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On Contact: Trauma & Transformation in an American Prison, Part 2

In the second of a two-part interview, journalist Hugh Hamilton discusses with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges the role of race and poverty in mass incarceration, as chronicled in Hedges’ new book, ‘Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison’.

The pipeline that fuels our system of mass incarceration runs through the intersection of race and poverty in all too many of our neglected and marginalized urban centers. In his new book, ‘Our Class’, author Chris Hedges describes the impact of this debilitating poverty that pervades many of our cities and towns. He writes: “The social hell of urban America is the great destroyer of dreams. It batters and assaults the children of the poor. It teaches them that their dreams, and finally they themselves, are worthless. They go to bed hungry. They live with fear. They lose their fathers, brothers, and sisters to mass incarceration – and, at times, their mothers.

“This social hell is relentless. It wears them down. It makes them angry and bitter. It drives them to hopelessness and despair. The message sent to them by the dysfunctional schools, the decrepit housing projects, the mercenary financial institutions, gang violence, instability, and ever-present police abuse, is that they are human refuse.”

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Hugh Hamilton: Welcome to On Contact.  I’m Hugh Hamilton.  Today in the second of our two-part interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Chris Hedges, we discussed the role of race and poverty in mass incarceration, as chronicled in his new book, Our Class.

Chris Hedges: For somebody who cares about writing, cares about the world of ideas, to see--and we all lose as a society.  It’s not just their families and then all of us are impoverished because they’re incarcerated.  And to see this kind of talent, and this kind of integrity, as I mentioned, essentially ignored, that for me, as a professor to go into these prisons, and find this kind of hunger, and this kind of a brilliance and to see how we, as a society, has neglected it that’s extremely meaningful to me and meaningful to my students.  Those are sacred spaces.

HH: The pipeline that fuels our system of mass incarceration runs through the intersection of race and poverty in all too many of our neglected and marginalized urban centers.  In his new book, Our Class, author Chris Hedges describes the impact of this debilitating poverty that pervades so many of our cities and towns, he writes, and I’m quoting here, “The social hell of urban America is the great destroyer of dreams.  It batters and assaults the children of the poor.  It teaches them that their dreams and finally they themselves are worthless.  They go to bed hungry, they live in fear, they lose their fathers, mothers, and sisters to mass incarceration, and at times their mothers.  This social hell is relentless, it wears them down.  It makes them angry and bitter.  It drives them to hopelessness and despair.  The message sent to them by the dysfunctional schools, the decrepit housing projects, the mercenary financial institutions, gang violence, instability, and ever present police abuse is that they are human refuse.  Now, the book is titled Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison.  And here to continue our conversation is its award-winning and best-selling author Chris Hedges.  Good day, Chris.

CH: Thanks Hugh.

HH: As you were writing the chapter on rage and terror in this book, the story of a woman named Amy Cooper was being widely reported.  Remind us of the Amy Cooper story and why you thought that it was important to reference that in the book.

CH: While we were reading the play Dutchman by Amiri Baraka, then known as Leroy Jones, and the play is--it’s an iconic piece of theater, iconic work, one of the great plays of the 20th century.  And it is about a Black man who has achieved all that the White society has told him he must achieve in order to be accepted.  Speaking proper English, properly dressed, highly educated, it takes place on a--on a subway, the play is called Dutchman, which was taken from a Coleridge poem about the Dutch, the ship, the slave ship.  And there are clear analogies there.  And he’s tempted by a White woman, who knows very well the power she has to weaponize any, kind of, sexual, even the hint of a sexual advance on his part towards her.  And if you look at--and then the write--at the--at the time that I’m writing it, this incident takes place in Central Park, where a Black man, again, highly educated, I think went to Harvard and University of Chicago or something, is birdwatching.  And he tells her that she should put her dog on a leash, which is the rule, and she gets on the cell phone to call 911 and said that she is being aggressively pursued or attacked by a Black man and “Please you must come now.”  And if you go back and look at lynching, race riots, it’s often triggered by this charge, which is often usually almost always false, that a Black man has assaulted a White woman.  So women, in a patriarchal society, have very little power.  But one of the mechanisms they have that does empower them is the ability to charge a Black man with sexual assault.  And the consequences for that Black man, as we saw, for instance, with the men charged for the Central Park rape, which they didn’t commit, has the ability to at least put them in prison if not see them killed.

HH: And how did that story resonate with the students in your class?

