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Prison reform effort unites unlikely players

Marci Krivonen

Unlikely bedfellows are aligning on the issue of prison reform. On Thursday (7/2), a former prisoner joined New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and a top executive with Koch Industries for a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival on mass incarceration. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen has more.

Shaka Senghorspent 19 years in prison - 17 of them were in solitary confinement. In solitary, he structured his days like he was on a college campus.

"Everyday I would get up, exercise, then study two or three subjects, then I would do lunch, then write pretty much until they cut the lights off at night," he says.

He immersed himself in learning to distance the chaos of solitary, where he says most inmates suffered from mental illness. Leaving prison can be tough, he says.

"There’s no re-socialization into the general population, let alone, back to society. So you’re forced to sit with whatever you suffer from or are subjected to in that environment. Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to do the things I did in order to transform my life."

Now he’s an author, college instructor and directs an initiative to reduce the country’s incarcerated population by 50 percent.

In 2013 there were 1.6 million people in state or federal prison in the United States. Another 700,000 people are in jails. The United States incarcerates at a rate higher than any other country in the world.

"There’s a deep unfairness to this system that compels Americans, regardless of if you’re a republican or democrat, that’s motivating strange coalitions that have emerged," says Cory Booker, a U.S. Senator and democrat.

He says fixing the criminal justice system is at the core of unfinished business in the country. In Aspen, he sat alongside Mark Holden, Senior Vice President of Koch Industries. Koch is working with groups like the ACLU on the issue.

"For Koch (Industries), it really gets down to Charles and David Koch," says Holden. "They are classical liberals who believe in a limited government and in expansive individual liberties in the Bill of Rights. So, if you believe in the Bill of Rights and helping eliminate obstacles for the disadvantaged, there’s no better place to be than in the prison reform/criminal justice reform movement."

When it comes to reform, Booker, along with Rand Paul, have introduced the Redeem Act that would overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. The panelists agreed the issue is increasingly garnering public interest, and will be part of the 2016 presidential race.