Chris Hedges on trauma & teaching writing in prison

Since 2013, Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and host of The Chris Hedges Report, has taught college courses in drama, literature, philosophy, and history at East Jersey State Prison (aka “Rahway”) and other New Jersey prisons. In one such course, after reading plays by Amiri Baraka and August Wilson, among others, Hedges’ students wrote a play of their own. The play, Caged, would eventually be published and performed at The Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey, for a month-long run in 2018 to sold-out audiences. In his latest book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, Hedges chronicles the journey he and his class embarked on together. Joining Mansa Musa on Rattling the Bars, Hedges speaks about his book and the transformations he witnessed among the men he taught behind prison walls.

Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of The New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a columnist at ScheerPost. He formerly hosted the program Days of Revolt, produced by TRNN, and currently hosts The Chris Hedges Report. Hedges is the author of several books, including America: The Farewell TourAmerican Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, and Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


TRANSCRIPT

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. Today, we have an extraordinary guest. We have Chris Hedges, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief in the Middle East and the Balkans for 15 years. His body of work is endless in a lot of regards. A Master of Divinity of Harvard University, and I’m just scratching the surface. He wrote a book entitled Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison. We’ll be discussing this book among other things today. Welcome, Chris.

Chris Hedges:  Thank you.

Mansa Musa:  Let’s start by looking at some of the things that you said in your book. You ventured into Rahway prison, maximum security prison, September the 5th of 2013, and you said in your book that this was a calling. Explain that.

Chris Hedges:  Well, I had gone to Harvard Divinity School, but I’d lived in Roxbury, which is a depressed urban area in Boston, and ran a small church because I wanted to be an inner city minister. And I eventually left divinity school to become a journalist. But I did spend two and a half years in the inner city, which, as somebody who grew up white, middle-class, was perhaps the most formative experience in my life because it taught me how the interlocking systems of institutional racism and how they work. The probation officers, the courts, the police, the schools, the banks, they all work in concert to keep the poor poor. But you don’t really see it until you live inside what Malcolm X called, one of these internal colonies.

I was overseas for 20 years. I came back. My neighbor, who was the head of the history department at the College of New Jersey – This was before Rutgers had a college program – Was teaching semester-long courses because after people got their GEDs, there wasn’t anything for them to continue their education. So she would teach like a history course, the same kind of course she taught at the College of New Jersey. It didn’t have any academic validity, but if the students finished the course, she would print up on her home computer a certificate. It would go in their file. When they went before the parole board, it would show positive activity that they had done while they were incarcerated.

So I began there. And then in 2013, Rutgers began a degree program, which has been quite successful, originally an associate’s degree, now a full BA degree, and I started teaching there. But it was returning to my original calling in a sense that I went back to that community that I had worked with and thought I was going to spend most of my life working with as a minister, and so it was a kind of return. You know, they say, life’s not a line, it’s a circle.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. And let’s look at the book in and of itself, Our Class. This book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, has a unique way of unpacking the trauma that most of us go through from mass incarceration. But more importantly, in terms of using drama to get the men to unpack traumatic experiences. Talk about that. How did you come up with this concept? Because, as I said, in and of itself, I was locked up 48 years in the Maryland prison system, so I’m real familiar with prison activity, and we sponsor a lot of activities, but this particular concept and the way you utilize it to get men to go into areas that were a lot of times hard to address or unpack. How were you able to come up with this particular approach?

Chris Hedges:  It was completely accidental. Well, that’s probably why it worked. It wasn’t premeditated. So I was teaching a course on drama. Well, not surprisingly, most people in the class, had 28 students, had no firsthand experience with drama because they don’t have $150 to go buy a ticket to see something in New York. And so I decided, because drama, everything is conveyed primarily through dialogue – Although of course great actors bring a lot to that – But primarily through dialogue. And so just on a whim, I said, well, why don’t you write scenes from your own life, but in dialogue, in dramatic dialogue, so that they could become familiar with the form of drama.