CH: Well, they get it.  I always say, you know, I’ve taught at Princeton, Columbia, NYU, you know, very elite universities.  But the students that I teach in the prison are far more aware of the society they live in because they understand the dysfunctional judicial system, they get the consequences of neoliberalism.  They know how White supremacy works.  They recognize that militarized police have become a form of social control, carrying out terror.  I don’t use that word lightly.  It is terror when your door is kicked down at 2:00 in the morning, and people charge in with long barreled weapons and Kevlar vests for a nonviolent drug warrant.  They get all that.  So the level of discussion begins in those prison classrooms are often at a plateau that elite students can’t even begin to reach.  So yeah, they are acutely aware of it, because, of course, it has impacted their lives.

HH: Together with the issue of race, the issue of poverty also looms large as a defining condition in the lives of many of your students at East Jersey State Prison.  Of one such student named Lawrence, you write, “Like orphaned children buffeted by war, Lawrence endured extreme poverty, chronic instability, and physical abuse, was deprived of his most basic needs and outcast by the wider society.  He had never had an adequate income or sufficient food.”  Talk to us about Lawrence and the role that poverty plays in the prison pipeline.  You did refer to Lawrence earlier, but among your other students, to what degree does poverty contribute to the problem of mass incarceration?

CH: Right, so I write--I quote George Bernard Shaw at the end of the book, that poverty is the greatest of all crimes, because it reduces you to a level where you have to engage in activity that the wider society considers illegal in order to survive.  Poverty is the great disrupter of family cohesion, community cohesion, I don’t think we can speak about these marginal communities where Malcolm X called these internal colonies without raising the issue of evictions.  So you lock up the men, largely, and you evict the women and children, often every six months.  Kabir in the book talks about constant evictions, never being able to stay in the same school, the trauma of having sheriff’s deputies, or eviction companies come to your house and clear out all your furniture and throw it out on the street.  So there’s an inherent instability that poverty calls.  And the rupturing of what Emile Durkheim would call these social bonds that knit you to the wider society, poverty is the greatest of all crimes.  And, unfortunately, we live in a carceral society, where we invest in mechanisms of repression and control to the tune of billions and billions of dollars and not in people.  And that is really the greatest of all crimes.  I always said there are my students in the class, committed crime, some of them not all of them, but they’re not criminals.  They can’t be defined by their crime.  For me, what’s criminal is a system that has reduced them to this Hobbesian world where they don’t have enough to eat.  I mean, Lawrence, I remember in the classroom, somebody was talking about the transition from being outside the prison into the prison.  And Lawrence said--and he--and he hadn’t spoken before about coming into prison that young because much of the prison culture, it’s a very hyper masculine culture, talks about the experiences you had outside of prison.  Well, Lawrence went into prison at 14, he didn’t have any experiences outside of prison that he could brag about.  But he talks about, for the first time he had a bed, he was living in an abandoned house.

HH: Uh-hmm.

CH: And he used to put rocks and gravel on the steps in case he heard somebody coming.  This is a 12-year-old child in an abandoned house in Camden, New Jersey, which per capita is the poorest city in the United States, and is not surprisingly often per capita, the most dangerous city in the United States.  And he talks about having a bed and having food, then that in some ways jail, and not--it’s not a positive experience but it gave him on a regular basis what he--what he didn’t have when he was living on the streets of Camden.

HH: You know, I think perhaps the greatest triumph of this brilliant book you’ve written is the fact that you have been able to humanize so many of the persons we merely think of as prisoners, or inmates, or people who are locked away for whatever reason.  And in reading the book, it was very striking the number of cases in which these men ended up in prison for very marginal behaviors.  And even while in prison, you had a problem.  Take Steph, for example, He was sentenced to the Administrative Segregation for 365 days for being in possession of a cell phone that he had bought from a prison guard.  So this is a--talk a bit about some of the circumstances the--that would have led these men into the state of incarceration.

CH: So some of my students did commit the crime for which they were convicted.  But courtesy of Joe Biden and Bill Clinton, and the Omnibus Crime Bill, sentences have been tripled and quadrupled.  I always would tell my students, I would ask them, “Do you know how many years Gavrilo Princip got for assassinating the heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne and his wife?”  He got 20 years.  And you’ve got people in there for life who never committed a violent crime.  About 40% of the people in our prison system never committed a crime that physically harmed another person.  That’s first and foremost.  Second of all, they’re all denied a jury trial.  In fact, as Michelle Alexander points out, who wrote The New Jim Crow, a very fine book that I try and teach frequently in the prison about how the system is broken, 94% don’t get a jury trial.  And they’re coerced into taking a plea deal.  And the way they do it is they stack, the prosecutor will stack a bunch of charges, kidnappings, a favorite one, even if you didn’t kidnap anyone, because that’s a 25-year sentence.  And then they offer to remove numerous of those charges, and force you to plea out.  And in fact, the students that I taught, the ones with the longest sentences are the ones who refuse to take the plea.  And they usually refuse to take the plea because they didn’t commit the crime, that they were innocent.  And they naively somehow thought they would get into court and that innocence would be recognized.  In fact, of course they were made an example of because the system would crash if everyone got a jury trial.  It’s not designed--it’s not capable of giving people jury trials.  And the charges, they use RICO charges.  These are racketeering laws that were used to clean up the mob.  In the case of Kabir, he was--had just turned eighteen, he was in a car listening to a 50 Cent song, two older men in their twenties went into rob a convenience store.  The owner reached for a gun, they had a gun, they shot and killed the owner, they ran back to the car.  Kabir didn’t have any idea what was going on and he’s charged with a crime.  I mean, the only crime that Kabir committed was listening to a 50 Cent song.

