It was a beautiful summer day in Detroit when I boarded the plane for my first international trip. It was June 15, 2015, one week short of my fifth year celebration of freedom from a 19-year prison sentence. While on lockdown I had imagined traveling the world, visiting tropical islands, eating exotic food and enjoying the company of beautiful women. It was one of many ways that I escaped the banal existence of life behind bars. Outside of my voracious appetite for reading and penchant for writing, my vivid imagination of a life beyond my circumstances kept me grounded. I saw myself traveling to faraway lands like Ethiopia, China, and islands like Jamaica, but never had I imagined my first international trip would be to Germany to explore their prison system.
I was a bit apprehensive when I first received the invite from The Vera Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to improve courts, prisons, and other criminal justice institutions. What could I learn from Germany that I hadn’t already learned from nearly two decades in American prisons? Would I learn how more barbaric systems operated and how the humanity of people was stomped out abroad? What could I possibly learn from a country with a history of slaughtering 11 million people? So many questions swarmed through my head, but something deeper was urging me to go and so I boarded my plane and took flight to a world far removed from Detroit.
Looking back, I can clearly see and readily admit my biased line of questioning was rooted in my understanding of history. I was clueless about modern Germany and the strides they had made to right their wrongs. My series of questions were clearly a reflection of my ignorance of the work Germany had done to atone for their past misdeeds. It wouldn’t be long before I would realize how far off base my questions were and how many questions I would come back to the United States with. How could a country like Germany be so much more advanced than the United States of America? What happened to for them to make such a dramatic turnaround?
When I finally landed in Germany after a nearly 10-hour flight, I was met by a group of women and men that had been curated by Vera Institute and John Jay College. The group included prison officials, prosecutors, researchers, activists and filmmaker Scott Budnick from the “Hangover” films. We spent the first evening in Berlin where we enjoyed an assortment of amazing beer, and some of the best au gratin potatoes I have ever had. Conversations were light, reflective and full of curiosity. I ended the night fairly early as I wanted to get back to my room and prepare myself for our first prison visit.
The following morning we boarded a bus and headed to Heidering Prison near Berlin. It was a modern prison that housed over 600 men. We were met by prison director Anke Stein who welcomed us inside the prison, which looked like a college campus. We exchanged formal greetings before being led on a brief tour of the prison that culminated with prison officials telling us about the prison and its goal. The conversation was a standard info session and I found myself being disinterested after awhile. I wanted to talk to the men who were serving time. I wanted to know what it was like to have your freedom stripped away from you abroad. What was it like for their families and communities to know they were locked up? So Scott Budnick and I decided to explore the prison and meet the men serving time.
The men told us that they were allowed to go into their community and work, they were allowed conjugal visits to connect with their families and to fully prepare for a life after prison. It was mind-blowing to hear and after awhile, I needed to be alone. I needed to process all that I heard and seen. I needed to process how different my experience in America was.
I found an empty cell and went inside it. I began to reflect on my experience of being incarcerated for 19 years, seven of which were spent in solitary confinement. I thought about all the horrors I had witnessed, including a man setting himself on fire out of desperation. I thought about the many days of pacing my cell while being on 23-hour lock down. I thought about it all and found a deep sadness welling up in my spirit. What I had experienced wasn’t designed for me to return to society healthy and whole; instead, it was designed to break my spirit and ensure that I would return to prison.
Hearing the word ‘citizen’ was jarring. I realized that in America’s justice system, we don’t see the 2 million incarcerated women and men as fellow citizens; we see them as a problem to solve.
My train of thought was interrupted by prison director Stein, who asked if I was OK. I told her I was reflecting on the 4-1/2 years straight I had spent in solitary confinement and she began to weep. She went on to say that they would never do that to one of their citizens. Hearing the word “citizen” as it related to the men who were incarcerated was jarring. It was the first time that I realized what was wrong with America’s justice system. We don’t see the over 2 million women and men incarcerated as our fellow citizens, instead we see them as a problem to solve. When we finally departed Germany for a return to America, I left full of ideas and thoughts that could change what we do to people in America.
The first thing we can do is start recognizing that the women and men behind bars are our fellow citizens. We can also learn about the things in German prisons that have allowed for a seamless transition back to society for those who find themselves behind bars. For example, the men in the German prisons have phones in their cells; in America, poor people are forced to pay exorbitant phone rates that were as high as $15 for a 15-minute phone call when I was inside.
We can stop sentencing people to absurd amounts of time in prison, especially young people. In Germany, 15 years is the longest sentence a person can receive unless they are demonstrably dangerous. In America, you can be sentenced to die in prison even if the crime was committed while you were a teenager.
We can stop the psychological abuse of putting people in solitary for indeterminate amounts of time that has led to many women in men being in solitary for decades at a time. In Germany, the maximum time in solitary confinement is eight hours, compared to years and decades.
We can stop the abuse of exploiting free or cheap labor by paying women and men inside a living wage for the work they do. It will give them an opportunity to save money for their release, provide for their children and pay for their education. In Germany, they pay 20 euros a day, compared to the 23 cents an hour I made in prison. While it’s not perfect, it is far better than what the women and men in U.S. prisons make.
Lastly we can work to remove barriers to reentry for people returning to society. The stigma of having been in prison was all but absent in Germany for those released, while in America if you have a felony, it’s like having a Scarlet Letter F that bars you from housing, employment and hundreds of more things that allow people to restore their lives.
Germany’s reconciling their past and atoning for the atrocities that led to the killing of 11 million people has created a more compassionate and empathetic present day reality for its citizens. America has failed to reconcile its many atrocities including the annihilation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and its latest iteration fueled by the 13th Amendment, which says “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Until we reconcile our past, acknowledge our failures and ignore what is actually working we will continue to lead the free world in incarcerating people and destroying lives.
The U.S.’ argument has always been that we can’t afford to treat incarcerated women and men with dignity and respect, provide them with real opportunities to transform their lives, or show them compassion because it would make us look soft on crime. My argument is it actually is tougher to help someone who comes from a cycle of hurt, it’s tougher to love someone whose background doesn’t mirror yours, and it’s tougher to be empathetic to someone who you have been taught to fear and hate. Yes, these things are tough to do, but I believe it’s the smartest thing we could ever do.
Shaka Senghor is executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. After spending 19 years in prison, he is now a writer, lecturer and activist. His book is titled “Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison.”
Variety and Rolling Stone