But what I didn’t know is that it had gotten around inside the prison that I was a writer. One of my students actually was quite familiar with my work, and he had recruited the best writers in the prison. And as you know, there are always within a prison a group of people who take writing very seriously. My students, they turned their cells into libraries. But I had about a half dozen extremely gifted writers. So when they wrote those scenes, I brought them home. My wife is an actor, and I showed her those scenes. And after two, three weeks, the quality was still so exemplary that I decided that I would help them write a play.

Well, again, I didn’t understand what I was doing. Because as you know, in a prison, you don’t ask what people are in for, people don’t even use their legal names in prison. You have to build those emotional walls because any sign of weakness, any sign of fear, any sign of vulnerability, even sensitivity, makes you prey, can make you prey for predators in prison. So you keep those walls up. And by getting them to write out of their own life, of course what they were doing is dredging up these traumatic, emotional experiences, both inside and outside prison that many had never spoken about ever. Even though they may have been in a cell with somebody for years, they’d never mentioned it.

I mean, just one example, one of my students, I said, we were trying to work on a scene with a mother. My job was to kind of paste everything together. And I said, well, write just a dialogue with your mother. And at the end of the class, one of the students came up and said, well, what if we’re a product of rape? And I said, well, that’s what you have to write. So what he writes is the phone call that he makes from the county when, after he is picked up. He’s from Patterson. He’s picked up in a car with his half-brother. There’s a gun in the car. If somebody doesn’t claim it, then everybody’s going to get a weapons charge. He says it’s his gun. It wasn’t his gun. It was his half-brother’s gun. But the conversation with his mother is, it doesn’t matter, Ma, I was never supposed to be here anyway. And you have the son you love. He went to prison to essentially give his mother the son she loved.

And, of course, it was deeply emotional. But that’s what happened that inadvertently these walls crumbled in that process. And there were things that people wrote that they couldn’t… It was so emotional, they couldn’t even read it. And it created a kind of bonding in that classroom, which, to this day, I mean, that was 2013. I’m at the gate when these guys get out. I have continued relationships with them. They have relationships in the prison that are different from other relationships because essentially, within that classroom setting through the process of writing that play – Which was eventually published and eventually performed by the professional theater in Trenton, was sold out every night, was called Caged – They told the truth about their lives, their experiences, that just doesn’t get heard within a prison setting. Well, very rarely.

Mansa Musa:  And that brings me to my next question, because, as you eloquently expressed how through this writing they were given this opportunity. I know from experience that a lot of us that come into prison, a lot of us are illiterate. A lot of us don’t have the ability to articulate ourselves in a literary capacity. But in this case, one, you got the best writers. But more importantly, in exposing them to writing, did you sense that they had something in them to talk about and that this writing would give them the outlet to convey what they verbally, normally convey amongst themselves in private? We talk a lot amongst ourselves. But did you sense that, at some point, did you sense that this writing, that this mechanism right here was going to allow you to be able to get them to be more comfortable with what they were saying, and more importantly, to change their thinking about themselves and the world around them?

Chris Hedges:  I don’t know how much I changed their thinking. It was more that I allowed those interior thoughts through that process to be expressed. You have to remember, these are highly educated people. Several students in that class went on to graduate summa cum laude from Rutgers University. And so they had done a lot of thinking themselves and a lot of self-reflection. But here it came out and it was expressed, and pain, the pain that they carried. It was interesting how many of the students in the class, because they’re big guys, a lot of them, they all lift weights. They call it The 400 Club because they all bench over 400. But they all often talked about bullying, which was a very common experience within the classroom as children. They had been bullied. So just all sorts of pain that they had endured, loss, grief, that struggle to hold together a family.

The whole plot line of the play was based on a true story about a guy who’d been picked up for a crime he didn’t commit. He was the sole worker in the family, so he took care of the mother who had cancer and [his] 16-year old brother. Well, of course he goes into prison and the world collapses. His mother dies, his brother gets evicted, ends up on the streets, and he starts to hustle to get money to get a lawyer for his brother. And this is a very… His lawyer calls it a Halley’s Comet experience. He actually got his conviction overturned eventually after a few years, but the world had disintegrated because of that, and that was the plot line of the play.

