- Van Jones
president and co-founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to reduce the U.S.'s incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. He was President Barack Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009 and founded Green for All. He is also a CNN political commentator.
- Mark Holden
senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, where he is a close adviser to its leader, Charles Koch. Koch Industries is a supporter of the criminal justice group called the Coalition for Public Safety.
- Shaka Senghor
shot and killed a man in 1991. At the age of 19, he went to prison for 19 years, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He has used his experience to inspire and motivate others to understand the causes of youth violence. He’s the author of several novels and a 2013 MIT Media Lab director’s fellow, as well as a 2014 W.K. Kellogg Community Leadership Network fellow.
This week President Obama has launched a major push to reform the country’s criminal justice system. On Monday, he granted clemency to 46 men and women facing extreme sentences — in some cases life in prison — for nonviolent drug offenses. Tomorrow he is set to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Tuesday, Obama described what he called a "broken system" in an address at the NAACP’s annual convention. During his speech, Obama praised the "unlikely bedfellows" campaigning together for criminal justice reform from the left and right, including the Koch Brothers and Van Jones. We speak to Jones, Obama’s former green jobs adviser, and Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, where he is a close adviser to its leader, Charles Koch. We also speak to Shaka Senghor. He shot and killed a man in 1991. At the age of 19, he went to prison for 19 years, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He has used his experience to inspire and motivate others to understand the causes of youth violence.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This week President Obama has launched a major push to reform the country’s criminal justice system. On Monday, he granted clemency to 46 men and women facing extreme sentences—in some cases life in prison—for nonviolent drug offenses. Tomorrow, he’s set to become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. On Tuesday, Obama described what he called a, quote, "broken system" in an address at the NAACP’s annual convention.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined.
And it hasn’t always been the case, this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America. Half a million people in 1980. I was in college in 1980. Many of you were not born in 1980, that’s OK. I remember 1980, 500,000. Today, there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In President Obama’s call for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, he also emphasized that the vast majority of prisoners will eventually be released and need more programs to help them re-enter society and to remove barriers to employment and voting. This week, House lawmakers are holding hearings on the SAFE Justice Act, which could accomplish some of these goals. It was introduced by Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner and Democrat Bobby Scott. On Tuesday, Obama recognized this bipartisan effort.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is a cause that’s bringing people in both houses of Congress together. It’s created some unlikely bedfellows. You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers. No, you’ve got to give them credit. You’ve got to call it like you see it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by three guests, some who got a shout-out from President Obama there and are at the center of this push to make the criminal justice system more fair. In Boston, Van Jones is joining us. He’s president and co-founder of #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative reduce the U.S. incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs czar in 2009 and founded Green for All. He’s also a CNN political commentator.
In Wichita, Kansas, we’re joined by one of those unlikely bedfellows to whom President Obama referred. Mark Holden is senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, where he’s a close adviser to its leader, Charles Koch. Koch Industries is a supporter of the criminal justice group called the Coalition for Public Safety.
And we’re joined in Boston by Shaka Senghor, who shot and killed a man in 1991. At the age of 19, he went to prison for 19 years, seven of which he spent in solitary confinement. He has used his experience to inspire and motivate others to understand the causes of youth violence.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Van Jones, let’s begin with you. Can you react to President Obama’s speech yesterday, what you found was most cutting-edge about what he said—did anything surprise you—and what you’re doing?
VAN JONES: Well, first of all, it’s just really good to be here. It’s good to be back. I haven’t been with you for a couple years, Amy, so—I always love coming on the show. I also just want to say that I thought the president’s speech was courageous, but it wasn’t as courageous as it might have been even two or three years ago.
We are in the middle of a very rare convergence. Both political parties, Republicans and Democrats, were stuck on stupid for 30 years, chasing each other off a cliff to put more and more people in prison. The way you showed you were a smart politician was you tried to one-up your opponent on how many people you wanted to put behind bars for petty offenses. And so, three strikes and you’re out; two strikes and you’re out; just, hey, if you’re black, you’re out—that became politics for both parties. Bill Clinton was a mass incarcerator. Let’s not forget that.
