In the conclusion of The Long Road Home, Chris Hedges looks at the numerous hurdles faced by prisoners released into society, the toll of reentry on their families, the importance of educational programs in restoring self-esteem and setting goals, and the difficult process of parole. Hedges begins by speaking with Russ Owen, who spent 32 years in prison, on the day of his release from East Jersey State Prison. Owen, who graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University and earned a doctorate in Pastoral Care in prison, began work recently as a community organizer with New Jersey Together. He says that although he is free, he struggles to cope with the deep loneliness that defined his life in prison.
Hedges speaks with Russ Owen’s mother, Mae Owen, along with four other former prisoners: Boris Franklin, who spent 11 years in prison; Ron Pierce, who spent 30 years in prison; Robert Luma, whose nickname is Kabir and who spent 16 years in prison; and Thomas Dollard, who spent 30 years in prison. All were Chris’s students in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University to prisoners in the New Jersey State prison system. Collectively, they spent 119 years in prison.
Chris Hedges interviews writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, many banished from the mainstream, in his half-hour show, The Chris Hedges Report. He gives voice to those, from Cornel West and Noam Chomsky to the leaders of groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are on the front lines of the struggle against militarism, corporate capitalism, white supremacy, the looming ecocide, as well as the battle to wrest back our democracy from the clutches of the ruling global oligarchy.
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Directors of Photography: Chris Arnone and Michael Johnson
Produced by: Rebecca Myles and Chris Arnone
Editing by: Chris Arnone, Michael Johnson, and Shawn McMillan
Graphic design by: Shawn McMillan
Chris Hedges: Welcome to the Chris Hedges Report. Today in part two of A Long Road Home we look at the numerous hurdles faced by prisoners released into society, the toll on their families, the importance of educational programs in restoring self-esteem and setting goals, and the difficult process of even being granted parole. We begin by speaking with Russ Owen, who spent 32 years in prison, the day he was released from East Jersey State Prison, as well as his mother, Mae Owen, along with four other former prisoners: Boris Franklin, who spent 11 years in prison, Ron Pierce, who spent 30 years in prison, Robert Luma, whose nickname is Kabir and who spent 16 years in prison, and Thomas Dollard, who spent 30 years in prison. All were my students in the college degree program offered to prisoners in the New Jersey State prison system by Rutgers University. Collectively, they spent 119 years in prison.
Russ Owen: Hello, young lady.
Mae Owen: Hey.
Russ Owen: I’m sorry. My pants don’t fit. I got to keep pulling them up.
Chris Hedges: What were you thinking when you walked out?
Russ Owen: Little bit of anxiety, because you’re just not used to the love. You’re not used to just seeing so many people, they’re there waiting for you. And this is overwhelming. It’s very humbling to think that from where I came from, from all I’ve done, that there’s something redeemable about me. So I’m cherishing this moment, and I just can’t wait to make the people proud.
Chris Hedges: Well, but you made us all proud inside, Russ.
Russ Owen: Yeah, I appreciate that.
Chris Hedges: That’s true.
Russ Owen: But I’m ready to do better, if I can.
Chris Hedges: How was it seeing your parents for the first time outside a visiting room, or not on a phone?
Russ Owen: It was amazing. I’m grateful because I know a lot of people’s families didn’t make it. And that has been my one prayer throughout these 32 years: Give me an opportunity to get back to my parents. And the reason why is because for me growing up, I got it wrong. The way I processed things as a child and as a teenager, I wasn’t fair to my parents. Their intentions were good towards me, but I was rebellious. So for me, this moment has meant everything.
Speaker: Okay, Brother. Love you, man.
Chris Hedges: The trauma of mass incarceration affects not only those who are incarcerated, but their families. I sat down with Russ’s mother.
So for 32 years, you’ve stood by your son while he’s been incarcerated. Explain what’s that like for a mother and for a family to have someone incarcerated.
Mae Owen: Okay. Well, first of all, we have prayed about it. And I just felt like God was saying to me, I’m taking care of him. And so, I had to hold onto that. And so, we did the appeals and everything like that. And so, our prayer was that at Christmas time he’ll be home. And each year we just believed, by Christmas time, he’ll be home, even this past Christmas. And we were able to hold onto that, believing that one day he would be home for the next Christmas. And so, we just walked by faith each year, one year at a time, no matter what came up. By the grace of God, he’s going to be home.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about what it’s like, the phone calls, the visits, sending money through the commissary. For people that don’t know what a family goes through, tell us.
