from prison, who really have gone through those experiences. Those young men and women really need to hear from them," he says. "I think, ultimately, what it comes down to is us as a community is wrapping our arms around our kids in a real way and listening to them as opposed to talking to them. We always tell them to pull their pants up, but I think if you build up their self esteem up they'll pull their pants up on their own."
He adds that the condition of the schools he's seen these kids in has devastated him.
"I was devastated to walk into a school that was in worse condition than the prison I just left," he says. "It spoke volumes to me about where our investments were at; we invest more in prisons than in children's education, especially in inner-cities like Detroit."
The Detroit Public School district is currently about $515 million in debt. The new manager of DPS, Steven Rhodes, recently said that the district might not be able to pay teachers after April 8 if lawmakers don't quickly approve money to keep the schools afloat. Over the past few months, teachers have also protested pay, working and building conditions with a series of sick-outs.
Meanwhile, Shaka says that he's continuing to mentor kids so his victim's life wasn't taken in vain.
"It was a tragic night that I can never undo, but what I do want to ensure is that another young person doesn't have to live with the burden of knowing that they have taken somebody else's life," he says.
You can hear more from Shaka and meet him in person at a book signing event Monday night, March 14, at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit. It's at 6:30 p.m. You can also get more information at his website, www.shakasenghor.com.