My podcast with Shaka Senghor

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of the “most different” Conversations with Tyler and also one of the most interesting.  Here is part of the summary introduction:

Shaka joined Tyler to discuss his book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, what it was like to return to society not knowing the difference between the internet and a Word document, entrepreneurialism and humor in prison, the unexpected challenges formerly incarcerated people face upon release, his ideas for helping Detroit, what he connects with in Eastern philosophy, how he’s celebrating the upcoming anniversary of his tenth year of freedom, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

SENGHOR: Early, when I first went to prison, you can get all types of books. As I got deeper into my prison sentence, they started banning a lot of those books. Malcolm’s book is probably one of the most popular books in prison because it’s, to me, the one book about personal transformation that just permeates that environment. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, Native American, whatever. It’s something about his redemptive story that just resonates with people who are incarcerated.

Oftentimes, we exchanged books with each other, and we would buy books. I would order books from different outlets that sold books to men and women in prison. The prison library — it varies from prison to prison. Some are better than others.

Back in the day, you used to get books donated by people. They will have estates, and they would just say, “Hey, let’s donate these to the local prison.” But now it’s becoming more and more restrictive in terms of what you can read, specifically around books that reflect black culture, which was really something that was shocking to me.

A lot of those books I read in the early stages of my incarceration are now banned. You can’t get Donald Goines books the way that you used to. Their excuse is that it talks about crime and things like that. But I’m like, “You can’t get that, but you can get Stephen King, which is murder and mayhem.”

COWEN: Can you get Shakespeare? That’s also murder and mayhem.

SENGHOR: Yeah, murder and mayhem. Yeah, you can definitely get all the Shakespearean classics and things like that. This just reflects the contradictions in larger society.

COWEN: I think you were seven years total in solitary, in one period of four years running. Toward the end of that four-year period, did you feel like you were going crazy? Or did you have some greater, stoic sense of calm?


COWEN: The individuals who are incarcerated — what are their senses of humor like? Is it different on the inside or just the same? Are they funnier?

SENGHOR: It is probably one of the most fascinating, quick-witted spaces you can imagine. I did an interview some years back with Trevor Noah, and I remember telling him like, “Prison is hilarious.” And he was like, “No, no, no. That doesn’t seem like quite a good narrative.” [laughs] But what I would always explain to people is that you can’t survive that environment without the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it, the ability to laugh at the craziness of it, the creativity of it.

And you have some brilliant, brilliant comedians in that environment. There’s actually a comedian who’s free now, Ali Siddiq, who’s just an incredible storyteller, and he’s a great comedian. And that talent is abundant in that environment. Guys crack jokes all the time. The officers crack jokes. It’s one of the things that is universal — laughter — and you need that in order to survive hardship.

My favorite part of the dialogue starts with this:

COWEN: It seems to me, from my great distance, that a lot of men in prison have women on the outside who are very strongly attracted to them. How do you think about that? Why do you think there’s a special attraction to men in prison?

His answer was excellent, but too long to reproduce here.


It's "shocking" to him that he can't get books about gang culture, but King books about scary clowns are obtainable?

Ok, killer.

Right. As if America has a cultural problem of white children imitating Shakespeare.

One of the biggest problems in Black America is their mythologizing the outlaw. So it shouldn’t be shocking that the prison authorities try to stem the influence of such products in prison.

Every culture mythologizes outlaws to some extent. Why do you think the Joker made a billion dollars worldwide?

It's not recent either. Mythologizing of pirates, Robin Hood, trickster gods like Loki... it's a recurring thing.

You got me there. The white youth really need to stop imitating Robin Hood. Then the income gap with Asians will shrink and the traditional family structure will will make a comback in lower class white peoples.

Are you kidding me? 1. The idea that in prison, exposure to books about crime is the main cause of high recidivism rates is absurd. 2. Outlaws have a core place in the (white) American psyche. "Sons of Anarchy" a show about a biker gang was hugely popular. There's a professional sports team in Denver called the Outlaws. Every Confederate flag is a salute to outlaws. Go to Wal Mart and bask in all the bumper stickers, t-shirt, and trucker caps declaring the owner a proud, lovable rebel. One of the great contradictions of red state culture is deep reverence for the police, military, and tradition generally coupled with a fetishization of black-hatted train robbers, bootleggers, and anti-state militias.

>The idea that in prison, exposure to books about crime is the main cause of high recidivism rates is absurd

Well, thank God that no one has said that EVER, outside of your vivid high-fever hallucinations!

Straussian reading of "black culture" right here.

Sounds like you're not familiar with the works of Donald Goines, you sad little Bubble Boy.

Here's the text on the COVER of one of them, followed by the Amazon blurb:

"The streets run red with blood when war breaks out between blacks and chicanos"

"Young Curtis Carson doesn’t mean to rip off the Chicanos in his backyard crap games. He just rolls the dice better. But the Chicanos don’t see it that way, and when one of their brothers is brutally slaughtered in a barroom shootout because of Curtis’ dealings with heroin pusher Fat George, the Mexicans cry revenge on Curtis, leaving his brother with a wrecked body that will forever prevent him from being the basketball star he’d always dreamed of being. Curtis swears vengeance, and the streets run red with black-Chicano warfare!"