So these people, they’re removed from their communities. They’re removed from their children. They’re removed from their families. They’re powerless in many ways to try and help. I mean, they try to be fathers over the phone, but there’s a lot of anger that is expressed by the children, and then they stop coming. As you know, they always say after about five years, then the visits get scarcer and scarcer. And there are many cases I had with students who simply told them, because it’s a humiliating process to go through a visit, the guards will treat the families, even the children, not much better than the prisoners. And a lot of people just say, don’t visit, especially to their mothers. The relationships disintegrate, the marriages. I had students who were paralegals who wrote essentially the divorces for their wives, and we forget about all of that and what that does to people on the inside. But also what that does, because prison affects not only those who were inside, but those who are outside in innumerable ways, not least of which is financial, because prisons are completely predatory.

So it’s Global Tel Link and Aramark and Jpay and the commissary, everything is privatized. Plus you got fines. I mean, you’re extracting money from the poorest of the poor. It’s just modern-day slavery. [crosstalk] Prisons are basically plantations. They’re run like plantations. Even the way I was once at an event and I watched the warden, who had been a guard in this prison, come up. And I just watched all my students flatter him. I mean, he was even blushing. And I said to them afterwards, I said, because I know what they think of him and what they… And it reminded me exactly of what W.E.B. Du Bois would write about that kind of double consciousness, that if you’re Black in a situation like that, you’ve got to understand the white world and understand your own world. But of course, that white hierarchy doesn’t understand the Black world at all, even though they’re in physical close proximity to it.

But there was a perfect example. They hate the warden, obviously, but they realized within that power structure, because he had total power in the same way the plantation owner has total power, they had to flatter him in such a way, and which became a kind of form of manipulation, obviously.

All of those things were captured in the play. Including the prison code. So you have a kind of formal code. If somebody dishonors you or disrespects you, you’re supposed to respond. But as my students said, that code is in fact more often violated than followed. The way they put it is, you may have somebody come in who did something to a member of your family, and the code may say that you have to seek revenge, but in their words, you’re a phantom and he’s a phantom, and walk by. I mean, as a prison is a complex subculture, which you know obviously better than I do. But all of that got wrapped into this amazing play.

Mansa Musa:  And let’s dial down on, let’s talk about how you were able to like… And first of all, how long was this process?

Chris Hedges:  Four months.

Mansa Musa:  Okay. So let’s talk about how you were able to get them to maintain the mission on this emotional rollercoaster. Because, as you spoke, the one person said, well, your father was in this cell, or another person that is prepared to follow the code and do something. And by the same token, is talked out of it or the different things that go on in the conversation that you… How were you able to get them to stay focused on the mission in the midst of this emotional rollercoaster? Because remember, I know for a fact, I’ve been in this environment that, oh, I’ll go on a diatribe. You know, something comes up in my head and you say, okay, read what you wrote. And then at some point I go into a diatribe. How were you able to get around those types of situations and get everybody to stay focused on the mission?

Chris Hedges:  Right. Well, that was my job. I was the editor, so I would take the 28 scenes – And I added another class, so we’re meeting twice a week. You can sign students up for remedial help according to the prison so I just signed all 28 students up for remedial help and got them for another day. But I would cobble it together, sometimes taking parts of one scene with another scene. Obviously I went back to the class and read it to them. They had to approve it. They were reticent at first, people coming in from the outside, especially if you’re white, there is that they don’t like do-gooders, they don’t really want to, they’re not… It’s that kind of exoticism people feel towards prisoners like visiting animals in a zoo. I mean they are aware of all that stuff, so they’re careful.

I mean, they have good antennas. There’s a chapter called “Antennas”. And I know as a war correspondent, you need a good antenna just to survive, and if you don’t have it, you don’t survive. That was true in war, it’s also true in prison, also true for their experiences on the street which were violent and dangerous. So they have highly developed antennas to sense people out. And so they watched me at first and they kept their distance, but I don’t pretend to be anything that I’m not. I don’t pretend to understand where they come from. I’m always completely honest. And I don’t go in there in any way and pretend I’m hip, which would be a catastrophic disaster. I actually wear a suit. I wear a suit, just as I’ve taught at Princeton or Columbia, just as I would at Princeton or Columbia. And I expect the same decorum and the same level, academic level, which I get, as I would for students at Princeton, Columbia, NYU, or any other school I’ve taught at.

