This excerpt is from the author’s newest book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison.
On September 5, 2013, I pulled my old Volvo wagon — a bumper sticker reading “This is the Rebel Base” stuck on the back by my wife, a Star Wars fan — into the parking lot at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey. I had taught college-level courses in New Jersey prisons for the past three years. But neither my new students nor I had any idea that night that we were embarking on a journey that would shatter their protective emotional walls, or that years later our lives would be deeply intertwined.
I put my wallet and phone in the glove compartment, emptied my pockets of coins, and dumped them in the console between the front seats. I made sure I had my driver’s license. I gathered up my books, plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka, and a copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I locked the car and walked toward the maximum security men’s prison, past the telephone poles that dotted the parking lot, each topped with two square spotlights.
East Jersey State Prison in Rahway was shaped like an X. At its center was a massive gray dome with boarded-up windows, surrounded at its base by a ring of oxidized copper. The wings of the prison stretched out in four directions from the dome. The brick walls of each wing were painted a dull ochre color with off-white patches. There were seventeen oblong windows on each wing with white metal bars. Turrets with what looked like brass spikes on top stood at the far end of these brick wings. The walls were covered with patches of ivy. The dull black roof was peaked and discolored by a patchwork of darker and lighter sections from repairs. Directly over the entrance to the prison, below the dome, was a guard tower constructed of Plexiglas windows. At the base of the guard tower were large yellow letters, EJSP, set against a blue background. The prison complex was ringed with cyclone fencing topped with bright, shiny coils of razor wire. At the front entrance of the prison, on the left, stood a chrome-colored communications tower with antennas.
In the lobby, which led directly into the rotunda covered by the dome, plastic chairs faced a Plexiglas booth. A bulky corrections officer sat at a desk behind the Plexiglas. I pushed my car keys through the small metal slot below the Plexiglas, told him my name, which he checked on an authorization form, and exchanged my driver’s license for a plastic visitor’s badge. I sat for a half hour and waited to be called.
East Jersey State Prison, originally called New Jersey Reformatory, opened in 1896 as a reformatory for juveniles. It soon became known as Rahway State Prison. There were contact visits every Sunday when the middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was imprisoned at Rahway from 1967 until his release in 1985. A contact visit, he writes, “was equal to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for us inmates.”
There were numerous sports programs, including a boxing program. A drama group called Theater of the Forgotten came in every week to perform plays. Community volunteers ran various programs. The prisoners put on a variety show every year. The prison held an annual Achievement Night when families came to ceremonies where prisoners officially graduated from training and academic programs. There were notorious family days where, out by the back fence, girlfriends and wives would leave pregnant.
All of that was gone when I arrived, part of the steady stripping down of programs that have reduced most prisons to warehouses. Rahway State Prison changed its name to East Jersey State Prison in 1988, following complaints from local residents who claimed that naming the prison after the city of Rahway negatively affected property values. Similarly, Trenton State Prison changed its name to New Jersey State Prison. But prisoners continue to refer to the prisons as Rahway and Trenton.
There were riots in 1952, when about 230 prisoners seized a two-story dormitory wing and took nine corrections officers hostage, to protest a rash of beatings. Riots again erupted on Thanksgiving Day 1971, six months after the arrival of a new warden who abolished many recreational and sports programs and imposed a series of harsh and punitive rules. During his short tenure, there were two murders, ten escapes, three prisoners who died from a lack of medical care, a corrections officer stabbed, another hospitalized after being attacked with a pool cue, and a strike by the prison guards. The prisoners took six guards hostage in the 1971 riot, along with the warden, who had foolishly waded into the crowd of prisoners and told them there was no way they could win — that all he had to do was push a button to call in the state police.
As Carter recalled in his 1974 memoir The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, the warden was seized by the enraged mob and “stabbed, kicked, beat over the back with a fire extinguisher, had a chair broken over his head, and ended up the first superintendent in New Jersey prison history to be taken hostage in a riot.”
