Making Amends After Crime
After 19 years in jail, James Angelo White emerged anew as Shaka Senghor, and is co-teacher of a Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan
How can you atone for murder?
I think you spend the rest of your life trying. I am 41 and, after serving 19 years in prison for shooting a man in cold blood, the question still rules my mind. But it's hardly a heroic burden. And I know I don't carry it alone.
I founded The Atonement Project with hopes of raising more questions, a community dialogue centered on making amends from crimes. And this winter, I've brought that dialogue to the University of Michigan. As co-teacher of a Prison Creative Arts Project, we send undergraduate students to prisons for art workshops focusing on the subjects of acknowledgement, apology and atonement. As a former prisoner, I know it's a good beginning. And sometimes, the dirtiest hands can create something beautiful.
The process is different for everyone. For me, I needed to redress what went wrong. How did I get to prison? Why was I so angry? I had ambitions once. I wanted to be a doctor. Why did things go wrong for me? After receiving a surprise letter from my son, I stopped being inmate No. 219184 and re-found my humanity.
"My mom told me why you're in jail, because of murder! Don't kill dad, please, that is a sin. Jesus watches what you do. Pray to him."
The letter broke my heart. He had learned to write while I was away, but he also now understood why I was away. It was not vacation. I was a murderer. And maybe he would grow to only see me as just that. At that moment, I realized: People who are hurt, hurt other people. And if I did not do something, he would grow up to be hurt like me.
At 14, I ran away from a broken home. The duality of running away as a child: On one hand, you want to get away. On the other, you want them to love you enough to bring you home. But no one came.
I did not know how I would survive. I slept in garages and basements. Then I started selling crack cocaine to make money. Soon, robbery, beatings, arrests and death were normal—a drug dealer's life. I was robbed. I was beaten.
At 17, I was shot three times. I barely survived. And still no one came looking for me. When you almost die, it changes you. I was angry. Angry I had to live in constant fear and always feel vulnerable. When I left that hospital, I returned to my neighborhood a predator. It was barely two years later when I shot someone dead. It was drug deal gone wrong, and I was paranoid. Looking back, it's no surprise I soon took a life.
I came to prison. The easiest thing for me was to justify my actions by pointing the finger at other people. Sure, there were signs. My teachers should have known things were not right at home. My parents could have cared more. I felt like they dropped the ball and now I was being punished.
That letter from my son woke me up. It was time to stop looking for a lost childhood. I had my own kids to raise now.
After serving 19 years, I was released from prison on June 22, 2010—one day after my 38th birthday. I served my time, but I had a new purpose. One week later, I started mentoring.
I can relate to angry kids. I can relate to feeling abandoned and alone. I can relate to violence. I have been beaten to near death. And have seen and committed murder. But it was my hope to be a better man that turned my life around.