Seven years out, he’s working to change parole laws that send too many former felons back

The sixth in a series of multimedia projects that examine causes for recidivism in the American justice system.

New York Times bestselling author Shaka Senghor remembers his first night in prison.

It was fall. And it was cold. The windows were busted. Two scruffy wool blankets covered a three-inch plastic mattress. He had to use both blankets – one to cover his feet, the other for his upper torso. But it was so cold Senghor eventually got up and put one of the blankets in the broken window. As he looked out, he saw two cats playing around a garbage can. He envied their freedom.

RE-ENTRY: Is America failing its prisoners?

“It just was … dark and lonely sitting in that cell and realizing that this was the next however many years of my life, if not the rest of my life,” says Senghor, author of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death and Redemption in an American Prison.

Senghor, who was sentenced to 17 to 40 years for second-degree murder, served 19 years in prison, spending seven years in solitary confinement. He was released from prison on June 22, 2010. He walked in at the age of 19, and didn’t walk out until he was 38. 

Senghor is now 45, and the past seven years have been a mixed bag. It was hard to find a job. For a couple of years, he said, his job applications were dismissed almost immediately because of his felony conviction.

As difficult as starting over was for Senghor, he had it better than others. He lived in Michigan, a state with one of the lowest employment restrictions for former felons in the country — 94. The state with the highest number, Louisiana, has 389 employment restrictions.  Nationwide 6,392 of the 48,000 restrictions on former felons are on employment. 

POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media

According to a 2015 study by the Center for American Progress, state laws bar people with certain convictions from more than 800 occupations nationwide. It found that more than 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed a year after being released.

And men who have been incarcerated earn an average of 40% less than those who have never…