The rioters, many drunk from homemade prison wine, or pruno, eventually issued a list of grievances that included demands for better food, a restoration and expansion of educational and vocational programs, and an end to the chronic shortage of medical supplies, including aspirin. The prisoners in the 1971 uprising dropped bed sheets from prison windows with messages painted on them such as “We are fighting for better food, a new parole system, and no brutality.” They held out for 115 hours before negotiations finally resolved the revolt. A year later, three prisoners escaped by sawing through the bars of a third-floor window.
Carter’s book galvanized outside support from celebrities, including Muhammad Ali and also Bob Dylan, who opened his 1976 album, Desire, with “Hurricane,” an eight-and-a-half-minute epic he cowrote to publicize the injustice of Carter’s imprisonment. The album sold 2 million copies and spent five weeks at number one. Carter’s two murder convictions were eventually overturned, and he was released in 1985. Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a world champion boxer in two weight classes —light heavyweight and cruiserweight — began his boxing career in Rahway Prison’s boxing program. He was trained in the prison gym, in part, by another inmate, James Onque Scott Jr., a light heavyweight who was ranked number two by the World Boxing Association (WBA) and who fought in seven sanctioned bouts televised nationally from the prison.
One of the students in my first class at East Jersey State Prison, James Leak, was a New Jersey Golden Gloves champion who had spent three years as an Army Ranger on the U.S. Army boxing team. I boxed for nearly three years as a welterweight for the Greater Boston YMCA boxing team while I was a student at Harvard Divinity School. One time after class, I told Leak I would never have been a great boxer because my hands were not big, nor was I very quick. I held up my right hand with the fingers spread apart. He placed his hand flat against mine. Our hands were the same size. “It’s what’s in here,” he said, tapping his heart, “and what’s in here” — he tapped his head — “that counts.”
Numerous Hollywood films shot scenes in the prison, including Crazy Joe, a film about Joseph Gallo, a member of the Colombo crime family, with Peter Boyle in the title role, and Lock Up, starring Sylvester Stallone and Donald Sutherland; as well as Malcolm X, directed and cowritten by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington; He Got Game, written and produced by Spike Lee; Ocean’s Eleven, with George Clooney and Brad Pitt; Jersey Boys; The Irishman, which was directed and produced by Martin Scorsese and starred Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci; and The Hurricane, a 1999 biopic, with the boxer played by Denzel Washington, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Carter.
My students usually lived with a bunkmate, or bunkie, in double cells roughly fifteen feet long, four and a half feet wide, and ten feet high. The cells were grouped together in cell blocks, or wings. If they lived in a single cell on One Wing or Four Wing, the cells were about nine feet long and seven feet high. Most prisoners could hold out their arms and touch each side of the cell wall. Those in single cells could also usually reach up to touch the ceiling. There was a metal toilet, a metal washbasin, one or two bunks, a table, a footlocker, shelves, and a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. It was sweltering in the summer, and cold and drafty in the winter.
I stumbled into prison teaching in 2010 after finishing my book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. My neighbor Celia Chazelle, a scholar of early medieval history and the head of the History Department at The College of New Jersey, was teaching noncredit courses at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, New Jersey. She asked me if I would be willing to teach. I had taught before at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, and the University of Toronto. It was hard, she said, to recruit college professors who were unpaid, burdened with the cost of buying texts for their students, and required to travel — often over an hour each way — to teach a night class at a prison in a rural part of New Jersey.
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Teaching in state prisons returned me to my original calling as a minister working with those who lived in depressed urban enclaves. I had spent two and a half years living in Roxbury, Boston’s poorest neighborhood, while in divinity school. I ran a small church, and I preached on Sundays. I oversaw a youth program. I presided at funerals, which entailed helping to carry the casket into the church, opening the lid, and lifting transparent paper placed by the morticians over the face of the dead before conducting the service. The church and manse, where I lived, were across the street from the Mission Main and Mission Extension housing projects, at the time the most violent in the city. I skipped numerous classes to attend juvenile court with mothers and their children from the projects.