HH: Hmm.

CH: And so I think it goes for 16 or 18 years, I can’t remember.  So there’s a fairly significant percentage of people in our prison system, number one, who shouldn’t be there.  And number two, even if they should be there, the sentences are three, four times what they are in anywhere else in the rest of the world.  It’s a--it’s--the judicial system is designed to railroad poor people into the prison.  People say it’s broken.  Well, I don’t know if it’s broken.  In fact, it probably functions just the way it is designed.  And that’s why recidivism rates are so high because lobbyists for these billion dollar corporations that profit off of the prison industrial complex, make sure that there are no programs, no vocational programs, no kinds of therapy, and all the barriers that someone faces when they are released are so insurmountable that they end up back inside.  That’s how they make their money.  And I look at prisons as a form of Neo slavery.  Remember, they’re not under the 13th Amendment.  You’re not required to pay people minimum wage.  And you have prisons where people work 40 hours a week in Georgia and other states.  They don’t pay them at all.  Prisons are the modern iteration of slave plantations.

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, you were talking a moment ago about Kabir, one of the larger than life characters in your class.  And that reminds me of how much the scourge of poverty also stops the formerly incarcerated long after they have been released from prison.  In the case of Kabir, for example, in your book, he ends up in a homeless shelter, after his release from prison.  Talk a bit about what happens to former prisoners who are forced to navigate what you call the netherworld of America’s criminal caste system.

CH: If you come out without a strong support system, and that’s not just a family, but a family that has some financial means.  Then you are cast aside as Kabir was, and he ends up, as I write, in a homeless shelter, it’s heartbreaking, this guy is the sweetest guy, you know, he--there is not a mean bone in his body.  And he can’t get work, he gets work at a Whole Foods.  And then because of the COVID pandemic, the courts aren’t functioning and there’s a long delay in his background check, and when his background check finally comes in on that day, he’s fired, and I reached out to the manager of the Whole Foods, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t make any difference, and he’s back out on the street again.  So no matter how hard you try, there are all these mechanisms on the outside to beat you down.  And that’s what’s so criminal on the part of our society that all of these people who come out in the case of Kabir, he should’ve never been in prison.  All of these people who come out who want to reintegrate, who want to have a normal life, a car, an apartment, a job, all of these mechanisms work to deny them that possibility and drive them into deeper and deeper despair, and frustration, and anger.  And at a certain point, if you don’t have a place to live, the enticement of the illegal economy is such that that’s your only option.  And that, of course, often means that you end up back inside.

HH: On the morning of May 10th of 2019 you attended the graduation ceremony for 27 formerly incarcerated men and women at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.  Several of those graduates were your former students, what are your recollections of that day?

CH: That was a very emotional day for all of us.  You can’t go to those ceremonies and not weep unless you have a heart of stone.  They never thought they get a college degree, their families never thought they get a college degree.  And it’s really heroic.  What they did imagine studying for a BA and getting a BA while enduring the conditions of a--of a prison.  You’re working all the time.  There’s no privacy, there’s constant noise, you struggle to get research materials.  It’s really heroic and, yes, Steph and Borah, several of my former students were there.  And I--you did mention I am an ordained Presbyterian minister.  I don’t wear it on my sleeve.  But I felt that or I do feel that what takes place in those classrooms is a sacred moment for me.  And I think for them, it is for me what at its core defines what ministry is about.  It is about standing with what the great theologian James Cohn called the crucified of the earth.  And it was my final--I say in the book it was my final sermon to them and the other students and I--I’ve probably worn a clerical collar less than half a dozen times, but I put it on for that event.  And then my father who was a great influence in my life, also a Presbyterian minister.  I put his cufflinks, I wore his cufflinks, and I talked to them about who they were, and how much they meant to me and to the other teachers and what--it was an honor, it was an honor for us that they had allowed us into their lives.  So, yeah, it was a really special day, as all of those days every year are.

