AMERIKA: ‘The Carcel State’, Chris Hedges on Mechanisms of Repression & Control

Source – scheerpost.com

  • “…20-30% of the people I teach never committed the crime, and some of those people are going to die in prison. Because they’re railroaded through plea agreements, and if you don’t plea out, the system’s not designed–only 6% get a jury trial–it’s not designed to, the system would crash if they had jury trials….the idea that the system itself is at the heart of it, and that it’s not an accident that innocent people are jailed, or people with potential are denied their potential. And what is uncomfortable about your book is we can’t read your book and think these are throwaway people”

Chris Hedges: God “Caged” in Jersey

Chris Hedges joins Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about his 10 years as a teacher and pupil creating theater in the U.S. prison plantation system.

Chris Hedges (in a tie) with the East Jersey State Prison inmates who collaborated to write “Caged,” world premiering through May 20 at Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J
Chris Hedges (in a tie) with the East Jersey State Prison inmates who collaborated to write “Caged,” world premiered at Passage Theatre in Trenton, N.J. [Photo courtesy of Chris Hedges]

Journalist and author Chris Hedges has mastered many roles throughout his life: New York Times war correspondent in El Salvador, Gaza, the Balkans, and elsewhere; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and incisive columnist; Harvard Divinity School graduate; taught at Princeton University; gifted public speaker; Emmy-nominated host of “On Contact,” and more. As Robert Scheer notes in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” Hedges is also an ordained minister and has spent a decade teaching writing to students trapped in America’s heinous prison system. As the two discuss Hedges’ latest book, “Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison,” Scheer, a long time friend and editor of Hedges’ award-winning column at ScheerPost, links Hedges’ profound understanding of Christian morality–and what Hedges calls “Christian fascism”–with his work teaching in a New Jersey prison, arguably his most challenging and rewarding role ever. 

“Our Class” is based on Hedges’s experiences teaching literature, history, drama, and philosophy at East Jersey State Prison as part of a Rutgers University college degree program. There, as he tells Scheer, he has encountered students who have experienced profound traumas in their lives–including being wrongfully accused and condemned for crimes they did not commit–who have a deep thirst for knowledge and education. His experiences as a teacher and mentor working inside the prison also have allowed him to witness firsthand the immorality of a system that has come to define America in the worst possible light.

 “We’ve created a carceral state,” says Hedges, “where we invest solely in mechanisms of repression and control and no longer invest in people. We deindustrialize whole cities, casting people aside, treating them like human refuse, severing the social bonds that knit them to the society. And then send in militarized police forces, in essence, armed forces of occupation, that create reigns of terror. 

“Three people a day are killed by police in the United States, most of them unarmed,” Hedges continues. “[America has] the world’s largest prison system, 25% of the world’s prison population. The forms of social control are completely negative: they are institutionalized repression colored with the poison of white supremacy.” 

Hedges examines the many ways America has failed the people it locks away–sometimes for entire lifetimes–feeding an insatiable prison industrial complex that profits off the exploitation of the country’s poor and people of color. Listen to the full, deeply moving discussion between Hedges and Scheer as they discuss the journalist’s new book as well as “Caged,” the play that his students created behind bars. You can also read an excerpt of “Our Class” on ScheerPost

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript:
Lucy Berbeo 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Chris Hedges, one of America’s most famous writers, legitimately famous writers. But I’m calling about a particular book; he’s got a long list of important books, but this one, I don’t know, it’s the most special. It’s called Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison. And it’s about his decade–decade–of teaching, going into tough prisons in New Jersey and teaching prisoners, some of whom have life sentences without possibility of parole, trying to help some of them get advanced degrees, high school degrees, college degrees, even beyond, some just for the joy of learning. 

And what I find compelling about this book is it’s about the deliberately forgotten America. We have millions of people locked up; we have the biggest prison population in the world, the great achievement of our democracy. It’s biased to include poor people more, and people of color. And it’s a story we just want to systematically ignore. And the idea of going into this prison–and let’s just begin with that. It began with–because a neighbor of yours in New Jersey was doing God’s work–and I’m going to get back to God in a minute–teaching in a local prison, and she was asking people to go teach there without even being paid, and they had to supply textbooks and everything else. 

And that’s how you got started in this. You were then, what, a well-known New York Times writer, or was that a little bit after, and you had a big book publisher, and you’d been giving a lot of speeches all over. And yet you went into–and I have to use the word–just the drudgery of getting into a prison, and then the shock, the culture shock of taking–you know, you were a student at Harvard at one point; taking that into a New Jersey prison. So just reintroduce us to that.

CH: So, for me, there was a kind of continuity in going into the prison. Because when I was at Harvard Divinity School, I lived in Roxbury and I ran a small church there, across from the Mission Extension Housing Project, which was the most dangerous or violent housing project at the time in the city. And then of course I went from Harvard Divinity School to El Salvador as a freelance reporter, was there for five years covering the war; went to the Middle East, spent much of my time in places like Gaza; went from there to the former Yugoslavia, was in Sarajevo during the war, later Kosovo. So coming back to the United States after 20 years abroad and going into the prison fit very much with my passion as a journalist, which is to go into distressed, even violent environments and lift up the voices of those the theologian James Cone calls the crucified of the earth. 