I intended to be ordained to serve in an urban church, but I grew increasingly disillusioned with the posturing by the liberal church and my liberal divinity school classmates, who too often talked about empowering people they never met. Too many “liked” the poor but did not like the smell of the poor. I took a leave of absence to study Spanish at the language school run by the Maryknolls, a Catholic missionary society, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. After four months there, I lived in La Paz for two months; then Lima, Peru; and finally Buenos Aires. I worked as a freelance reporter for several newspapers, including for The Washington Post, and covered the 1982 Falklands War between England and Argentina from Buenos Aires for National Public Radio. That fall, I returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to complete my Master of Divinity degree but had decided that when I graduated I would go to El Salvador as a reporter to cover the war.
The writer James Baldwin, the son of a preacher, as I was — and, for a time, a preacher himself — said that he left the pulpit to preach the Gospel. Baldwin saw how the institutional church was often the enemy of mercy and justice. He saw how it too easily devolved into a sanctimonious club whose members glorified themselves at the expense of others. Baldwin, who was gay and Black, was not interested in subjugating justice and love to the restrictions imposed by any institution, least of all the church. And that is why there is more Gospel — true Gospel — in Baldwin than in the writings of nearly all the theologians and preachers who were his contemporaries. His books and essays are prophetic sermons: among them, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, and The Devil Finds Work. Chapter titles include: “Princes and Power” and “Down at the Cross.” His 1953 semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, is divided into three chapters: “The Seventh Day,” “The Prayers of the Saints,” and “The Threshing Floor.”
Baldwin deplored the self-love in American society — he counted white churches as being in the vanguard of self-love — and denounced what he called “the lie of their pretended humanism.” In his 1963 book-length essay The Fire Next Time, he writes: “[T]here was not love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that meant everybody. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all.” He goes on: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.”
Baldwin, like George Orwell, names truths that few others have the courage to name. He condemns evils that are held up as virtues by the powerful and the pious. He, like Orwell, is relentlessly self-critical and calls out the hypocrisies of the liberal elites and the Left, whose moral posturing is often not accompanied by the courage and self-sacrifice demanded in the fight against radical evil. Baldwin is true to a spirit and power beyond his control. He is, in religious language, possessed. And he knows it.
“The artist and the revolutionary function as they function,” Baldwin writes, “and pay whatever dues they must pay behind it because they are both possessed by a vision, and they do not so much follow this vision as find themselves driven by it. Otherwise, they could never endure, much less embrace, the lives they are compelled to lead.”
This was a sentiment understood by Orwell, an Englishman who fought against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, where at the Aragon Front in May 1937 he was shot through the neck by a sniper. He lived with and wrote about those living on the streets in Paris and London, as well as with impoverished coal miners in the north of England.
“My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice,” Orwell writes. “When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
Orwell, like Baldwin, disdained the hypocrisy of the institutional church. He observed that pious Christian capitalists “do not seem to be perceptibly different” from other capitalists. “Religious belief,” he writes “is frequently a psychological device to avoid repentance.” Moses, the pet raven in the 1945 novel Animal Farm, is used to pacify the other animals, telling them they will all go to an animal paradise called Sugarcandy Mountain once their days of labor and suffering come to an end.
“As long as supernatural beliefs persist, men can be exploited by cunning priests and oligarchs, and the technical progress which is the prerequisite of a just society cannot be achieved,” Orwell writes. And yet, like Baldwin, Orwell feared the sanctification of state power and the rise of the manufactured idols that took the place of God; those who promised an earthly rather than heavenly paradise. Orwell struggled throughout his life to find a belief system strong enough to oppose it. “If our civilization does not regenerate itself, it is likely to perish,” he writes shortly before publishing Animal Farm. That regeneration, at least in Europe, he said, would have to draw on a moral code “based on Christian principles.”
In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes:
“Life is tragic simply because the earth turns, and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.”
A few weeks before graduation and leaving for El Salvador in the late spring of 1983, I had a final meeting in Albany, New York, with the committee that oversaw my ordination. My father, who had spent three decades as a minister, waited outside the conference room. I had already purchased a one-way ticket to El Salvador, where the military government, backed by the United States, was slaughtering hundreds of people a month. I had already decided, as Baldwin and Orwell did earlier, to use my writing as a weapon. I would stand with the oppressed. I would amplify their voice. I would document their suffering. I would name the injustices being done to them. I would shine a light into the hidden machinery of power. That was, to use religious language, my calling.