Suddenly, over the past few years, building momentum, in both parties, you have both parties saying this was a mistake, this was a catastrophe for America. We now have 2.2, 2.3 million people behind bars. So, the president giving this speech is very inspirational, but let’s be clear: You have Republican governors, from Rick Perry in Texas who’s been closing prisons; you have Republican governors like Kasich in Ohio, Deal in Georgia, who have been closing prisons and giving very similar speeches. You now have five bipartisan bills, with Rand Paul and Cory Booker coming together, Sensenbrenner and Bobby Scott in the House coming together, right wing, left wing coming together, saying, "We’ve got to go a different direction."
So, next week, when the SAFE Justice Act—I’ll say it again, the SAFE Justice Act—finally gets a little bit of daylight and some hearings in the House, I believe you’re going to see a remarkable thing happen in D.C. Democracy might actually work for the people instead of the powerful, because even the top of the Democratic Party, the top of the Republican Party, and the base of both parties is tired of mass incarceration.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, has this been a catastrophe? Why is Koch Industries getting involved in this? And talk about your own experience with the criminal justice system.
MARK HOLDEN: Yeah, good morning. Thanks for having us here—having me here today. And yeah, well, Koch’s been involved for many years now, and it all comes down to, at the outset, that really what we’re trying to do is to help people remove their lives—improve their lives, excuse me, by removing obstacles to opportunity. Charles Koch and David Koch are classical liberals who believe in expansive individual liberties in the Bill of Rights and limited government. And so, if your goals are to honor the Bill of Rights and to remove obstacles to opportunity, especially for the poor and the disadvantaged, you have to be in the criminal justice arena.
And to answer your question, you know, as Van pointed out, what worked 20 or 30 years ago doesn’t work today. And we have to have the intellectual honesty and courage and humility to correct that. In our businesses, we do that all the time when things aren’t working. And I think, to Van’s point, what we’re seeing happen in the states is really a template for what should happen at the federal level, and making sure that everything we do enhances public safety and that it honors the Bill of Rights and treats everybody in the system as individuals with dignity and respect, particularly victims, law enforcement, the incarcerated, the accused and their families.
And to your point, my experience, I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, and I was a prison guard to help pay for college for a couple years. And what I saw there firsthand—this was in the early '80s when the drug wars were beginning—were a number of people I went to high school and middle school with who were in prison. And these were kids who were poor, who didn't have family support, who made mistakes, who got hooked up on drugs and then got in a cycle of despair, and it led them, some of them, to a life of crime. A couple of them are in life in prison now because they made more and more mistakes.
And so, what I think we’re seeing across the country and from the left and the right—and we’re proud to be part of the Coalition for Public Safety—is people coming together and realizing what worked 20 or 30 years ago, if it worked ever, isn’t working now. And it’s morally, constitutionally and fiscally the right thing to do to reform our criminal justice system.
AMY GOODMAN: Shaka Senghor, can you talk about your own experience and what you are pushing for today? You spent seven years in solitary confinement?
SHAKA SENGHOR: Yes. I was incarcerated at the age of 19. When I entered the prison system, I walked into a very brutal, volatile environment. And from the onset, there was no rehabilitative tools in place. And so, like many of the young men I got incarcerated with, I got caught up in the day-to-day realities of prison life of survival. And unfortunately, I landed in solitary confinement multiple times, and the longest stint was four-and-a-half years straight.
And it was in that space that I actually discovered my own humanity and figured out kind of some of the root causes to why so many of the young men from my community landed in prison. And it was in there that I began to write in journal and kind of think about what are some of the steps we can take to ensure that young men and women aren’t being hurt in the prison, and if they are incarcerated, what are some of the things we can do to ensure that once they return to society, that they have a fighting chance of getting back on their feet, becoming contributing members to society, and as assets as opposed to liabilities. And unfortunately, the brokenness of our system hasn’t set the platform for that to take place.
And so, the thing that I advocate for most importantly and first was to be honest about what has happened in American society to land so many young, poor men and women in prison in the first place. And one of the greatest examples that I use is that when I walked out of prison, I went into a school in the inner city of Detroit and began mentoring. And what I noticed about the school, that it was in worse condition than any prison that I had ever been in. And that spoke volumes about where our interests were at and how much we cared about those in the inner city who often fill up the prisons.
And so, as an advocate, it’s important for me to point out that there are root causes to this problem that we haven’t addressed and that we should be looking at as we talk about reform, that it starts, you know, in terms of what’s happening in the communities. But also, for the men and women who are incarcerated, we have to realize that the majority of them, violent or nonviolent, are returning to our communities and that we, as a nation, have a responsibility to understand what kind of men and women we want to ensure comes back to society.
