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Trauma & Transformation in an American Prison, Part 1

In part one of a two-part interview, journalist Hugh Hamilton discusses the saga of trauma and transformation in an American prison as chronicled in journalist Chris Hedges’ new book, ‘Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison’.

The US imprisons more of its people than any other country in the world. According to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, the American prison-industrial complex currently holds captive nearly 2.3 million people in more than 6,000 prisons, penitentiaries, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities across the country.

In his newest and positively riveting page-turner, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges takes us behind the forbidding bars of steel at East Jersey State Prison, into a world where prisoners are people. Together, as students in Hedges’ college-level prison class, they embark on a journey of artistic and personal discovery. Tasked with the challenge of writing a dramatic play of their own, these students deliver eloquent, original, and often painful voices to the heartbreaking grief and suffering that they and their families have endured.

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Hugh Hamilton: Welcome to On Contact.  I’m Hugh Hamilton.  Today in the first of a two-part interview with journalist and author Chris Hedges, we explore the saga of trauma and transformation in an American prison as chronicled in his new book, Our Class.

Chris Hedges: In the supermax prison in Trenton for example, prisoners are actually held in what used to be horse stalls with no running water and no toilet, there’s a hole in the wall that’s emptied every few days.  This is also true in isolation units.  So the stench of feces and urine permeates not just the cell but the entire area.  The noise of a prison we forget, it’s an extremely stressful environment, the food is not healthy, diabetes, heart disease runs rampant within prisons.  And then I would add also that it’s--there’s a mercenary quality to American prisons.  We speak often about private prisons, which are, of course, horrible.  These are prisons run for profit.  But in fact, state and federal prisons have largely been privatized.  All of the basic services that those who are incarcerated depend upon are run by for-profit corporations.  This is a bulk multi-billion dollar a year industry.

HH: The United States imprisons more of its people than any other country in the world.  According to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, the American prison industrial complex currently holds captive nearly 2.3 million people in more than 6,000 prisons, penitentiaries, jails, detention centers, and correctional facilities across the country.  In his newest and positively riveting page turner the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges takes us behind the forbidding bars of steel at the East Jersey State Prison into a world where prisoners are people.  Together, as students in Hedges’ college level prison class, they embark on a journey of artistic and personal discovery, tasked with the challenge of writing a dramatic play of their own, these students deliver eloquent, original, and often painful voice to the heartbreaking grief and suffering that they and their families have endured.  For more of the story of Our Class, we’re joined now by its award-winning and best-selling author, Mr. Chris Hedges.  Good day, Chris.

CH: Thank you, Hugh.

HH: It’s wonderful to see you again.  The class you teach in this book is made up of 28 men all serving long term sentences in East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, that’s in New Jersey, in what way to your prior experience as a war correspondent and a foreign correspondent in places like Latin America and the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East, how did that prepare you for teaching in an American prison?

CH: That’s a really good question.  Because there are a lot of similarities to the experiences that I had in places like El Salvador, and the experiences that my students had on the streets of the cities of Camden, Newark, Jersey City, Patterson.  It’s a culture of violence, and the mechanisms that you need to survive as a war correspondent, in many ways, replicate the mechanisms that you need to survive in a violent culture.  There’s a chapter in the book called The Antenna, the ability to very quickly intuit or read people.  Because if you read a person wrong in a warzone, if you trust a person you shouldn’t trust, it can mean your life.  Daniel Pearl made this mistake in Pakistan and then of course was murdered.  And this is also true on the streets of many American cities and certainly within the prison itself.  So that familiarity with a disintegrating society, that familiarity with a violent culture.  And I would also say you can’t come out of the experiences that I had and not carry a certain amount of trauma, and my students certainly carry trauma.  So all of those experiences were a kind of commonality between myself and my students.

HH: Yeah.  That ability to rely on your emotional intelligence is something that you comment on in the book as well.  Now, as--although not as well-known as say New York’s Attica Prison, Rahway does have its own fair share of institutional notoriety.  There were significant riots there in 1952 and again in 1971.  And scenes from several Hollywood movies were also shot there.  Describe for us the general atmosphere of the prison and some of the day-to-day routines and conditions that your students were subjected to.