Mae Owen: Russell called us pretty much every day. And they’re not long conversations, but it’s to let us know that he’s doing alright. But also, he gets to hear our voice and know that we’re okay. And sending him money, because he does have a little job there. But for a lot of them, there’s no job, no type of income for them, so they end up with nothing. So we try to send him a little bit of money, but it’s not that he asked us to do it. What he asked for is books, his school books, that’s where we usually provide money for him. But for us, it’s the phone calls to keep that connection going.
Russ Owen: Well, one of the things that I was determined to do once this happened was to build a relationship. Because I didn’t know my parents growing up, I made every effort to get to know them. So I learned things about them. So it wasn’t just that they were my parents, they became my friends. And then, I shared my vision with them of who I wanted to be. Even though I was in prison, I had a vision of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. And I shared it with them, and they became my partners.
Chris Hedges: And what was that vision?
Russ Owen: Well, the first thing was for me to never commit an act of violence again. And I didn’t know how that was going to play out in prison. But by the grace of God, it did, and I was committed to it. Definitely, I was committed to rededicating my life to the Lord, and I wanted to be the person that I was meant to be. And again, I didn’t know how all that was going to play out inside the prison walls, but I worked hard, [effortlessly]. And my parents were my partners the whole time, supporting me. In that environment, there’s not too much support, but it was my parents that was the one supporting me. When I felt like I couldn’t do it, they said I could do it.
Chris Hedges: And a lot of that was through education?
Russ Owen: Education. As I was doing my education, I was giving them updates. They were involved. So every time I called home, that was the topic of discussion. How’s your school work going? Where you at right now? This and that. Made sure that all the report cards got sent to them. You know what I mean? So I wanted to do what I could to let them know that I was working hard, and to uplift their spirits, too.
Chris Hedges: How did prison change Russ?
Mae Owen: He grew up. He became a very organized person. He became a person that set goals for himself. So it’s like the six months, a year, five years, and things like that. So there are certain things that he wants to accomplish, and he wants to be able to make sure that his grandkids do not experience a lot of the things that he’s experienced. Because a lot of times, in families, if one member, if the father goes to jail, then it’s the son and the grandson and like that. And that’s something he wants to do his best to avoid. But the main thing is that he became a person that is well organized with goals set for his life.
Chris Hedges: And for those people who have not, I mean, you all got college degrees. You finished yours, Russ, in prison. You both finished yours at Rutgers when you got out. But if you don’t have that level of education, if you don’t understand how the system works, if you’re not able to articulate even your own emotions, anecdotally, it’s almost impossible to get through parole, isn’t it?
Russ Owen: Well, I said it, through learning the process, once you panic, if a person panics, it’s over. Once you panic, they got you. And another thing, a lot of guys don’t have the language, and that goes along with what we talked about with the trauma, the repressing everything, not thinking about it. And then when they read out what you’ve done, it’s a shock to you. It’s like, I did that? Or, I was a part of that? And so, because the moment is so huge, that parole moment is so huge, and it’s so intimidating, a lot of people can’t talk, they can’t find the language to express. A guy could really be sorry, and a guy could really be remorseful. I met a lot of guys like that. But they want you to be able to express it and to explain it.
Boris Franklin: It’s like public speaking. You can completely go blank. And everything is riding on that moment. Like, if you go to a job interview, there’s a lot at stake for the job. But now you’re talking about individuals whose lives are at stake. And there’s so much riding on that moment, it’s easy to lose the words. And when you come out of there, it may all come flooding back. But your 15 minutes is up, and that’s what they’re judging you on.
Chris Hedges: So Russ, who’s most challenged when they go before the parole board?
Russ Owen: Guys with the least education. There are guys that are illiterate. There are guys that have been going to school for 10, 15, 20 years that are still trying to get their GED, and just guys that are mentally challenged. So when these guys go before the parole board, it’s obvious that they can’t prepare adequately. It’s obvious that in the moment they can’t express themselves, whether you want to call it low emotional intelligence or whatever, but they don’t have the tools necessary to articulate remorse or to articulate… I know a guy that they went up and gave him a hit because he couldn’t articulate his plan for the future. Not many people can articulate a plan for the future. And then to be able to articulate it and then for them to approve it.
A lot of stuff is spontaneous. They want to know where you’re going to work. After being in jail 20, 30 years, you don’t know anybody. Most of the time your family’s gone and all you have to socialize you is just the prison. So nothing prepares you. And so guys with the least education and guys that are mentally challenged or deficient, however you want to call it, those guys, it doesn’t really bode well for them.