So I stumbled into it, you’re right; it was Celia Chazelle, who at that time was the head of the history department of the College of New Jersey, and she–this was before there was any kind of college credit program; she was just teaching semester-long courses and buying the books for the students, and then if a student completed the course she would write it, she’d go home on her printer and print something out. It had no academic validity, but it would go into their folder for the parole board. 

And so that’s how I began. Usually when I finish a book there’s a six-month period before my book tour, which is usually very extensive, and I tend not to start other books during that six-month interregnum, just because it gets broken up; my book tours go on for weeks. And it happened to coincide with one of those six-month periods. And I was very moved going into the prison, because of the hunger, because of the brilliance on the part of many–

RS: You mean hunger for knowledge.

CH: Yeah, hunger for education. I taught a few classes; this was a youth correctional facility, Albert C. Wagner Youth [Correctional Facility], so everybody was under the age of 28. I taught Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in there, and would give these 90-minute talks as we worked our way through the book, and would hear the students go, Damn! We’ve been lied to. And I used the companion volume that was put together by Anthony Arnove and Zinn, so it had a lot of the original source material, like Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman,” or Frederick Douglass’s Fourth of July speech. And I would begin every class by having a student read one of these passages. And they were riveted, because of course Zinn tells their story–tells their history. It’s not about white slaveholding men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington; it’s about Shays’ Rebellion, it’s about Nat Turner. And just–and seeing how much talent there was in there, and how that talent has never had an opportunity to flourish and mature–that kind of hooked me. 

I eventually started teaching in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University; it’s a great program in the prison. And these students tended to be older; this was East Jersey State Prison, where the book is set. And these were really prison scholars. They had turned themselves into libraries of very serious and gifted students. And that moment in the classroom in a prison is really sacred, because it’s the only time during the day when they’re treated–I mean, outside that prison door they don’t even, their name is not even used, they’re called by their number. But in that prison classroom they’re not only treated with dignity, but we validate their own worth as individuals and intellectuals. So it’s always deeply moving, and I think that’s true for anyone–anyone who teaches in a prison will tell you that. 

RS: You know, I have to tell you, I am in a little bit of a state of shock. I was rereading your book, and then I got interrupted; I had a faculty meeting. And the faculty meeting–I’m not going to put down where I teach or anything, it’s a fine school, USC, got a lot of great students, and been there for 20, 25 years. But I was reading the end of your book at that point, and then I went into this meeting about how can we increase the number of people in the management program or something. I just felt corrupt. And your commencement speech to a class at Rutgers, a graduating class, about 250 family members and everything there, was absolutely compelling. And the very idea–the very idea that so many of us manage to live our lives totally indifferent to these people who are incarcerated, the society that has built that. 

And so I want to really get to what you are about, Chris Hedges. Because you know, you have a scene in there where you put on your black garb and you go give that commencement speech, and you’ve only put it on–you got ordained, and in some ways you went through the whole official process after getting your divinity degree at Harvard. Your father, of course, had been a minister. I say “of course,” but people who know your work know that. And he had lost his church over his defense of civil rights and gay rights, and he’s clearly been a big inspiration in your life. And then you went to Harvard Divinity School, and you mentioned living in Roxbury, but you lived in Roxbury because you wanted to be in touch with the poor, the vulnerable. And your classmates seemed to, again, talk a good game, but be unaware–they didn’t like the smell of the poor, I think is the way you put it. 

But you know, in this, there’s a sense of obligation that really has a lot to do with what it is that writers or journalists do. And there’s two statements that you make that are made in the book. One, you’re discussing Orwell and James Baldwin, two men, two writers that you obviously have enormous respect for. And Baldwin is kind of the song you’re singing to in this book; I’d like you to talk about that. And then you have a quote from Stephen Kinzer, I believe his name is, a well-known writer who was with you at the New York Times, who said you’re really a minister pretending to be a journalist, or something like that; I don’t have the exact quote. And on the other hand, I know you have disillusionment with the Church, and you have real questions about the value of the religious connection. And you got officially ordained, really, so it’d be easier to go in and out of prison, I think. So why don’t you connect those dots? 

CH: Well, Paul Tillich once wrote that all institutions, including the Church, are inherently demonic. And that’s right. The religious life, or the religious impulse, is one that is always going to clash with any institution. And of course that was true in my father’s own trajectory as a minister. He was very involved in the antiwar movement; he was a World War II veteran; he’d been a sergeant in North Africa; he was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and later very involved in the gay rights movement. My uncle, his youngest brother, was gay, and so my father had an understanding of the pain of being a gay man in America in the 1950s and the 1960s, and he was willing to pay the price. 