I was fortunate that I was literate when I went to prison, so I had an advantage that the majority didn’t have, in the sense that I was able to advance my education on my own, set up my prison cell like a school, you know, a university of higher learning. But that’s just not the reality that takes place inside prison.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re joined by Shaka Senghor, who served 19 years in prison, about seven of that in solitary confinement. Mark Holden is joining us from Wichita, Kansas. He is the general counsel for Koch Industries, for Charles and David Koch. And Van Jones is with us, founder of #cut50. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: "Keep on Pushing" by The Impressions, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests are Van Jones, founder of #cut50; Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries; and Shaka Senghor, who spent 19 years in prison, as we talk about President Obama going for—the first time a sitting U.S. president will visit a federal prison—that’s tomorrow—and his speech that he gave before the NAACP. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Shaka Senghor—once you got out of prison and became an advocate for prison reform, as well, you had an opportunity to see what’s going on in other parts of the world, because most Americans don’t realize what an outlier our country is when it comes to dealing with incarceration. Could you talk about your experiences, for instance, in Germany and the prison system there?
SHAKA SENGHOR: Yeah, a couple of weeks ago, I went to Germany with the Vera Institute and got an opportunity to go inside several prisons over there. And I was just shocked at how different their prison system was from ours. And it was really an emotional experience for me, because one of the things that I saw immediately was that they embrace the men and women who had ran afoul from the law with compassion and empathy. And they ensure, from the very onset, that they are being prepared to be resocialized back to society. They ensure that they have—remain connected to their family members and the community at large. And I think that’s one of the things that was really, really important.
And then also, the way that they use solitary confinement, they use it very sparingly. When they learned that I had spent so much time in solitary confinement, one of the wardens, she almost weeped in my presence for the young man that I was at the time. And that was just startling and shocking to me. And it just reminded me of how capable we are of changing our system and how we need to really look at those other models and see what’s working, and look at their recidivism rate compared to ours.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the medical treatment and the maximum sentences there, as well?
SHAKA SENGHOR: Yeah, their life sentence is like—nobody really serves sentences longer than 15 years. And they recognize the difference between mental illness and criminal behavior. And I think that’s one of the areas we’ve really failed at in this country, is that we’ve criminalized mental illness. And that’s reflected in solitary confinement. And so, my hopes is that when President Obama goes inside prison, that he actually goes into a solitary confinement unit, because I think that speaks volumes about where the system’s at. It’s cool to go into the medium security where men and women are getting ready—prepared to go home, but I think that if we really want to understand what’s happening in this system, you have to look at the most vulnerable place inside the system, which is solitary confinement. And one of the things that Germany does well is really take care of those who have mental illness, and ensure that they don’t overuse solitary confinement to basically break and destroy humans who have already been broken.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Mark Holden in Wichita, Kansas, the general counsel for Koch Industries. I mean, something that indicates that this kind of reform can go somewhere, that reform in the criminal justice system, is this right-left coalition. Many people might be surprised to hear what you had to say, that Charles and David Koch are classic liberals. And I wanted to ask you about an issue we’ve covered a great deal, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and how that fits in with your attitude toward reforming the criminal justice system—you know, a well-known Koch-supported organization that helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, three-strikes laws, truth-in-sentencing laws—ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in 25 states—pushing for privatizing the prison industry, also worked to pass state laws to create private, for-profit prisons, a boon to several of the major corporate sponsors of ALEC, like CCA and the GEO Group. How does that—how do you reconcile that with your push to reform the system?
MARK HOLDEN: Well, I mean, we’re pushing to reform the system, and, as I said, we’ve been doing for over a dozen years now. Our membership in ALEC isn’t related to any of those types of issues. But I would note that ALEC has been pushing the reform issues, as well, in several of the states that have had reforms in the last few years, so they’ve been on board with that, as well. And ALEC, notwithstanding what a lot of people say, is a bipartisan group. Democrat and Republican legislators attend those seminars and sessions.