I would report on the war in El Salvador for the next five years as a freelance reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and National Public Radio, and, later, as the Central America bureau chief for The Dallas Morning News. And after leaving Central America, I worked for fifteen years, most of them with The New York Times, in war zones in the Middle East, Africa, and the former Yugoslavia. I would experience the worst of human evil. I would taste too much of my own fear. I would imbibe and became addicted to the intoxication and rush of violence. I would witness the randomness of death. And I would learn the bitter fact that we live in a morally neutral universe, that the rain falls on the just and the unjust.
Reporting on the war in El Salvador was not something the Presbyterian Church recognized as a valid ministry. When I informed the committee of my calling, there was a long silence. Then the head of the committee said coldly: “We don’t ordain journalists.” I left the conference room and met my father outside. I told him I was not to be ordained. It must have been hard for him to see his son come so close to ordination, only to have it slip away, and hard to know that his son was leaving for a conflict in which reporters and photographers had been killed and would be killed. But what the church would not validate, my father did.
“You are ordained to write,” he told me.
A few weeks after I started teaching at East Jersey State Prison, I met with the other professors in a restaurant near the prison before our classes. All of us, it turned out, had graduated from seminary, although only one of us served in the church. This vocational synchronicity made sense. Mass incarceration is the civil rights issue of our time. The liberal church, which left the inner city with white flight, had failed to connect its purported concern for the marginalized and the oppressed with meaningful social action. This disconnection had largely neutered its prophetic voice. The church too often became infected by the cult of the self that defines consumer culture. It went down the deadend path of a narcissistic, self-involved, “How-is-it-with-me?” form of spirituality. Its mission is to stand, as the theologian James Cone writes in his 2011 book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, with the “crucified” of the earth was lost in all but rhetoric.
The ancient Greeks, like James Cone, understood that we gain a conscience only by building relationships with those who suffer. These relationships place us within the circle of contamination. They force us to confront our own vulnerability, the possibility of our own suffering. They make us ask what we must do. Aristotle understood that virtue always entails action. Those who do not act, Aristotle warns, those who are always asleep, can never be virtuous. It does not matter what they profess.
Most of my students in prison are Muslims. I am not bringing them to Jesus. I speak Arabic, and spent seven years in the Middle East. I have a deep respect for Islam. I saw in my twenty years outside the United States how men and women of all faiths, or no faith, and in all cultures, exhibited tremendous courage to confront the oppressor in behalf of the oppressed. There is no religious or cultural hierarchy. What people believe, or what language they speak, or where they live, does not determine the ethical life. It is what they do. If there is one constant, it is this, it is that the privileged too often turn their backs on the less privileged.
The point of ministry is to bear witness, not to dream up schemes to grow congregations or engage in religious chauvinism. It is to do the work we are called to do. It is to have faith, as the radical priest Daniel Berrigan — who baptized my youngest daughter — said, to carry out “the good” insofar as we can discern the good. Faith, Berrigan argued, is the belief that the “good draws to it the good.” Faith requires us to trust that acts of kindness and empathy, an unequivocal commitment to justice and mercy, and the courage to denounce and defy the crimes of the oppressor, have an unseen, incalculable power that ripples outward and transforms lives. We are called to carry out the good, or at least the good so far as we can determine it, and let it go. The Buddhists call this Karma. But, as Berrigan told me, for us as Christians, we do not know where it goes. We trust, even in spite of empirical evidence to the contrary, that it goes somewhere; that it makes the world a better place.
By 2014, I had been teaching in New Jersey prisons, including the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility in Bordentown, State Prison in Trenton, and East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, for four years. That year, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister for my prison work. The service was presided over by the theologian James Cone, who taught at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, and the moral philosopher and Princeton University professor Cornel West. The ordination was held in the depressed section of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the church of my Harvard Divinity School classmate the Reverend Michael Granzen, who had reopened my ordination process. For music, we hired the New York–based Michael Packer Blues Band. We invited the families of my students. We rewrote the service to focus on the incarcerated and those, especially children, who endure the loss of people they love. My wife, Eunice Wong, who taught poetry in New Jersey State Prison, the men’s supermax prison in Trenton, got permission to read two of her students’ poems in the opening minutes of the service.
