The practice of oppression takes many pervasive forms, but few modern day iterations are as evident and damaging as that of the prison system. Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winner, worked as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times for 15 years, and has taught in prisons for over 10 years. He is now teaching an “inside-out” class at a nearby women’s correctional facility, comprised half of Princeton students, and half of inmates—though, as he explains, “Everyone in my classroom is a Princeton student. You’re an outside student, they’re an inside student. The prestige of the institution validates people who haven’t been validated. Any way that we can validate these people is good.”
Hedges agreed to meet with me on Monday, March 27, the day after I emailed him; he was short on time because he is writing a book, but he slotted me into a busy day. I met him in the lobby of Prospect House, where Hedges introduced me to a former student of his, Boris Franklin, who had served 11 years in a maximum-security prison in Rahway. Franklin graciously agreed to be interviewed as well. After peering into a ballroom or two, we sat in a small room furnished with a large round table.
The following has been edited for length and clarity, and restructured to address two major ideas: the role of education, and the standing of women in prison. Toward the end, I also asked Franklin and Hedges to voice their thoughts about Princeton’s stance on divestment.
The Role of Education
Maddy Pauchet: I’d first like to ask about the specific class you’re teaching—how it’s organized, and why you wanted to teach it.
Chris Hedges: Well, I’ve been teaching in prisons for a long time, almost ten years. I’ve taught in Wagner, I’ve taught in Trenton supermax prisons…the students who put it together came to me and asked me in their proposal if I would teach an inside-out class, and I agreed. It was a two- or three-year process, and there were all sorts of hurdles with the department of corrections. It was a way to draw Princeton into the college program inside, which was great, because Princeton has so many resources. I’ve never done an inside-out class, which I was reluctant to do, because it means half of my students who are in the prison wouldn’t get to be in the class.
MP: How is it that they’re not in the class?
CH: This is a seminar, so there’s a ceiling in terms of the number of students. I think there are sixteen or seventeen students, so instead of having sixteen students who are on the inside I only have eight or seven. It just cuts it in half. And as Boris can tell you, we can’t take everyone. In Rahway, we had to turn down over a hundred people who wanted to get into the college program.
Boris Franklin: That waiting list might’ve jumped up to almost two hundred. But it was good; it changed the culture of the prison. Everybody who didn’t have a GED had an incentive to get a GED. So the GED program went up. The college program was fueling that. Everyone was thinking, “Okay, if I get my GED, I can go to college.”
MP: Do you typically teach creative writing?
CH: No, never. This was the course that was fashioned out of Princeton in a way that the Princeton students who are far more in touch with the requirements of the university felt would most likely get approved. I don’t teach writing for a couple reasons. One, I’m a professional writer, and usually professional writers are not good writing teachers, although universities hire them—but they’re not. The second thing is that because for some of the inside students, because their academic past has been so weak, they may be very bright, and they may be able to absorb information, but they just don’t have the writing skills to express it. The last class I taught in Rahway was a survey of Western political thought—it started with Plato, went all the way through to Dewey, Hobbes, Rawls, Nietzsche, Marx, Aristotle, Locke… I had students there who weren’t strong writers but I knew they’d read the material and I knew they’d gotten it, so I could give them a pass on the writing. You can’t really do that in a writing class. I have a couple students on the inside who just have very weak writing skills and it’s because of their background and their training. I also think there are so many holes in terms of the basic reading. Boris can tell you—he went to a school that was pretty dysfunctional, and there are just so many gaps.
BF: Most of the guys who knew things were auto-didactic. They had started reading in prison.
CH: That’s an important point. You do have people like [Boris], who turned themselves into a library. And so in that philosophy class, this guy had read more philosophy than I had. He’d go, what is Aquinas? And I’d have to rush home—I had read Aquinas, but I had to go home and check. You do have those, but that’s a small percentage.
BF: It is a small percentage, and like you were alluding to, we come from communities that have poor school systems. I went to a Piscataway school system for a brief period, then they transferred me to a New Brunswick school system, and I had to sit in the back of the class, because I was in the same grade, about twenty minutes away, but the curriculums were so different. The students never caught up because they didn’t have the foundation I had. Even having a few years of a decent school system can take you a long way.
CH: A certain segment of that prison population is so hungry to learn. It’s really moving. A fairly significant percentage of students are going to die in prison—and they know it. And they’re excited about Plato!