CH: Well, any prison is completely militarized.  You are referred to by your number, you are made to march in lines, you must immediately obey the corrections officers, whatever whim they have.  Otherwise, you get a charge, this is goes on your record, it’s a kind of demerit, you get too many charges, then you can be put into isolation or they can remove privileges that you have like taking college classes, you can lose your job.  The physical conditions, the prisons in--throughout the country is certainly true in New Jersey are very old, often over a hundred-years-old.  In the supermax prison in Trenton, for example, prisoners are actually held in what used to be horse stalls with no running water and no toilet.  There’s a hole in the wall that’s emptied every few days.  This is also true in isolation units.  So the stench of feces and urine permeates not just the cell but the entire area.  The noise of a prison we forget, it’s an extremely stressful environment.  The food is not healthy, diabetes, heart disease runs rampant within prisons.  And then I would add also that it’s--there’s a mercenary quality to American prisons.  We speak often about private prisons, which are of course horrible.  These are prisons run for profit.  But in fact, state and federal prisons have largely been privatized.  All of the basic services that those who are incarcerated depend upon are run by for-profit corporations.  This is a bulk multi-billion dollar a year industry.  So Global Tel Link, the phone service, Aramark, which runs the food service, and there are repeated cases in prisons throughout the country where the food is rancid.  And there is food poisoning that ripples through the prison.  The portions are meager, especially if you’re a big guy, you know, you’re always hungry, you never get enough to eat.  I’ve talked to people who are incarcerated and just to kill the hunger, they’ll rub toothpaste all over their mouth at night before they go to bed just so they can taste something.  The medical service is privatized, the money transfer service, JPay is privatized.  And so what you’re doing is allowing these for-profit corporations to come in and extract money from the most vulnerable and the poorest within our society, because of course, it’s not just those who are incarcerated who have to pay.  They don’t have access, they make about $28 a month in a New Jersey prison with their jobs.  But their families, you can’t make a phone call unless you pay in advance, for instance.  So that coupled with the fines, people aren’t aware that when you’re sentenced, you’re often loaded with thousands of dollars of fine.  So you may make $28 a month, but they’re taking $2 a month out to pay these fines, which even after 20 or 30 years are not fully paid, so you leave prison with debt and then you can incur further debt because of these for-profit entities, and because they charge for everything.  So for instance, if you have a close family member who is either dying or has died, you get a 15-minute visitation but you have to pay the overtime for the guards.  And that can run well over a thousand dollars which most people don’t have.  So you have people forgoing either the visit to the funeral home or the visit to the deathbed because they can’t afford it.  So the physical conditions, it’s sweltering in the summer, it’s freezing in the winter, the--and then of course the cages that they live in themselves.  I always say if you want to know what it’s like to be in prison, lock yourself in your bathroom for the weekend.

HH: This is a--it’s breath--it’s breathtaking.  And I must say that it was--it was mind numbing for me to have read these accounts in your book.  And given that background you introduced your students in the class that you taught.  You introduced these students who are, of course, prisoners to works by literary luminaries like James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, August Wilson, John Herbert, and Miguel Pinero.  What was it that you set out to accomplish in this class in this prison?  And at what point did you decide that the best way to achieve that would be to have the students write a play of their own?

CH: So this process was organic.  It wasn’t planned.  I was teaching a number of dramatic works, as you mentioned by these great playwrights.  And, of course, I tried to pick plays that addressed their own experiences either inside or outside prison, Miguel Panetta, John Herbert, write about prison as does McCraney and others.  But then Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones, in his classic play, Dutchman writes about White supremacy, White racism, the deep in cohered fear many Whites have of Black people in his play.  And I found that they had very little experience with drama tragically and dramatic works.  And so I thought as a way of--because drama is all about dialogue, of course, that as a way of getting them familiar with the works, I would have them write pieces of dialogue or dramatic dialogue and turn it in.  And what I didn’t know is that one of my students, a wonderful guy, his nickname was Kabir, in Arabic, that means big and he’s big, had--is a devoted listener to WBAI and it heard me on BAI, and it told the writers in the prison, and these are incredibly talented writers that I was teaching a class and recruited them into the class.  And when I got the first set of scenes and it’s all handwritten online pieces of paper and you take it home, and there’s that musty smell of the prison is permeated within that pile.  I read through it and I found three or four that were just brilliant.  And this happened after a couple of weeks--my wife is an actor, professional actor, went to Juilliard, and I had her look at this stuff.  And I said, “You know, I think I’m going to help them write a play.”  But it was generated out of their talent, it wasn’t planned.  But I thought that they were so powerful and poetic, and many of these scenes were so moving that we could perhaps put them together to produce a play of our own.  So that’s how it began.  And as I write in the beginning of the book, there’s a great deal of suspicion towards outsiders.  They don’t particularly like do-gooders who come in, often to essentially credential eyes themselves rather than, you know, work on behalf of those who are in the prison.  So there’s the wariness and a distance which is understandable.  These people have been burned by everyone often abandoned even by their closest friends and family after years in prison.  And that play really broke down those walls.  But the irony was that I just stumbled into it.  It wasn’t premeditated.

HH: When we return after a break, we’re going to be talking a bit more about the play, of course.  But just before we had to break, most of your students in prison were Muslims.  But you are an ordained Presbyterian minister.  To what degree, if any, did that affect the dynamic in your classroom?