One of the poems, called “Gone,” was by Tairahaan Mallard. One morning, when he was in the fifth grade, Mallard woke up to find that his mother had abandoned him and his younger siblings. She never returned.
I awaken on my own.
Strange. Mommy normally wakes me up.
Us, rather. My three brothers and baby sister.
But not today. Today I awake on my own.
Why? Where’s mommy.
I’m the only one awake.
Five children, one pull-out bed. In the living room.
I walk towards the bathroom.
Cold, wooden floors, squeaking with every step.
Nobody. Nobody’s in there.
She’s got to be in her room. Must be.
No place else she could be.
No one. Nothing but empty beer bottles
And cigarette butts.
Party time’s over.
But, where’s mommy?
Not only is she gone, but where?
Gone is her security.
Gone is my innocence.
Gone is my childhood. Ushering in responsibility.
Gone is a mother’s love for her children.
Gone is her protection.
Gone. But where?
Will she come back? I don’t know.
But if she ever does, I will have already been gone.
Eunice also provided two of the highlights of the afternoon, first by appearing in front of the congregation in a black miniskirt, fishnet stockings, combat boots, and a tank top, announcing: “I wore my best Presbyterian minister’s wife’s outfit today.” And at the end of the service, when the blues band began an up-tempo version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The singer stepped out from behind the microphone and began a soft-shoe shuffle. Eunice leapt up from the pew to join him, her arms swaying back and forth over her long black hair. She beckoned me to follow. It was an unorthodox way to enter the ministry.
I entered into the formal embrace of the church. But in my own mind, and in the mind of my father, who died in 1995, I had been ordained long ago. I was possessed by a vision, a call to tell the truth — which is different from reporting the news — and to stand with those who suffered, from Central America, to Gaza, to Iraq, to Sarajevo, to the United States’ vast archipelago of prisons. “You are not really a journalist,” my friend and fellow New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer once told me, “you are a minister pretending to be a journalist.”
Life is a circle. We return to our origins. We become who we were created to be. My ordination made that circle complete. It was an affirmation of an inner reality, one that Baldwin and Orwell understood.
The profound abandonment that Mallard described in his poem, part of American society’s wholesale abandonment of the poor and its endemic racism, was an example of one of the stark social truths that inspired James Cone and his radical, socially liberatory message. In the only ordination sermon James ever gave, he told the congregation:
“The conviction that we are not what the world says about us but rather what God created us to be is what compelled me to respond to the call to become a minister and theologian. The great Black writer James Baldwin wrote about his Harlem junior high school principal who told him that he ‘didn’t have to be entirely defined by circumstances,’ that he could rise above them and become the writer he dreamed about becoming. ‘She was living proof,’ Baldwin said, ‘that I was not necessarily what the country said I was.’
My mother and father told me the same thing when I was just a child. It did not matter what white people said about us, they told my brothers and me: ‘Don’t believe them. You don’t have to be defined by what others say about you or by the limits others try to place on you.’ I also heard the same message every Sunday at Macedonia A.M.E. Church. ‘You may be poor,’ Reverend Hunter proclaimed from the pulpit, ‘you may be Black, you may be in prison, it doesn’t matter, you are still God’s child, God’s gift to the world. Now go out of this place and show the world that you are just as important and smart as anybody. With God, anything is possible!’ That was the message my parents and Black church community gave to me. It was a message I read in the Bible. And I believed it.
Jesus was crucified on a cross as an insurrectionist because he bore witness to the divine truth that no one has to be defined by his or her circumstances. Liberation from oppression is God’s gift to the powerless in society. Freedom is Jesus’ gift to all who believe. And when one accepts this liberating Gospel and makes the decision to follow Jesus, you must be prepared to go to the cross in service to others — the least of those in society.
Because the Gospel begins and ends with God’s solidarity with the poor and weak, ministers who preach that Gospel will inevitably disturb the peace wherever there is injustice. Jesus was a disturber of the peace. A troublemaker. That is why he said,
‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother. . . . Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; . . . Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life shall lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake shall find it’ (Matthew 10:34–39).