Chris Hedges: So talk a little bit about your vision of what you thought life would be like when you got out, and then how that vision confronted reality.
Thomas Dollard: Well, when I first got out, I thought that jobs would be lined up for me, school would be lined up for me. And I thought that I would be able to at least help take care of my family. And the reality was that work was not set up for me, school was not set up for me. And I have a job that I work three days a week, but that barely helps to take care of… I just contribute to helping to take care of my family, instead of being able to take care of my family on my own.
Chris Hedges: When you apply for a job, on the form, have they removed the box or do you have to write that you were incarcerated?
Robert “Kabir” Luma: Yeah. They ask you about your incarceration, your crime and all that. And the only jobs that basically will accept you are labor intensive jobs, because they don’t care who they bring in there. You’re just a body with some hands and some feet.
Chris Hedges: I know you pretty well. And I know you wanted to come out, you wanted to contribute. All that was so important to you. What has been the hardest thing for you to deal with given what you wanted to do and what you can do?
Robert “Kabir” Luma: I mean, this is the bread and butter. What oils the wheel of America is your finances. And to see how pigeonholed we are. And we’re at like a certain level, we are like the $12 hour people. And $12 an hour nowadays is nothing. You might have been making seven back in the day somewhere. And that’s one of the biggest things. Because I’m not able to breach a certain level to get on board, as I call it, to get an apartment, a car and all that, without trying to cut corners and maybe risking my freedom to get things that are simple like a car and an apartment.
Chris Hedges: And when you talk to other people who have gotten out, would you say that your experience is typical?
Robert “Kabir” Luma: Absolutely. In one form or another, everybody’s dealing with some form of hardship. They just push you out and expect you to succeed with no real help. Even when your parole officer, it’s no real help. There are no resources there to put you on a roll. You would have to actually be a woman or a parent with kids or something like that in order to get these benefits. It’s difficult, very, very, very difficult. And really, there’s no organization to support ex-offenders. And that’s kind of like where we get put in the hole. If you don’t have your own social connections and things of that nature, then you’re going to be done for. And a lot of guys who do a lot of time, like myself and more, they don’t have those connections because they’ve been gone for so long.
Thomas Dollard: I know I’m on parole. That’s not free. I’m still what I look at as being a slave because I can’t go anywhere I want. I have to ask permission. I’m 51 years old, but I feel like I’m somebody’s child. My parole officer is at least 20 years younger than me. And when I’m going to him, I have to ask him, I have to text him and tell him, I want to go here. I can’t even spend the night anywhere.
Robert “Kabir” Luma: I don’t know. I think I just had that eternal will, like sometimes I don’t have to coach him. I’m not the type of person I got to get up and coach myself, because I was dealing with it in there. I had to push myself through 16 years, even sometimes not verbally. So I’m used to being downtrodden, which is a bad thing to say. I’m just used to that position. I’m just tired of that position. So I’m not the type of person that needs a pep talk. I don’t need to go to no pep rally. Even if I’m having my worst day, I’m going to get up and try to go do something. Or sometimes I’m depressed, I don’t want to do nothing at all. But at the end of the day, I know if I go to sleep and wake up, it’s another day, I could feel different when I get up.
Chris Hedges: The yearning by most who are released to re-enter society, to find a place and be productive, is often cruelly thwarted by the hard reality they face, unhoused, unemployed, and finally desperate and depressed. The temptation of drugs and alcohol to blunt the pain, and the allure of making money in the illegal economy, which is what sent many to prison in the first place, becomes, for some, irresistible, as Kabir explained.
Robert “Kabir” Luma: We always got to think, damn, should I go sell drugs? Should I go rob somebody? Even though we know at the end of the day that’s a bad choice. But sometimes you only live right now when your situation is dire, when you have people that depend on you, or even when you’re depending on yourself. Do I even belong out here? Like, did prison ruin me enough to not even be a productive citizen? And you know, where your mind goes, sometimes your body goes.
Thomas Dollard: Poverty, no jobs, or the children. I see the children dirty and hungry. No one is going to watch their child starve to death. So then you say, go out and get a job. When you’re coming from where I come from, it’s easy for you to say that, but hard for us to do. If you have a record, it’s 10 times harder for you to do. When they say the system is broken, it’s absolutely not broken. It’s doing what it was designed to do.