CH: Well, I hide the fact that I’m ordained.  I’m not sure they knew at the time.  I do ultimately, as you know, from the book, look at what I do as wheel ministry.  I look at mass incarceration as the civil rights issue of our age.  And one of my students, it had a re-sensing hearing, he was arrested at the age of 14, forced to drag into a police station, signed confession, coerced into signing a confession to a crime he didn’t commit, got to trial.  The confession was ready, it was virtually illiterate, certainly could read a very low reading level, was stunned, tried to announce that he didn’t do it.  It doesn’t matter.  He was sentenced as an adult as we do in the United States.  He was not eligible to go before a parole board until he was 70.  I was at his re-sensing hearing.  He--at the age of 12, was an orphan, his parents had died, was living in an abandoned house in Camden and waited all day long, the courtroom empty, they don’t tell you whose case is coming up.  And by the end of the day, I was there in a clerical collar which I rarely wear and as the--he was the last person out and as the sheriff’s deputy opened the door, said to my student, Lawrence, who’s that f’ing minister, and Lawrence who is Muslim said, “That’s my pastor.”  And that was a really powerful moment for me because it’s about bearing witness.  I’m not trying to convert anyone.  I have a great respect for Islam.  I speak Arabic, I spent seven years in the Middle East, but it is about showing for me ultimately--I don’t use these words much but it is about showing Christian witness.

HH: This is On Contact.  When we come back we’ll continue our conversation about trauma and transformation in an American Prison with the author and journalist, Chris Hedges.

HH: Welcome back to On Contact.  We’re talking with author and journalist Chris Hedges about his new book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison.  Chris, talk to me about Emmanuel Mervilus, and why it was that you selected his story, he was not one of your students, but you interviewed him extensively and you selected his story as the hook upon which you would hang the architecture of the play that the class developed.  Tell me about Mervilus’ story.

CH: So I was at the time running a support group out of the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for formerly incarcerated.  We’d meet every Saturday morning, and it was just trying to hold them together.  There are so many obstacles that are thrown in front of returning citizens, those who have been released.  That’s why after five years, we have a seventy-six percent recidivism rate.  They are denied all sorts of public support, housing, et cetera.  They--it’s hard enough to get a job within these depressed communities.  But if you go in with a record, it’s almost impossible.  So a lot of it was just trying to hold people together emotionally.  And then inevitably, in those groups, I would hear stories about what was happening on the streets of Elizabeth.  The Elizabeth Police Department does not have a good track record in terms of abuse.  And I actually in 2000, had done an investigative piece for the New York Times where I had uncovered a secret society within the Elizabeth Police Department called The Family, where--I mean you couldn’t make this stuff up, they swore allegiance on a Yosemite Sam flag, and they would go into housing projects with loudspeakers on their squad cars playing the song of the Valkyries.  And they had this astronomical conviction rate of about 98% because in the trunks of their cruisers were drugs that they planted on young people in Elizabeth destroying their lives.  And I was only able to really do this because of an honest police officer who would meet me at 1:00 in the morning in an unlit park in Newark, New Jersey.  So I’d ve standing there in this unlit park and he would show up in his Elizabeth Police cruiser and I got all sorts of internal affairs, investigative reports, and grand jury reports, and was able to write a very powerful piece that got the lieutenant fired and broke apart this kind of cabal.  And so I had heard this story about Emmanuel Haitian how he was a victim of this, that drugs were planted on him.  He was arrested.  Finally, he was harassed.  He won’t even tell me to this day the name of the police officer who had a personal vendetta against him because that police officer is now a detective.  So I don’t even know his name.  He’s still there.  And this was a really good kid who was taking care of his mother who was quite ill with cancer.  He was the sole breadwinner.  He kept his little brother in school.  And he’s arrested for a crime he did not commit.  As he said, “I’m big on black, I got dreads.  So, I fit the profile, just like many, many other young men in Elizabeth.”  And his brother--his mother dies while he’s in jail, it’s awful.  And it’s even more painful, because she believes the authorities that he’s guilty and his little brother goes out into the streets and has to hustle to raise the money to free his big brother by hiring a lawyer and he finally gets $10,000 and gives it to the lawyer in an envelope and the lawyer said, “Well, this is just a downpayment.”  But eventually he gets out.  I mean, it’s--the lawyer itself calls that a kind of Halley’s Comet experience.  This almost never happens.  And we needed a story.  We had all sorts of powerful scenes, but we needed a kind of narrative to hang it on.  So I interviewed him at length, several hours, taped it, and then typed out the transcript and brought it in to the students to see whether that story was one that we could hang the play upon.  And they felt that that would work.  And so that is--that is the--in rough outline the arc of the play.