BF: If you look at the statistics, at least 68% of the individuals in prison don’t have high school diplomas. You’re going to teach those individuals who came through the school-to-prison pipeline, who were forced out of school, who already have poor educations. Maybe you’ll find a group of individuals in there who have been learning from each other.
CH: [Boris]’ll tell you, they’d be out lifting weights and talking about The Republic!
BF: That was the best thing that happened to that prison. It changed the culture of it. When you bring education into a facility, you turn it into an educational institution. For individuals in a maximum-security prison, it starts to look like Princeton. Everybody’s wearing a prison uniform, but they start calling Rahway “Rahway University” because this is all you heard. You hear it walking to the mess hall: guys are talking about class.
MP: When students lack a basic foundation, does arts education still have a place?
CH: Yes. It’s very meaningful for the women—even if their writing is weak—to get up and read their work. It’s their story, and you’ll find they’re very emotional, and even when it’s not well written it’s very moving, because they’re usually struggling to express deep trauma. For people who carry that kind of trauma, being able to express it, whether through writing or art, is really important in terms of beginning to cope with what they’re carrying.
MP: Are there any recurring or overlapping things in the writings of inside and outside students? Do they write about very different things?
CH: Yeah, because they come from very different life experiences. One [outside] student wrote about the day she was going to a college fair and she got nabbed by an officer in the subway in New York and pulled out her cellphone, and said “Talk to my mother, she’s a lawyer.” There was a long silence, and then one of the inside students said, “Lucky you.” There are two differences. One, those people going to class in prison are not thinking about a career, because they don’t have one. So it is really for the sheer love of learning—that’s different from Princeton. Most of them are not trying to get a job at Goldman Sachs. [Boris] is at Rutgers now, and he says, “I’m doing my contracting license because I’m a black fella.” The second thing is that because of their personal experiences, they have a more sophisticated understanding of power and how it works.
BF: Yeah, I have to think about those things. The inside-outside program is a great dialogue though, because we’re learning from the bottom up, and they’re learning from the top down. A lot of the people from the top who are trying to learn their way down aren’t going to reach that level. Chris might have a better understanding of racism, and I’ll have a better understanding of oppression. He may understand racism differently because he’ll understand white people differently. You’d be surprised to see how many black people think racism isn’t really a big deal. They’ve never come face-to-face with it.
CH: To my students who come out of Camden or Trenton, and who say, “Nobody’s ever called me a nigger,” I say, “I want you to describe your school, come to Princeton, and take a tour of the public school. That’s how racism works. Describe what your streets look like, then come here to Princeton. That’s how racism works.”
BF: When you’re in prison, your whole life is mental because there’s so much you can’t do physically. You live through your mind and your imagination and your ideas. [The inside students] are in a space where that’s working for them and they’re engaging with students from Princeton, and I believe if they take advantage of that dialogue, they can facilitate an exchange of ideas. There’s no way for one side to get it without the help of the other side. There’s no way for any of these differences between class and race to change without bringing these groups together.
CH: It’s because privilege is a form of blindness, especially white male privilege. Even as close [Boris and I] are, I understand that as hard as I try, and no matter how many years I spent in prisons or anywhere else, there are things that I just can’t see, because of where I am and where I come from. I remember once telling Boris about going to Trenton, where sometimes correctional officers will mess with you. Last fall they kept me out. I said, “When I get there and the C.O. is black or brown, I’m happy because they don’t mess with me the way a white C.O. does… Maybe they have more— ” and he goes, “No, no… you’re white, you’re coming in, you got permission. They don’t know what your connection is to ‘the man.’ They’re black and brown, and they don’t want to mess with you.” When you come out of privilege you bring perceptions that are wrong, assumptions that are wrong, and because you are treated differently, you can’t really understand in many ways how power works.
MP: How are students relating to each other? Are they able to spend time together outside of class? Do you encourage conversation?
CH: Yes. We have readings every week, and each student is assigned to speak for five minutes about that reading. The poor woman who did The Trial had to speak for more than that. Then we read others’ writing out loud. Because people are writing about personal experiences, inevitably, things will come up about their lives. In [Boris’s] class, we wrote a play that will be performed at a theater company in Trenton, probably next spring, but there again people were dealing with autobiographical material.