Jesus’ presence creates division and conflict, even in families and among friends and especially among religious leaders and rulers in government. That was why the Roman state crucified him, lynched him on Golgotha hill, placing his exposed, wounded body high and lifted up on a cross for all to see and learn what would happen to others who chose to follow the man from Nazareth.
Now, if we Christians today are going to follow this Jesus and become ordained as one of his ministers, we too must become disturbers of the peace and run the risk of being lynched just like Jesus. The great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said: ‘If a gospel is preached without opposition, it is simply not the gospel which resulted in the cross.’ It is, in short, not Jesus’ gospel.”
The love that informs the long struggle for justice, that directs us to stand with the crucified, the love that defines the lives and words of James Baldwin, George Orwell, James Cone, and Cornel West, is the most powerful force on earth. It does not mean we will be spared pain or suffering. It does not mean we will achieve justice. It does not mean we as distinct individuals will survive. It does not mean we will escape death. But it gives us the strength to confront evil, even when it seems certain that evil will triumph. That love is not a means to an end. It is the end itself. That is the secret of its omnipotence. That is why it will never be conquered.
I taught my first prison class in 2010 at Wagner Correctional, which houses men in their teens and early twenties. The course was American history, and I used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as my textbook. Wagner, built in the 1930s, had the look and feel of prisons in old black-and-white gangster films.
My class met in a small basement room. To get there, I had to pass through a series of descending locked gates. I walked through an open gate that would then close behind me. I would wait fifteen seconds in a holding cell before the next gate opened. I repeated this process several times as I went deeper and deeper into the bowels of the prison. It felt as if I were traveling downward through Dante’s circles of hell: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, and fraud, and then to the final circle of hell — treachery, where everyone lives frozen in an ice-filled lake. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate. Abandon all hope, ye who enter.
We studied Spain’s violent decimation of the native inhabitants in the Caribbean and the Americas, the Revolutionary War in the United States, and the genocide of Native Americans. We examined slavery, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the occupations of Cuba and the Philippines, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, two world wars, and the legacy of racism, capitalist exploitation and imperialism that continue to infect American society.
We looked at these issues, as Zinn did, through the eyes of Native Americans, immigrants, those who were enslaved, feminists, union leaders, persecuted socialists, anarchists, Communists, abolitionists, antiwar activists, civil rights leaders, and the poor. As I read out loud passages by Sojourner Truth, Chief Joseph, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Randolph Bourne, Malcolm X, or Martin Luther King, I would hear students mutter “Damn!” or “We been lied to!”
Zinn’s work, because it gave primacy to their story rather than to the story of powerful and wealthy white men, captivated them. Zinn elucidated the racial and class structures that, from the inception of the country to the present, perpetuate misery for the poor, and gluttony and privilege for the elite — especially the white elite. A veil was lifted. My students took notes furiously as I plowed through the book in ninety-minute lectures.
Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as Baldwin writes in his essay The Creative Process, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin notes further, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”
Wagner, because it was a youth correctional facility, and the prisoners were young and could be undisciplined, required the imposition of strict rules for classroom behavior. Disagreements could quickly become personal. Homophobia, common in male prisons, generated slurs to belittle others. There were always one or two students that tried to veer the class discussions into tangents, especially since they knew I had lived outside the United States, had covered wars and conflicts, and had been to countries they had only glimpsed on television. In one class, I struggled to redirect the class back to the course material from its insistent questions about the possibility of nuclear war. When I asked why this issue was of such concern to them, a student answered, “Because if there is a nuclear war, the guards will run away and leave us in our cells.”
I was unforgiving with those who did not take the class seriously. A student who disrupted the class to mouth off or play the clown, who had little interest in doing the work, sabotaged the chance my students had to learn. An uninterested or unruly student would arrive the next week and find I had crossed his name off the list. My reputation for zero tolerance spread quickly throughout the prison, along with my propensity to be a tough grader. It built a protective wall around my classes for those who had a thirst for education.