And I think that there was that sense that I was honest and I was real and I do care. And then it was watching other students make that first emotional step that gave them the space to make it. I mean, we were reading plays. We were reading August Wilson and Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin, so I had to teach the play. But people would get really restless if I didn’t keep room at the end for them, because they all wanted to get up. They would get up in front of the class and read it. It was very moving, and then everyone would applaud. And they all wanted, with some exceptions when it was just too emotional, they all wanted to read what they’d done. And so it had a… The force was built-in, it wasn’t built by me necessarily, it was built within the class, that they decided to take those emotional steps, that they had the courage to be vulnerable. And a few people stepped out first and then the rest followed.

Mansa Musa:  And I want to venture in that area a little bit more because the safe space, you hear this term a lot. And in a reentry community and even in prison, like I was in supermax, and one of the tiers I was on, they had a lot of guys who had a lot of open charges. So you couldn’t come on that tier unless somebody sanctioned you to come on that tier, creating a safe space that was making sure that the person that came on that tier would not go back and write the state’s attorney and say, oh, I heard… So when did you realize, or when did you recognize that you had actually, that through this process, you had created a safe space? Because if you don’t have no safe space, then you going to get a lot of storytelling, and it’s going to be a lot of fabrication, and you’re not going to get what you really want, and that’s the men to open up and talk about traumatic events in their lives and be able to process that information?

Chris Hedges:  Yeah. So some of the students tried to write not out of their own experience, but like out of a television script, like The Wire or something, or I don’t know what you thought of The Wire. I couldn’t watch it. I just thought it was romanticized crap. But yeah, it was very popular, maybe –

Mansa Musa:  Amen. Amen.

Chris Hedges:  Okay. I didn’t… Just wasn’t real for me. Anyway, but they would try to write like that or they’d write out of some gangster film or something, but I could smell it. Even though I don’t know the street, I could just smell that it wasn’t real. And obviously any well-run prison has figures. I’m talking about prisoners who are leaders and respected, not only by the other prisoners, by the administration and the guards as well. And they’re kind of interlocutors, they’re the people the guards will go to. They’re honest. They may be the tier rep. I don’t know, but they have a status within.

I had three guys like that in the prison. I mean, really one of them was the head of the Muslim community, and they were really serious guys. And they were the ones who sat in the back row and they watched me the closest. But when they stepped forward, then I think it opened the door for everyone else. And they would call out that kind of writing because it wasn’t real, it was like… I like Tupac a lot. I think he’s amazing. But again, it was that romanticizing gangster life. And that’s why the play is real, because they made sure it was real.

I was teaching at the supermax prison in Trenton, and one of my students gave me this story he’d written about driving a Lexus and drinking Cristal champagne, all this kind of stuff. And he made his money robbing other drug dealers. There’s this whole group of people who will rob. Like, well, I’ve had students who are big drug dealers. They say, I don’t even empty my garbage unless I got a gun, which isn’t for the cops. It’s because they know there’s a group of people who know he’s got drugs and know he’s got money and they’ll take it from him. And so I gave it to one of my students, Boris, who was out by then. He said, you go back and tell him that he never made a dime. And I went back, gave it to him and I said, well, I don’t know anything about it, and the guy looked, he goes, yeah, it’s true.

So we had to shatter… Because mass media is so powerful, it creates these images that are unreal. And that was shattered. Not so much by me, because I don’t have the expertise to do it, but by other people in the classroom who just called it out for what it was. I mean, I remember once, because there was a question of whether a guy was going to get shanked or stabbed in the play, because in the play they’d killed his brother, and I was asking the class. I said, well, if you shank somebody, don’t you know you could get another life bid? I mean, you’re not going to escape. They’re going to… And everybody goes, oh yeah, they know, they know. And at the end of the class, one of the guys comes up and he goes, everything you heard is crap, because I shanked somebody in another prison, and let me tell you, I wasn’t thinking about anything that. The only thing I was thinking about was taking the guy out.