HH: I’d like you to read for us an excerpt from your address the students on that day.  Beginning on page 209 of the book.

CH: “My fellow college graduates, integrity is not an inherited trait.  It is not conferred by privilege, or status, or wealth.  It cannot be bequeathed by elite schools or institutions.  It is not a product of birth, or race, or gender.  Integrity is not a pedigree or a brand.  Integrity is earned.  Integrity is determined not by what we do in life.  But what we do with what life gives us.  It is what we overcome.  Integrity is the ability to affirm our dignity even when the world tells us we are worthless.  Integrity is forged in pain and suffering, loss, and tragedy.  It is forged in the courtrooms where you were sentenced.  It is forged in the shackles you’re forced to wear.  It is forged in the cages where you lived, sometimes for decades.  It is forged in the cries of your children, those who lost their mothers or their fathers to the monstrosity of mass incarceration.  It is forged in the heartache of your parents, your brothers, your sisters, your spouses, and your partners.  Integrity is forged by surmounting the hell around you, to study in a cramped and claustrophobic cell.  For the college degree, no one, perhaps not even you thought you would earn--ever earn.  Integrity is to refuse to become a statistic.  Integrity is to rise up and shout out to in a different universe, I am somebody.  And today, no one can deny who you are, what you have achieved.  And what you have become, college graduates, men and women of integrity who held on fiercely to your dignity and your capacity to exert your will and triumphed.”

HH: From your final sermon, as you describe it in the book, to the--to the students.  Now, prison is a gendered space.  So obviously there were no women in the class that you taught at East Jersey State Prison.  But you did run a weekly support group at the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  And there were a number of women who were formerly incarcerated who were part of that effort.  So in your assessment, from your conversations with these women, is there any meaningful difference in the way that women and men experience or reflect upon the experience of incarceration?

CH: Yes, it’s much harder for women.  And I have taught in the women’s prison in New Jersey, which is being closed down because it has functioned for many years, essentially, as a rape camp on the part of some corrections officers carrying it out repeated acts of sexual abuse towards the women inside of the prison.  That’s been documented by federal authorities in a long report, including mattresses in utility closets where there is no camera et cetera.  The women have it much harder because they don’t have the support system that the men tend to have, their mothers, their wives.  The women are cast aside much more quickly, remember, their children are taken from them.  And if you go into a women’s prison at night, they can barely get through the phone call to their children who are now in foster homes because they’re weeping so much.  Yes, women--incarcerated women.  I think as difficult as it is, for the men endure a kind of special hell.

HH: We’ve talked about how your students have benefited from this experience.  And in closing, I’d like you to talk about the impact that this experience of teaching this class has had on you to what degree has it altered or modified in any way your perspective on our human condition?

CH: Well, these are what Antonio Gramsci calls organic intellectuals.  There are intellectuals at every level of society.  But these intellectuals never had a chance to express or develop their potential because of dysfunctional school systems.  The students that I teach turn their cells into libraries.  So we talked about Boris, wonderfully talented, incredibly charismatic, brilliant student, I met him at the gate, when his--with his mother, he says I was crying more than his mother, I don’t know.  And his first words to me after--remember, they have no money.  So for them to buy a book, that’s a huge purchase, and over the 11 years, he had amassed a library of about eleven--about a hundred books that he wasn’t allowed to take out, that’s a huge sacrifice.  And the first words he said to me when he walked out of prison after 11 years was, “I have to rebuild my library.”  And for somebody who cares about writing, cares about the world of ideas, to see, and we all lose as a society, it’s not just their families, and then all of us are impoverished because they’re incarcerated.  And to see this kind of talent, and this kind of integrity, as I mentioned, essentially ignored that for me as a professor to go into these prisons, and find this kind of hunger, and this kind of brilliance, and to see how we, as a society has neglected it, that’s extremely meaningful to me and meaningful to my students.  Those are sacred spaces, in those classrooms.  And every night, when I would go home, I taught at night, all of my students would come up and say, “Now drive home safely.”  No student at Princeton, or ever asked me to drive--or even thought about it.  And so we failed these people, we failed them.  And to be able to, in a very small way, rectify the tremendous injustice that has been committed against them and against their families, for me, is not only meaningful, but what it means to be a minister.

HH: Chris as always it has been a pleasure and an honor to speak with you.  Thank you very much for this brilliant book.  And I look forward to reading your next work.

CH: Thanks, Hugh.

HH: This is On Contact.  And we’ve been talking with the award winning author and journalist Chris Hedges about his new book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American prison.  I’m Hugh Hamilton.  Thanks for watching.

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