The corrections officer rapped on the Plexiglas that first night in Rahway. The three other professors and I were buzzed through the first heavy metal door and into the prison. There were 140 students who had been selected after a rigorous application process from the prison’s population of 1,500 to participate in the program known as the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons, or NJ-STEP, which allowed them to pursue their college degree. I had twenty-eight of these students in my class.
We walked down a long, drab corridor until we passed through a cavity where a heavy, blue metal door had been electronically opened. I put my shoes, watch, pens, and belt in a plastic bin that rolled through an X-ray machine to an officer at a high wooden desk. I stepped through a metal detector. I lifted my arms to be patted down. The metal door behind us rumbled shut, and an identical door on the other side of the small room rumbled open. I walked into the rotunda. A half circle of metal bars with a gate in the middle separated us from the prison population. The white, throne-like BOSS chair — BOSS stands for Body Orifice Security Scanner, which is used to X-ray the cavities of prisoners for contraband — was on my left. A holding cell with bars on all sides was to my right.
We waited silently. I watched prisoners in khaki uniforms, many carrying meal trays, walk in single file on the other side of the bars. When the corridors were clear, the officer seated by the gate motioned us forward. I went through the gate, passed perhaps a dozen officers, many wearing latex gloves, and another metal detector. On my left, some prisoners, dressed in white to identify them as kitchen workers, were seated on benches behind another set of bars. As civilians, we were not allowed into the corridors during movement, when long lines of prisoners would be walking to and from their cells. I walked up a flight of metal stairs into an area called the Old School. I registered with the officer at the desk. He checked the list.
“Your classroom is at the end of the corridor on the left,” he said.
I entered the room. My twenty-eight students were seated at desks. Many, given their size, barely fit. I was wearing an old brown suit. When I had gone to Brooks Brothers to see if I could replace it, the sales clerk informed me that it was no longer manufactured because it was not “a power color.” Power colors were probably something Brooks Brothers understood. The clothing firm got its start buying inexpensive cotton from slave plantations to make livery and cheap, coarse fabrics called “Negro cloth,” that it sold to slaveholders.
My eyes were immediately drawn to the massive size of one of my students in the back row. He was, I would learn later, six foot two and 270 pounds. He had very broad shoulders, a dark, wide, open face, and short dreadlocks. He was Robert Luma, known as Kabir, which in Arabic means big. There were other large men in the room — members of what was referred to as the 400 Club, meaning they bench-pressed more than 400 pounds in the prison yard — but they appeared dwarfed next to Kabir.
Kabir was a devoted listener of the Pacifica Network radio station that broadcast from New York City, WBAI. He had heard me on the air several times and told the other students they should take the class.20 Boris Franklin, dark skinned, with a round, inquisitive face and biceps that rivaled his thighs in size, was seated next to Kabir. Reading glasses were carefully tucked in the front pocket of his prison uniform. I assumed, correctly, that he was a serious reader and a serious student. He eyed me, however, like much of the class, with skepticism.
“You walked into the room,” he told me later. “I thought, ‘This little dude is the guy Kabir says is supposed to be so great. Okay. We’ll see.’ ”
I opened the class with my usual imposition of guidelines I had found necessary in the classes I had taught to younger students at Wagner.
“My name is Chris Hedges,” I said. “I was a reporter overseas for twenty years, covering conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the war in the former Yugoslavia. Now I write books — a career choice made for me by my former employer, the New York Times, after the paper issued me a formal reprimand for speaking at public forums and on media outlets denouncing George W. Bush’s call to invade Iraq. They demanded I cease speaking publicly about the war. I refused. That ended my career at the paper. I was an English major at Colgate University. I have a master of divinity from Harvard. I also spent a year at Harvard studying classics.
“I have taught in colleges before, including at Princeton University. I expect the same decorum and commitment to do the work here that I would in a Princeton classroom. In this class, we will read various plays, along with Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. But first a few rules: In this class, everyone is treated with respect no matter what their race, ethnicity, religion, politics, or sexual orientation. In this class, we do not interrupt. We challenge ideas, but never integrity or character. I know homophobia runs rampant in men’s prisons. But not in my classroom. In my classroom, everyone has a legitimate right to be who they are created to be. In short, I never want to hear any derogatory term used about anyone, and that includes the word faggot. Is this clear?”