HH: And as you point out in the book, you discovered very early on that you are not the only writer in the group within the class.

CH: Yeah.

HH: As a matter of fact, they were a number.  I think it is fair to say a number of largest--larger than life characters in that class both literally and figuratively.  You mentioned Kabir earlier.  There was Boris, Boris Franklin, who later would become the first of your students to be released.  But another of your students, Steph Williams wrote a scene for the play about being locked away in Administrative Segregation and you referred briefly to Ad Seg a little earlier in the conversation.  I’d like you to read up a segment in the book, where you write about administrative segregation.  It begins on page 86 of the book, if you could share with us a bit of Steph’s backstory and then read that passage for us.

CH: Well Steph, he was remarkable student went on to graduate summa cum laude from Rutgers is now working as a community organizer, as is Boris Franklin for the Industrial Areas Foundation.  And he was one of the two--he and Boris carry--had a tremendous amount of gravitas.  I sense that from the moment I walked into the classroom, just universally respected within the prison for their integrity, their incredible intelligence.  Both gifted writers.  Boris writes poetry and I’ve--I was fortunate and as you mentioned, that he was the first one to get out because when I began--when we began the play, I said “Who wants a part?”  Seven people raised their hand as we--as it progressed, all twenty-eight students wanted a part.  So we had to write 28 parts so everyone was included.  And then afterwards, we went--I promised them that I would work as hard as I could to get it on stage, which I eventually did in 2018 at the Passage Theater in Trenton, sold out every night.  And Boris and I had--we worked with a great theater director who helped us a workshop at in New York, Jeffrey Wise.  And we had to make it so that would work on stage which is reducing the characters.  It was very painful for all of us to cut because we would hear the voices of whatever student wrote whatever passage.  And so Boris, luckily, he’s an incredibly gifted writer.  He and I literally sat side-by-side and work--rewriting the play.  But Steph was an extremely important also very talented writer.  And this is the passage that you’re referring to in the book.  Ad Seg, so these are isolation cells where you go after you’ve been charged with committing an infraction, or--and that doesn’t mean you committed the infraction by the way, you’ve just been charged and found guilty.  Ad Seg cells are six feet by eight feet.  They include a bed, sink, and two small shelves.  There are no windows.  In the summer, it is so hot, the metal walls sweat, and temperatures can rise to 95 degrees.  Steph had a small fan in Ad Seg.  He could purchase a small bag of ice for 75 cents.  He would rub the ice on his face as it melted quickly.  In the back wall was a depression that was three feet tall, two feet wide and eighteen inches deep.  That was a toilet.  It did not flush.  It was cleaned out every few days.  The stench of feces and urine filled the tiny cell.  He was locked in for 23 hours a day.  The noise of the voices reverberating off the walls and down the corridors was deafening and constant.  The cell was infested with mice.  The meals were often rancid, and all portions were so small that he was constantly hungry.  Another prisoner kept a mouse on a string as a pet, a detail that Steph wrote into the play.  Steph was stripped searched every time he left the cell, forced not only to stand naked, but also to open his mouth, run his fingers through his mouth, lift up--lift up his genitals and bend over and cough, guards to belittle him.  Often forced him to repeat the process from the beginning so that he would be putting his fingers in his mouth after having handled his genitals.

HH: That’s--I had to--I had to take a breather after reading that passage.  In fact, there were some inmates or persons who were held in Ad Seg who were known to be playing with their feces.  It did something--they were literally after a while deranged as a result of this experience.

CH: Well, that’s prolonged isolation does.  You’re right and my students talk about people who disintegrate so--and you’re right, they’re swallowing AA or AAA batteries, they’re throwing feces on the wall.  They’re cutting themselves.  That’s what prolonged isolation does, as we know from Guantanamo and the CIA Black sites.

HH: The play was produced as you--as you said to critical acclaim in New Jersey.  Also, the script has been published by Haymarket Books.  In what ways do you think your students benefited from this experience?

CH: We can talk in the other segment about personally how they benefited but in terms of putting the play up on stage and printing it, they benefited and that people heard their voice.  People heard their suffering, their trauma, their experiences, and given the criminal caste system in this country.  I think we’ve rendered those within our prisons and those who are released from our prisons as, as non-humans. unpeople, Noam Chomsky calls them.  And this lifted up their dignity, their intelligence, their integrity, and validated who they are as human beings.

HH: And we’ll talk about these and other issues in prison and the prison experience when we return.  This is On Contact.  And we have been talking with award-winning author and journalist Chris Hedges about his new book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison.  Our conversation will continue in the next edition of On Contact.  I’m Hugh Hamilton.  Thanks for watching.

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