But not really here to talk about that, I’m going to talk about what we view as the need for reform. And it’s got to be holistic. It’s got to be comprehensive. It’s got to be across the board. And to Shaka’s point, particularly in the prison area, whether it’s a private prison, a public prison, the prison’s job, in our opinion, is to make the people who they have stewardship over and are watching, they have to make them better people when they come out than they were when they went in. And if they’re not doing that, and if we don’t see recidivism rates go down, if we’re not making the people better so when they get out of prison they have a chance at a productive life, then we need to reform the prison system, get new guards, get new wardens, get new leadership in and cut funding, until they make sure they are creating a situation where people are better on the way out than they were when they came in.
And what we propose, again, is comprehensive reform across the system, because each part of the system, in our opinion, from the laws that are passed, they overcriminalize conduct, that really probably shouldn’t be criminal to begin with. It’s personal conduct in a lot of ways. You hear about drug usage, that type of thing. Then we overcharge that conduct, overprosecute people. Then we oversentence them, overincarcerate them. And then, on the way out, they’re overburdened with collateral consequences. And we want to fix that system, and, like I said, working with Van and others, the ACLU, the Center for American Progress, ATR, across the board, to make it a more effective, more fair, more just system. And that’s our goal. And so, everything we’ve done at Koch, since I’ve been with the company working on these issues, is completely consistent with the reforms we’re seeing implemented at the state level and the reforms that—what Van was referring to as far as in the various federal bills that are percolating around, including the SAFE Justice Act, which we’re a big supporter of.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mark Holden, on the issue that you also raised in reform of the prosecutorial process—because I think that as somebody who’s covered criminal justice issues for decades, I have been often astounded at the level of prosecutorial misconduct or abuse that occurs, and basically for which there is no accountability. Could you talk about this issue, how prosecutors abuse either the grand jury or discovery process or other parts of providing a fair trial to someone accused of a crime?
MARK HOLDEN: Yeah, and I’d like to say, I think most prosecutors get it right. The overwhelming majority do. But the system has a lot of room for error in it, and we really—we need to get rid of that, because we’re talking about life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness is at stake, and the Bill of Rights. And so, the individual—all the rights need to be, you know, fully guarded against.
And when you look at what’s happened in our grand jury system—when our country was started, the whole idea of the grand jury was to act as a check against arbitrary government overreach in the criminal justice area. Four of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights deal with criminal justice issues: the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments. The founding fathers were sending us a message that that was where the greatest infringement was going to come from. Over the years, the grand jury has not been a check against arbitrary government overreach. It’s now become, in a lot of ways, a rubber stamp. And what we see is, with 98 percent of the cases, criminal cases, don’t go to trial, they settle out. It really becomes a situation where you’re depending on the people who are trying to put you away to provide you all the information to be able to put together a defense. And if they’re not playing by the rules, if they’re hiding documents, they’re not giving you all the information, and particularly if you’re poor and you have a public defender who—public defenders do a great job, but they’re overworked and overmatched—the deck is stacked against you. And we see a lot of times the whole thing with the trial penalty, where individuals may be innocent, but they get a bunch of charges loaded up against them in the grand jury indictments, where they’re facing 40, 50 or more years in prison, so they’ll end up pleading out to something that’s relatively, quote-unquote, "minor" but has a lifelong impact because of collateral consequences. Any type of brush with the law, particularly any conviction, a felony conviction, and you’ve really, really limited your life opportunities once you get out of prison or your probation’s over.
So, really what I think needs to happen—and I think most prosecutors do it right—is to really focus on doing justice and not victory, and not worrying about whatever there might be career advancement or enhancement, but looking at the individual in front of them, treating them as an individual, what the facts are, and then just playing it straight down the middle and coming up—if there are charges to be brought, bring them, but don’t load it up. Don’t overwhelm the individual with charges that you put in there just so you can extract a settlement or plea bargain. And that’s not necessarily doing justice, and we have to get back to that type of situation.
Some of the reforms that are in the SAFE Justice Act call for open-file discovery. And there’s some concern, I understand, from prosecutors about that. But my point of view, again, is if I’m the individual who’s being accused by the government of a crime, and they’re trying to take away my life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness, I should have access to all the information. And I get to defend myself. So, we favor reforms like that. Again, I think our system is great. I think our—overall, it’s the best system probably in history. I think most prosecutors do a good job. But we’ve seen the flaws, because there is no room for error. And with human beings, you’re always going to have some error. So we need to get rid of it as much as possible and make sure that we’re honoring the Bill of Rights when we do these things, particularly in the area of prosecution and trying cases.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Van Jones. Van, voter restriction is a big issue in this country, who gets to vote. Nothing curtails it more than a prison record, in many states. Can you talk about President Obama’s call yesterday for the changing of the laws around voting for ex-felons?