The class nodded its assent.
East Jersey State Prison was different from Wagner, which did not hold many long-term offenders. My new students were older. They were charged with more serious crimes—often murder. They had usually spent the first few years, even decades, of their time in New Jersey State Prison, the supermax prison in Trenton, where movement is heavily restricted and the prison regime harsh and unforgiving. They rarely went to the prison yard in Trenton, and there were no weights — prisoners call it the pile — which are usually a ubiquitous part of prison life. Those prisoners considered incorrigible by the Department of Corrections are housed in Trenton, often for life.
The atmosphere in Trenton was dark and menacing. The Department of Corrections did not permit college credit courses in Trenton because, as one corrections official said, “They will die in there anyway.” I taught noncredit courses there. One summer I taught Shakespeare’s King Lear. When we discussed Gloucester’s aborted suicide, a third of the class admitted they had seriously contemplated or attempted suicide in the prison. My students carried the trauma of Trenton into East Jersey State Prison. In short, the students were adult men, more reserved, more composed, but also hardened in the way the young, often preening men in Wagner were not.
Students got into the college program at East Jersey State Prison by keeping their disciplinary records clean. I would often hear that prisoners “age out of crime,” and that is probably the best way to describe my students. They held back emotionally. They watched me carefully. They trusted few people and only after long observation. They had clearly demarcated lines that you crossed at your peril. But they did not have the impulsiveness and immaturity of younger prisoners.
I had more experience with prisons than most of my fellow professors. I had been inside numerous prisons in Latin America, the Middle East, India, and the Balkans as a foreign correspondent and had been locked up for brief periods in cells myself —including in Iran, where I managed to get through 180 pages of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot before being released. I was also, as a war correspondent, accustomed to being around violence and those who perpetrated violence.
In my class in East Jersey State Prison, we would have a long discussion that semester about prisoners who murder other prisoners.
“Don’t they take into consideration that they will almost certainly get caught and add a life bid to their sentence?” I asked.
The class assured me that the high cost of the murder was known and accepted by the assailant. It was part of the price to pay for a killing that was often seen as an act of justifiable revenge, they insisted. As the students filed out that night, one of them came up to me and whispered, “Everything you heard is bullshit. I shanked a dude in Wagner. I didn’t think about any of that. All I wanted was to take the motherfucker out.”
The next week, a student said he had watched my face as his classmate confessed to a killing and was surprised by my composure.
“Well,” I said laughing, “in the world I come from, the killers in here are amateurs.”
“The most powerful prisoners are not the gangsters,” Boris Franklin wrote later. “They are those who have earned the respect of the other prisoners and the guards. There is less violence in a well-run prison than many on the outside assume, since it is the word and stature of these prison leaders that creates social cohesion. These leaders ward off conflicts between prisoners, raise issues of concern with the administrators, and intercede with the guards. They intuitively understand how to navigate the narrow parameters set by prison authorities, giving them something that resembles freedom. Prison is a lot like the outside world. There is a stratum of people you try to avoid. There are the majority who spend most of their free time slack-jawed in front of a television set, and then there are those who have recovered their integrity and even, to an extent, their moral autonomy. They have risen above prison to become better people. Yet even they can be arbitrarily disappeared into solitary confinement or shipped to another prison by the administration. Everyone in prison is disposable.
“It was this last group . . . that Professor Chris Hedges met when he walked into a prison classroom in Rahway, New Jersey, in September 2013,” he continued. “These were some of the 140 men who comprised what we called Rahway University; those of us who dedicated all our free time to studying to earn our college degree. We would be in the yard working the pile talking about Plato or Augustine. We exchanged ideas about the readings from our bunks or in the mess hall. And we tutored those who were falling behind. We had converted our cells into libraries. Our books were our most precious possessions, especially since we had to scrape together the money to buy them. We did not lend them unless we were sure they would be read and even surer they would be returned. And if you read one of our books, you had better be prepared to give an intelligent commentary on its contents. We were a dedicated fraternity of prison scholars.”
My class contained highly literate men. None of this was apparent from looking at most of them, but their passions and mine were identical. I was not, I would soon find out, the only writer in the room.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.”
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
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