Andre "Shabaka" Gay. Photo by Tony Norman.

As of July 2, 2022, when he was released from SCI Greene, Andre “Shabaka” Gay spent 50 years, 3 months, 2 weeks and 3 days as a guest of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system.

For his part, he doesn’t dwell on his participation in the homicide robbery that got him sentenced as a juvenile lifer at 16. Even after he explains it to me, I’m not sure if he contests his original arrest as unjust or simply agrees with the 2012 Supreme Court decision that ruled juvenile lifer cases should be reheard and inmates resentenced and eventually freed depending on neurological and cognitive issues courts weren’t aware of at the time.

Born and raised in Pennsylvania’s largest city, he began his stint in the criminal justice system at the notorious Philadelphia House of Corrections.

Most of his time behind bars — 24 years — was spent at SCI Greene. Sixteen of those years were in solitary confinement. He often tried to escape. When he wasn’t plotting to escape, he was a defiant, rabble-rousing prison legal aide who taught himself and others how to write and file briefs that caused a long line of wardens no end of headaches.

The kind of knowledge that Shabaka traded in regularly when he wasn’t locked away was considered dangerous because it was critical of the justice system that corrupt bureaucrats and wardens were desperate to uphold, no matter the contrary evidence.

Every time Shabaka was charged with assaulting a guard, he was given another life sentence on top of the juvenile life sentence he was carrying.

Andre “Shabaka” Gay is focusing his activism on the Allegheny County Jail. Photo by Tony Norman.

Now 67, Shabaka is in great physical shape for a man who has spent half a century in tiny prison cells regretting many things in his past while looking forward to becoming someone who no longer had to look over his shoulder every time he heard police sirens.

When I asked what it felt like when he voted in his first national election a few months ago, he was surprisingly blasé. He said it was what every citizen should be able to do. It shouldn’t ever be remarkable whether one was recently released from prison or not.

“It would be hypocritical of me if I didn’t vote because that’s one of the things I’ve been pushing for — the right of prisoners to vote,” he says.

Shabaka, who now lives in North Braddock is a long way from SCI Greene, but he’s still deeply involved in the business of prison and jail reform.

The focus of his activism these days is the Allegheny County Jail. Shabaka and a coalition of like-minded activists devoted to the “return of citizens” after often long periods of incarceration are hammering out manifestos and working with religious communities to mainstream the rights of current and former inmates.

Shabaka works with the Human Rights Coalition and other groups that have spoken up about Allegheny County Jail and other jails and prisons throughout the commonwealth.

Andre “Shabaka” Gay has become an advocate for the incarcerated. Photo by Tony Norman.

Ultimately, Shabaka says he would like to see a “political party for lack of a better term” come out of what he calls the “returning citizens movement.”

Shabaka is an unpaid volunteer, but he does receive a small stipend from one of the organizations to help him pay his expenses, which are minimal. One thing that five decades of being incarcerated has taught him is that it is possible to live without a lot of possessions.

Driving to a coffee shop in Regent Square with Shabaka, I was fascinated by how he used his smartphone, a contraption he’s owned for only a few months. As much as he is a man of the moment in terms of human rights, he’s still very much a man out of time just trying to figure out how to connect to a world that just might be ready for a message of expanded citizenship after all.

Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch soon. Stay tuned!

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.