VAN JONES: I certainly will, but first I just want to address the elephant in the room, which is that for a lot of people who are in the listening audience, this is the first time they’ve actually heard from anybody associated with Koch Industries directly, and people are probably just shocked to hear what they just heard from someone who those of us on the left spend a lot of time fighting. And so, we have to deal with the question: How can this right-left thing even exist?
I’m a part of Green for All. Green for All and Koch Industries are fighting on environmental issues, directly and indirectly, every day of the week. We don’t agree on so many different issues. Newt Gingrich and I launched this whole effort at a major summit in Washington, D.C. We thought we’d have a hundred people for an hour; we had 700 people, incredibly bipartisan, 10 congressmembers, three governors, two Cabinet secretaries. President Obama sent a video. If you closed your eyes, you couldn’t tell, listening to people talking, who were the Republicans, who were the Democrats. There was that much agreement, and nobody knew it was there. Newt and I don’t agree on anything, but we agree on this issue. We actually fight on many issues, publicly and privately, but we don’t fight on this issue.
Why is that? It’s because of two things. The core values of the Republican Party around liberty—and you just heard Mark talking about it so eloquently—are being completely violated. The core values of the Democratic parties around justice, social justice, racial justice, gender justice—totally being violated. So liberty and justice for all, both parties’ political core values, are being violated by this massive system. And what we discovered by not talking about each other, but by talking to each other, starting out in my life with me and Newt Gingrich and me and Mark, we realized there was this common ground.
Now, in a democracy, we don’t have to agree on everything. I literally—sometimes I talk to Newt, and I say, "Listen, we just had a meeting to figure out how to beat you on an environmental issue." And he’d laugh, "We were just talking about how to beat you on another issue. But let’s talk about the one thing we can work on together." Nobody sitting in prison is sitting there saying, "Well, I hope the Republicans don’t help. I hope that the Democrats and the Republicans don’t work together." Anybody whose parents or child is locked up is not asking for more division. Let’s fight where we don’t agree. Let’s fight hard where we don’t agree. But where we do agree, let’s fight together.
And the other thing is that we are in a situation, that a lot of my friends say, "Van, you can’t work with these people. We’re only going to work with progressives. We’re only going to work with grassroots." How can we only work with progressives when 30 state houses are controlled from top to bottom by Republicans, and both houses of Congress? There is no way to close prisons without working in a bipartisan fashion. And so, I just want to point out, nobody should be more shocked than my friends, because back when I was in the White House, Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, led the effort to get me personally out of the White House, and they won that fight. So, nobody has to tell me how difficult and dangerous it is sometimes to be fighting against conservative folks. I’ve paid the price. But I also will not turn down any helping hand for any of our sisters and brothers, of all colors, who are locked up unjustly. So I had to deal with that issue, because I know a lot of people are sitting here saying, "How can Amy Goodman put the Koch brothers on the air—or, I’m sorry, Koch Industries on the air?" And it’s because there is a principled reason for them to be in the fight, a principled reason for us to be in the fight, and we’ve got to fight together.
That said, in California, when people complete their parole violations or complete parole, they are given a right to vote in California—works just fine. So the idea that somebody can’t be given the right to vote without it somehow destroying America is disproved in the many states where they are given the right to vote. And it’s much more dangerous to live in a country where people make a mistake when they’re 19, like Shaka, and when they’re 90 they still can’t vote, they still can’t get a job, they still can’t get a student loan, they still can’t rent an apartment. That’s not a safe, smart strategy. It’s not a fair strategy. It doesn’t recognize human dignity. It doesn’t recognize human fallibility. And it doesn’t recognize human redemption, which is why so many conservative Christian evangelicals are coming on board. So this is an issue that is so horrible that it’s actually brought the best out of both parties, in the same way it brought the worst out in both parties up until now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Van, talking about people being surprised, I’m actually surprised that President Obama—
MARK HOLDEN: [inaudible] add something? Sorry, can I interject?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Just one second, I wanted to follow up with Van—that President Obama has finally spoken out and taken a clear stand and is visiting a federal prison. It’s almost like since the last congressional election, Obama has become unchained and is finally standing up for some of the issues that many who voted for him thought he represented. Because I think you alluded to that when you said earlier on that he could have said the same thing several years ago, but he’s finally doing it now.