BF: The funny thing about it is that it’s the closest we came to having real intimate relationships between the individuals who were incarcerated. It’s just something you don’t do in prison—you don’t pry into people’s business. You don’t say, “What are you in here for?” If you don’t form a relationship where someone decides to tell you about himself, you could know a guy for three years and never know much about him. You might not know his mother’s name, his father’s name, his kid’s name. Having these classes allows for more conversation, more dialogue. You become less of an inmate, more of a person, and you tend to have more intimate conversations. And having regular people—we call [the outside students] “regular people”— allows you to begin to feel normal again. I’m hearing myself use the word “normal.” You’ve been convinced that you’re not normal. You’re convinced that you’re a social deviant, that you’re abnormal, that you’re maladapted to your situation. As a prisoner, you are ripped and robbed of your humanity every day. You don’t really touch, especially in a men’s prison.
CH: I give almost every prisoner a hug. Not female prisoners, but in the male prison.
BF: It took me almost two years to get used to that, after we got out of prison! But the thing is I spent eleven years in a maximum security space, and because of the extreme homophobia, men don’t touch… there’s a way to touch, and there’s a breach of space that men aren’t comfortable with. And when families visit, people you love dearly, I’d be sitting as far away as you’re sitting now. And if you move, if you touch, someone will come correct you and say, “If you continue to do that, we will terminate your visit.” Someone’s always telling you how to stand, which way to go, which way to move, don’t move, wait, sit right there, we’ll get to you. They bark orders for no reason. You could be heading that way and they’ll say, “Keep it moving.” You were moving anyway! But they need to be able to tell you to do something, because they have power in that space. When we walked into class as students, we held our heads high. We were puffed up with pride. We were bigger than the officers. And the officers felt it, because there were times where they would throw our books. You’d go through the metal detectors, and they would throw your books. I’ve seen guys have a hard time picking it up. They tell you, “Pick it up.” You say, “I’m not picking it up.” This could go anywhere. It could go into a wrestling match. Another inmate would pick it up and give it to you and get you out of that space, and say “Just come on,” because we were all a group and we were heading somewhere to give ourselves an opportunity to be better individuals and getting something that we didn’t get in the beginning: education is the key. So why would you give us a faulty key? You have individuals who are 30 years old, back to being kids, starting from the point where their development was arrested. When you come in, you’re picking them up at that point and moving them forward. This could’ve been done a long time ago; it could’ve prevented a lot of things. Education allows you to navigate the space that you’re in. Chris didn’t change the statistics for me. He didn’t come out and change the fact that 50% of black youth in the ghetto are unemployed. He didn’t change any stats. But he brought education in that he thought would change us. Individuals came out of prison, and the stats are still there—the poverty levels are still there—but you see things differently. You navigate things differently. You begin to mature, too. You begin to handle things differently. High school is a very important space; if you have a good high school, you can come to Princeton. They prepare you for it. They prepare you to be independent thinkers. You have to get to class, nobody’s going to call your mother if you don’t go, you’re grown. If you’re 18, your mother can’t even see your grades without your permission. If you have a poor high school, you don’t even get there. What you have are oversized babies in a community with no resources. The only thing that helps are individuals who are willing to go to that space and deal with that population, and now you have students who are willing to go sit alongside those individuals, take classes with them… I don’t think anybody could understand what it means for the people in there.
Women in Prison
CH: Before we started the class, I asked Boris and Nafessah, who did 12 years—
BF: 12 years, 9 months.
CH: I asked Nafessah to come and tell [the Princeton students about life in prison], because we’re not going to talk about it necessarily in class.
MP: I understand that teaching in a women’s prison was a decision taken because of logistical reasons rather than because of a particular feminist cause. Nafessah spent over 10 years incarcerated—
BF: 12 years, 9 months. She’d be upset if you forgot her 9 months.
MP: Has teaching in a women’s prison informed your syllabus and the way you’re teaching?
CH: I put together the curriculum to skew it heavily toward women writers and especially women of color. They’re writing about an experience the women in prison can relate to. What women endure in prison is different than what men endure in prison. Men tend to have support systems, as a whole through mothers, girlfriends, sisters…women don’t.
BF: It’s more socially acceptable; people expect men in prisons. It’s kind of a hot topic. Women are being overlooked, and the issue won’t be raised until it becomes as big as the one of mass incarceration of men of color.
CH: Women in prison are the fastest growing segment of the prison population. The other thing is that the sexual abuse on the part of correctional officers is rampant. You just don’t see that in a male prison.