Mansa Musa:  Right. Yeah.

Chris Hedges:  Even within the prison classroom, there had to be checks like that.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And, oh, let’s move into, I had asked you earlier and you referenced that you don’t know whether you changed their thinking. And in researching this interview, I was revisiting an essay that Huey Newton wrote called “Prison, Where Is Thy Victory?” And in this essay, he identifies that how, at some point in time, the contradiction between in the prison population becomes to the point where you have the illegitimate capitalist, those of us that are still striving to get a lot of money, although illegitimately, not saying that capitalism is legitimate, and then when he talks about prisoners becoming politicized and becoming political prisoners. In this process, did you see that type of transition? Because I know you said you deal with them when they’re coming out and you maintain… Have you seen them take a step forward in terms of becoming more political and advocating for the abolition of prison or advocating for prisoner’s rights or advocating for more programs or more activities where prisoners can be able to write our story?

Chris Hedges:  Yeah. Well, first of all, the people that I deal with are pretty exceptional intellectuals who’ve turned their cells into libraries, who have read voraciously, came out of failed school systems. But if they hadn’t come out of failed school systems, they would’ve excelled academically. And they’re older. I mean, most of the guys I teach are probably, average age, in their 40s, because they’re in a medium security prison, but a lot of them started out at Trenton at the supermax and then after a decade they get transferred. So I would say their political consciousness is pretty high, especially, I found, among the Muslims. I don’t know what your experience is, but in the prisons that I’ve taught in New Jersey, and I think largely because of Malcolm X and others, they were probably the most politicized. I mean, I’ve taught Five Percenters and others. Of course, if you come in and you have a political consciousness, that’s usually a ticket to ad seg.

Mansa Musa:  Pretty much, yeah.

Chris Hedges:  Pretty quick. Pretty right there, you don’t have to commit any prison infraction –

Mansa Musa:  Your thinking is valid enough.

Chris Hedges:  Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, that’s why ad seg was created. It was for the [crosstalk]

Mansa Musa:  So true.

Chris Hedges:  So like I taught a class where they had a sit-down strike. Well of course they found out who the leaders were. That’s all they cared [about]. Everybody’s cell was strip searched, and those guys were sent to another prison and put in indefinite solitary confinement. Like the Free Alabama Movement. They used to call me – I haven’t talked to them for a while – On clandestine cell phones, but they’re in indefinite solitary. So the goal is to isolate people with any kind of consciousness because prison authorities find that dangerous. If you look at a manual, there are manuals held by slaveholders. Kenneth Stampp wrote a book on it called The Peculiar Institution. But there were, because if you think about a plantation, 98% of people on there are enslaved. So how do you divide them?

Well, you’ve got people working the house, you’ve got drivers, but there’s a whole method. And there are manuals that tell slaveholders how to keep an enslaved population divided against itself. And that’s exactly how prisons work. It is the same. So, all my classes have informants. They call them snitches. We all know who they are. And if you got a prison uprising, they’re always the first to get it, by the way, like the Lucasville prison uprising. [crosstalk].

I had one guy, he was in the Black Liberation Army. I didn’t teach him, but I know him, Ojore Lutalo, and he wouldn’t wear the prison uniform. He wouldn’t even put it on. But on his tier, wherever the snitches were, their cells somehow got lit on fire until there weren’t any more snitches. So they got all sorts of tricks to figure this out. Like if they got three people they think are snitches, they’ll tell one of them there’s a shank in the yard. In the yard, they’ll tell another one there’s a shank under a table somewhere. They’ll tell another one – And then they’ll wait and see where the guards go, and then they know which one was the snitch. So yeah, if there’s any unity within the prison, which we saw in Attica back in, what was Attica, ’73?

Mansa Musa:  ’70.

Chris Hedges:  ’70, was it? Any kind of unity like that is dangerous. They have to keep them divided and they have lots of dirty ways to do it.

Mansa Musa:  Okay, let’s talk about Our Class and how was Our Class, because you say Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison. How was the prison transformed by Our Class?