Apparently when he referenced "black culture" you thought he was referring to clothing or something?

Yeah, it's just SHOCKING that this book is not available to murderers in prison, but they can still read about scary clowns who live in sewers.

You are a dope. And shame on Tyler, part 95.

That was good. Funny photo tho.

In general my sympathies lie entirely with book banning in nearly all circumstances, but in this case - conceding my naivete, is there really so much reading going on in prison, that the practice would have much point beyond further alienating the prisoners?

I would think, too, the literature of radicalism or sociopathy would soon lose its novelty value, and suffer in comparison to more entertaining books.

Besides which, I mean, you're gonna get virtually the same messages - all human relations are competitions for power, you're a once-and-future victim, unanimity about who's the worst, etc. - from 99% of what's been published in the last 50 years, romance novels excepted, just in a more anodyne, sanitized, socially-sanctioned form ... is that really so preferable? [Since I've not read Stephen King, I will exempt him from this charge. But if so, he's unique. How often you read about some distant time when the house contained one book, the Holy Book; I am envisioning the prison library shelf composed entirely of Stephen King, and I think my heart just grew three sizes in empathy for the inmates. The closest I've come to experiencing it is the take-or-leave shelf at certain places we've stayed on road trips. America loves it some Dean Koontz.]

Senghor says that prisoners read at an average third grade level so maybe access to books isn't all that important. Being functionally illiterate is probably part of their problem.

Why are women attracted to killers? In my sunbelt city, the wife of a successful lawyer volunteered her time at the state prison, fell in love with a serial killer on death row, divorced her husband, and, if I remember correctly, married the serial killer before he was executed. I suppose women are attracted to serial killers for the same reason people are attracted to the Kardashians. When Cowen announced the conversation with Senghor, I commented by asking if the MIT Media Lab hired him for his observations or to observe him, or both. Since Cowen is concerned about progress, especially technological progress, I might observe that we haven't learned much about ourselves. Sure, there's evolutionary psychology, but is that really science or just projection. Everybody likes a redemption story, and Senghor's is definitely one. Can an evolutionary psychologist explain Senghor? Is Senghor replicable? I look forward to listening to/reading the interview and his insight.

Senghor's answer was that there are all kinds of relationships. That's true everywhere. Being a serial killer lover, or a Kardashian stalker, is an extreme. Most people make less serious errors.

This is the flipside to the recent MR post about how women find the vast majority of men to be physically unattractive.

Men generally aren't attracted to exceptional women unless their "exception" is subjective physical attractiveness. But women are more eclectic about what kinds of exceptional men they are attracted to. They're very choosy about looks, but it's not the only thing they choose by. Some are drawn to power, wealth... or scholarliness... or musical talent... Ugly rock guitarists notoriously have groupies. And so do serial killers, albeit more rarely. On any axis on which it's possible for a man to stand out or excel in some way, there will be at least a handful of groupies, even if it's only one in a million who feels that way.

For the same reason that women want to open the borders to downtrodden immigrants, give criminals 4th and 5th chances, vote for the Democratic Party, or to adopt hordes of cats. It's mothering instinct gone horribly wrong, and is especially common attitude of the childless woman.

SENGHOR: I think it’s worse to do injustice. It’s unfortunate when you’re a victim of an injustice, but to consciously be unjust toward other human beings — I think that’s far worse than what they end up experiencing as a result of your injustice.

I bet that rings a little hollow to the family of the man he killed.

Yeah, and what was his name again? Not sure if Tyler got to that, or spoke to his family.

One particular murder in the violent USA really doesn't mean anything, jumbo jets full of people are killed annually in car accidents, after all. The real issue is that the coercion complex wants everyone to know and believe that incarceration is hell on earth so do as the man says or pay the price.

Criminals like prison. They prefer it to the outside. They get things they can't get outside, including safety, food, medical and dental, time to do nothing, lift weights, have sex with the guards, think and read (it varies case by case of course). Ask Mike Tyson. He liked prison and benefited greatly from his experience. Most prisoners agree (there are a few exceptions, and it of course depends on the prison, but today most prisons are quite comfy). Criminals do what they do in order to go where they want to be.

If so, why do the prisons need guards and fences to keep the prisoners in?

To the unproven extent that guards and fences are needed, they are needed in order to be able to provide the services that prisoners want and are required by law to receive. They are also needed to show taxpayers that their contributions are being used to punish bad guys and rehabilitate men who would surely be nice guys if they only realized that their actions hurt other people.
No doubt some prisoners would opt for a little more freedom of movement and more opportunities to prey on citizens, but overall they prefer prisons to life on the streets.

I am just here to say thankyou Tyler for the amazing book I loved it.

If you need to write a message or an essay or a scientific paper on the topic of prisoners or their way of being there, you can go to the website where they will help you create an amazing work.

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