VAN JONES: Well, listen, there might be called a movie called Djobama Unchained. You know, after Django Unchained, maybe we’ll a movie some day called Djobama Unchained. I don’t know. But what I do know is that Democrats and Republicans, at the top and the bottom of both of our parties, and independents, have come to a conclusion this is a stench in the nostrils of God. You are making money off of trafficking in human bodies. This is—we have reintroduced the two worst racial crimes—this is from the left, the right may not agree with this—but from the left, the two worst racial crimes, or two of the worst: slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Everybody in prison is forced to work. That’s slavery. And then, when you get out of that physical prison, you’re then in an economic prison, where you no longer have the rights and the liberties of everybody else. That’s segregation, "the new Jim Crow," as Michelle Alexander says. So you have now the two—or two of the worst racial crimes in our country brought back in through the prison door. We’re against it, and we are proud to find other people with other political traditions who can also see the injustice in their own terms.
AMY GOODMAN: Shaka Senghor, we just did a series of pieces on Kalief Browder, this 16-year-old boy, African-American, in New York, who was sent to Rikers Island because they said he stole a backpack, which he swore he didn’t. In fact, they said, over a period of time, they would let him out if he just said he did do this, and he said, "I will not say I did something I didn’t do." He was held for three years without ever being convicted of a crime. He was held in solitary for close to two years. He got out after three years. He attempted to go to college. He was very popular, but he lived with being haunted by the brutality in prison, beaten by guards, which we’ve repeatedly shown the video of, and by other prisoners. He took his own life last month. You wrote him a letter, is that right?
SHAKA SENGHOR: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Right before he died.
SHAKA SENGHOR: Yes. So, actually, I wrote the letter after I learned of Kalief’s suicide. And I wrote the letter in the spirit of, what would I have said to him when he was struggling with the realities of what he experienced inside solitary confinement? And it was largely based on my own experience. Solitary confinement is by far one of the most barbaric and inhumane aspects of our society right now, to me. I call it America’s greatest shame, because, largely, the men and women who are in that environment suffer from high levels of mental illness, and every day in that environment there is a level of brutality that would shock the American conscience if they saw what was going on inside there, from, you know, restraints, starvation and just outright bullying by correctional officers, etc. And one of my experiences that makes me talk about it so much is I remember a neighbor of mine who was a couple of cells down, that, in desperation, he set himself afire. And that smell stays with me to this day, just the thought that a human could be so desperate that they attempt to take their own life.
And so, when I learned of Kalief Browder’s death, I immediately just sent a letter out, because I really want people to understand that solitary confinement is one of the most desperate, lonely, inhumane spaces that we can find ourselves as humans. And fortunately for me, again, because I was literate, I was able to escape the scars of that environment to some degree by reading and taking my mind out of that environment. But it was so chaotic, so degrading, so dehumanizing. And it hurts my soul to know that this was what Kalief Browder suffered at 16 years old. Like he wasn’t, you know, a street-hardened, toughened criminal that people may have in their head when they think of somebody in solitary confinement. He was a kid. So he spent those years, those formative years, in an environment that basically crushed his spirit, crushed his soul and destroyed him as a human being. And despite the support that he got when he came home, it was just impossible for him to rebound from that trauma. And that’s one of the issues that we don’t even talk about, is that when men and women get out of that environment, there’s no resocialization, there’s no counseling available, no transitional pieces to help them cope with the trauma they just experienced, oftentimes for several years.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you all for being with us. Van Jones, the significance, in the last 30 seconds, of President Obama going to this prison tomorrow, the El Reno in Oklahoma?
VAN JONES: There can be no bigger gesture in politics than to show up yourself physically and bear witness. That’s why you want to see the president, when there are disasters, actually going there, when it’s safe, to show that he cares. This is one of the biggest moral, political, fiscal and human disasters in our country’s history. This president is going to bear witness, and I’m proud he’s doing so.
AMY GOODMAN: Van Jones, founder of #cut50; Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, Charles and David Koch; and Shaka Senghor, we thank you very much, all, for being with us.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, SeaWorld infiltrates the organization that protests its treatment of animals. That’s right, PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It’s a remarkable story. Stay with us.