BF: It’s a different level of terror. Can you imagine the guy who has the keys to the cells? He can turn the lights off, he can isolate you, he can take you somewhere no one can see you. He can possibly physically overpower you, and get the aid of other guards to do it. A lot of cooperation happens out of fear. [A female inmate] actually shot a guard over sexual abuse, over the way he was searching her. She challenged them all the time, and she was so aggressive that they kind of backed off of her, but most women don’t have that kind of courage.
CH: It’s kind of a quid pro quo. You give sex, and you get the job or whatever. You have so little in prison.
BF: And there are some who cooperate who want to have relations with somebody because they don’t have any relationships.
CH: We should throw in there that most of these women have given up their children to foster care.
BF: Yeah, they have to.
CH: I don’t know if you agree, but I think that personally, psychologically, that there’s probably more trauma in a women’s prison than a men’s prison.
BF: Women are in a space where men are jailers. You know how it can be when you give men a certain level of power. Certain people make decisions based on their own personal gains—an extra blanket or an extra pillow can put you in a whole other social class in prison. If you have a cup that’s a color that nobody has, it puts you in a whole other social class. A women’s prison is extremely filled with trauma and terror. For men, the biggest trauma is other inmates, but if you’ve been accustomed to dealing with aggressive individuals, it’s really no big deal. Women in prison—that’s almost slavery.
CH: All the women call the C.O.s pigs. That’s not true in men’s prisons. In Rahway they call them the C.O.s. But the women call them pigs.
MP: Do you think there’s an animosity in women’s prisosn toward prison guards that doesn’t exist in men’s prisons?
CH: No, everybody hates prison guards. But Boris touched on the right word: terror. My reading of it is that almost every woman in prison lives in a state of terror—that is not true for the men.
BF: I never felt terror from the guards. Anything that was going to happen would have happened between me and another inmate, and when the guards came in, they would use excessive force to stop it. That’s expected, but you never fear sexual assault or advances. The things that they do to women, like Nafessah was saying, “They would come in and tear pictures of their kids down and rip them up.” To aggravate men in prison, they’ll crush your radio or kick your food around. They know that these women are mothers—that’s a sensitive issue—they attack that, their motherhood. They say they’re bad mothers, that their kids don’t want them. It’s a lot of verbal abuse, along with physical and sexual abuse. That won’t happen in men’s prisons. At the end of the day, I know if a guard grabs me, I know I can handle myself. That’s not necessarily true for women.
CH: The ability to be a sexual predator is so easy and prevalent in a women’s prison that it is, from my sense, pretty pervasive.
BF: That’s the problem. You have men in charge of women. That’s the problem.
MP: At 4:30p.m. today, Princeton’s going to be announcing its decision not to divest from private prisons, and it’s going to be protested by student groups.
CH: That’s like not divesting from the slave trade. It’s totally the moral equivalent.
MP: What should students do?
CH: You have to protest. You have to shame your university. You have to make it public. You may not win, but you can’t let the university get away with this without making a lot of noise. In any class, 20-25% of my students did not commit the crime for which they are convicted, including life. Then you’ve got people like [Boris] who should never have been given the sentences they were—I mean, the length of these sentences is insane! Triple, quadruple what they are in any other country, nobody’s had a fair trial… prison, in America, is a social mechanism. It is what’s been instituted to deal with surplus or redundant labor in deindustrialized zones. It’s a form of social control along with terror used by police on city streets. This isn’t an accident, it’s by design, and that’s why the prison system isn’t going to go away—because we have turned the laboring classes, especially people of color, into human refuse, and they need harsh forms of care to keep them under control. And that’s why we have 25% of the world’s prison population. Within five years, 76% of people released from state prisons are back in. That’s the way that the system is designed; they lock you in a cage, especially in Trenton—the level of depression and psychosis…they never get out of those cages.
BF: If you had a company, and your company boasted corrections for social deviants, and 76% of the people who went through your company went back, then your company would be failing. Those are statistics—unless that’s what your company was designed to do.
CH: It is completely designed to do that. Not just private prisons, but commissary companies, Global Tel Link, JPay… all these companies that are making millions, if not billions, in profits, and they’ve got lobbyists down there making sure that everybody stays imprisoned.
BF: There’s no need to abolish it. It’s just the way things are designed; solitary confinement, long prison sentences… there’s enough research to show that it makes individuals much more antisocial and violent. You see spikes in violence and antisocial behavior. Then, when that individual comes out, they’ll turn into the criminal they feared.