Chris Hedges:  Well, I would say, in this way, it gave them a voice outside of those walls. So we had it was a hundred seat theater where the play ran for a month. But we had one night where it was just for the families, and about five minutes into the play I heard people beginning to sniffle, and then suddenly everybody just cried through the whole play. And it was making their voices heard and giving them dignity and respect and honoring their suffering. That was the… And it broke outside of those walls.

It was interesting, because we had to raise some money to help mount the play, so a friend of mine did a like… I don’t know what it’s called, GoFundMe or something. Anyway, he kept saying all these donations, like $2, $4, well, it turns out it was the families of my students who don’t have any money who were sending whatever they could to put this plan – I think that is the transformation. I think that there is transformation. There can be transformation. I don’t want to be romantic about suffering, because a lot of suffering you don’t get transformed, you just get destroyed. I mean, let’s be real about that. But transformation didn’t come from me. It came from them. And I think that what I did by helping them write that play is not so much change what was inside of them, but allow others to see it and allow them to express it.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And more importantly, this whole process humanizes these individuals. And I think Conrey George said that in the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, which we already know, we recognize it’s the new plantation. He said that the goal is to destroy your individuality, to make you a collective entity, moving you in a herd manner, whereas I don’t have any identity so therefore I don’t have any voice. If I don’t have a voice, I don’t have any individuality, and I’m just a number. But with this, I think my takeaway from this whole process was that you were able to give people that individuality, to let people see them for who they are and humanizing them. Because everybody goes through something in society. But I think you referenced Michelle Alexander in the introduction where it was talking about how I say, well, we’re the most expendable class of people. Prisoners, you get the right to use us as a doormat. Chris, you got the last word on this. What do you want our listeners and our viewers to take away from Our Class?

Chris Hedges:  I want them to see how remarkable these people are and what integrity they have and what brilliance they have and how, not just they and their families are hurt by this system but we as a community are hurt, and we have to destroy the system. We have deindustrialized cities like Baltimore and Newark and everywhere else and ruptured what sociologists would call social bonds. And so the forms of social control are militarized police who act as internal armies of occupation, and the prison system. That’s why we have the largest prison system in the world. And it’s a moral responsibility for us to destroy it. And I think the mechanism by which we will destroy it is not by writing to our congresspeople who don’t give a damn, they earn money from the prison-industrial complex, they’re tools of the prison-industrial complex.

I think the hope is through strikes internally within the prison, there have been several, and those strikes have a core demand which is that people have to be paid a fair wage, a minimum wage for the work. Remember, people are working 40 hours a week in a prison in New Jersey and making $22 and they don’t have social security. But if we force the prison system to pay a living wage for the work that’s done – And of course under the 13th Amendment, prisoners are excluded from a living wage – Then we can begin to cripple the system. But making appeals to conscience or the people in power I think is useless. I mean, that’s what I get from people on the inside, that we have to support them. I mean, one of the Free Alabama people said, don’t go to the State House to protest, go in front of the prison, especially when we’re trying to carry out a strike.

So, it is, I think, one of the most monstrous… We’ve done a lot of monstrous things in this empire from Guantanamo to Iraq to everywhere else, but it’s just monstrous what we do to our own. I mean, my students tell me after six days in solitary they begin to go crazy, which is what solitary is designed to do. We drive by these institutions, but we don’t stop and investigate what’s being done to our fellow citizens on the inside. And we all, those of us who are on the outside I think have a moral responsibility to stop what’s being done because it’s inhuman, it’s cruel, and it’s unjust.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it. The real news about the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, a new form of slavery. The prisoners are the chattel. But in the midst of all this, in the midst of all this degradation and inhumanity and dehumanization, the phoenix rose in the form of Our Class, where prisoners were able to unpack the traumatic events that took place in their lives and give context to these things and be able to give healing at the same time. Thank you, Chris. Thank you for this remarkable work that you have done on behalf of those of us that’s disenfranchised and marginalized. Thank you very much.

Chris Hedges:  No, thanks for doing it. I appreciate it.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.