Chris Hedges: Is there anything about prison, I know it may sound like a stupid question, but is there anything about prison you miss?
Robert “Kabir” Luma: I mean, absolutely. It was kind of more stable. So I can read more, I can work out, my meals were there. You know your meals are coming, even though a lot of them in the joint are nasty as hell. But I worked in the ODR which was the officer’s dining room. I was making my own meals, sprucing them up. For me, my situation was more stable at a certain point. And I had more peace of mind. Out here, it’s just [snaps repeatedly].
Thomas Dollard: It’s designed to keep us in a position where we have to go back. Because then, as those numbers, now we are just a number, which we all know. And then, especially when the men are gone, it weakens the community. Why? Because now you only have the women and the children. So now it’s easy to attack the community when there are no men. And I don’t think people understand and see that. It’s not just a father being taken from his home, it’s him being taken from the whole community. When I was growing up, you had fathers and mothers there, which made the community flourish. I don’t see that. And I haven’t seen that even before I came and went to prison 30 years ago, that started to be done. And I see it now, it’s at its worst. You say, why are kids in gangs and all these things? Where’s their father?
Boris Franklin: Biggest thing that people don’t understand about people in prison is that we hurt. We carry the pain of abandoning our posts as fathers, brothers. We carry the pain of not being there when our mothers pass or something, or not being able to be a shoulder. We carry the pain of the individuals who are not getting out. We carry more pain than probably the average person because of having this different state of awareness, coming face to face with reality in a different way. I think we shoulder more pain than the average citizen.
Ron Pierce: I would just add to that. We are not, and those people that are currently incarcerated, are not our crime. We are people that have made mistakes and are paying for that mistake, not with money, but with the essence of our life. You have taken away our life from our families, from our communities. And that goes to redevelop our community inside. And those that have come home from inside are helping those from our community to help them re-acclimate and not have to go through the struggles and through the problems that coming home exists. The more you make it punitive rather than restorative, the less likely that you’re going to get somebody who’s a full person coming out. The less likely that you’re going to be able to see this person as human if all you see is the crime.
Russ Owen: For me, I was already committed. The way I am now is, I commit. When I made the commitment to no violence and things like that, I understood that with that, I had to change my heart. So I knew to be vulnerable and transparent. My years in prison, I was very fortunate that I’ve never really been on the dap, dap, dap. I was always, I’m hugging you, I don’t care. And that’s just how I came through the prison, because I made a commitment. It was a choice to do no violence, not that I couldn’t. But because of what I’ve done, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to live that type of life. Because I discovered [Boris and Ron], that the same anger that I used to wake up with when I was growing up as a teenager was the same anger that was required to wake up in prison. And I couldn’t continue to live my life like that.
Because on the street I had to wake up. And it was so exhausting that I had to say, okay, I had to be ready for what the day brought me. And I mean, okay, who’s going to disrespect me? Who’s going to be racist towards me? Who’s going to try to bully me or whatever? So I had to go throughout my day, and whoever did anything, I had to react first. And then when I got to prison, I said, oh, this requires the same thing. I said, I can’t do that. So I had to change me. So I grew up in prison with love in my heart, and forgiveness, and the things that I had to learn.
So now, coming home, that’s easy for me. That’s not awkward for me because I’m doing the same thing that I was doing in prison. I see somebody that’s down and out, I’ll talk to them. Or I see somebody that needs a hug, I’ll hug you. It doesn’t matter to me. So I’m not socially awkward like that, but that’s just because I made the commitments, and my values surround my commitment.
Thomas Dollard: One thing I learned from my religion is that if you take a life, it’s as if you killed the whole of humanity. If you save a life, it’s as if you saved the whole of humanity. So every day, to me, it is that my scale is unbalanced. I took a life. So every day has to be about saving a life. So that on the day of judgment, when I go before the person who I wronged and go before my Lord, I’ll have the other part to say that, okay. Yes, he did that. But that’s not who he is. He did this to save me. So every day I’m working to make not just myself, but those around me better
Chris Hedges: Russ in his first few hours of freedom is hopeful, surrounded by family and friends, armed with a college degree. But he is aware, like all who are released, that mass incarceration, in many ways, does not end when you walk out the doors of the prison. Most end up back inside. For now, however, he is rejoicing in simply being able to breathe outside the prison walls.
Russ Owen: Beautiful. Free air. There’s no anxiety in the air. There’s no chaos in the air. In the air, I smell a new beginning. I’m excited and I’m happy just to see what I can contribute.