Now, none of these things were popular; we were in an all-white farm town in upstate New York where Martin Luther King was one of the most hated men in America. And I remember people, as a boy watching people walk out angrily from my father’s sermons. And this had a huge impact on me. I don’t think you can teach morality; I think you have to show it. And if it’s truly a moral choice, there’s a cost. And if you’re fighting radical evil, as I saw with the death squads in El Salvador–I was in Gaza when Israel was pounding it with U.S.-supplied F-16s, obliterating whole blocks of refugee camps and then lying about it in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, talking about how they had made a surgical strike on a bomb-making factory at the very moment I was looking at the bodies of children. 

That confrontation with radical evil is one that, when you truly confront it, exacts a price. And sometimes that price can be your life. I mean, 22 reporters were killed in El Salvador when I was there; 45 foreign correspondents were killed in Sarajevo before I arrived. So there’s a very high price for standing up against those forces. And I think that my father prepared me. I always talk about the New York Times when I left because I had been denouncing Bush’s call to invade Iraq; you were doing the same at the L.A. Times. And I gave a commencement speech where I was booed off the stage at Rockford College for denouncing the war. And then I was lynched by right-wing radio, hour after hour after hour; Rush Limbaugh and all these figures. And the Times gave me a written reprimand, a formal reprimand saying I was no longer allowed to speak about Iraq, about the war, even though I’d been the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, seven years in the Middle East, spoke Arabic. And you give the employee under guild rules that written reprimand, and then if they violate the reprimand you have grounds to fire them. And so it wasn’t an easy day; I was, you know, nobody wants to lose their job. I knew that if I was fired from the Times I wasn’t going to get picked up anywhere else. I didn’t know that you were going to come rescue me at the time. But I also knew that–

RS: Wait, wait. You’ve got to explain. By “rescue me” you mean that–

CH: Oh, by getting me to write for Truthdig.

RS: Yeah, and now the paltry payment I offer you at Scheerpost. [Laughter] You can take care of your parking tickets when you go to the prison to help people out. But go ahead.

CH: So, but I remember sitting in the office, and you know, really knowing that the choice was paying fealty to my career, or betraying my father. And I couldn’t do that. And I articulated–when I walked out of 229 West 43rd Street, where the New York Times was then, I remember articulating for the first time what it was that my father had given me. And that was freedom. I didn’t need the imprimatur of the New York Times to tell me who I was. I knew who I was; I was my father’s son. And that’s a tremendous gift. And I have, I think consistently–I think Kinzer’s right when he said that I was a minister pretending to be a journalist, because as a journalist, you learn how to manipulate facts. I can take any set of facts and spin the story any way you want. So if I’m a good careerist, I’m going to spin it in such a way that it doesn’t upset the structures of power, both within the newspaper that I work for and that I’m writing about. 

The famous example is Abe Rosenthal is sent up as a reporter in 1968 to Columbia University, where New York City police have quite viciously beaten huge numbers of students, and some were in critical condition. And he goes to the president’s office and it’s trashed, and he writes a poignant story about the vandals who destroyed the president’s office. Well, that, you know, launched his meteoric rise within the New York Times, so that he became the executive editor. Nothing that he wrote was untrue, but he took those facts and spun it in such a way that it pleased the hierarchy of the newspaper, and pleased the hierarchy of Columbia University. And so the good reporters, like the good preachers, care about truth. And good reporters will take facts–because we do have to select and edit facts–but use them in such a way to impart truth. And I think that that is a commonality which is also true of good preachers.

RS: Well, let me just say a little word about that New York Times connection. And you know, I grew up in New York in the Bronx, and we had to use the New York Times in any term paper in Christopher Columbus High School. But the fact is that same Abe Rosenthal–who by the way went to City College of New York, where I went–you know, he drank the Kool-Aid of power. And you mentioned your father being for gay rights, and losing his church in part over that, and his anti-war stand and his anti-segregation and pro-civil rights stand. And Abraham Rosenthal actually was kind of on the wrong side of all three of those issues. And I’m picking on him only because he was such an important figure [at the New York Times] on gay rights; he’s the one that got the paper to cover gay rights as an appeal for illness, for sickness. And this precedes Stonewall, where the New York Times was talking about this plague in Greenwich Village, and this horrible thing of homosexuality. So it actually spun the facts to make homosexuals degenerates and criminals. He did the same thing with Martin Luther King. When Martin Luther King gave his historic speech condemning the war in Vietnam at Riverside Church in 1967, the New York Times editorially condemned him for daring to link the Civil Rights Movement to the peace movement, you know. And you know, you can go down the list of these things. 

I want to connect, though, however–want to get you back to the minister role. Because what Kinzer said–he’s a very good journalist–he said “You are a minister pretending to be a journalist.” But the thing is, you know, one has the right to ask about a minister. And you do have hesitancy about putting the collar on, and everything. What is the relation of being that kind of a minister to the idea of an almighty, to the idea of divine truth? To the–you know, this is a really basic question that we face. We claim to be guided by a Judeo-Christian ethic, and yet certainly even some conservative elements of the Church would tell you justice has to begin with the prisoners. That’s why the pope, Catholic pope washes the feet of prisoners, and so forth. 

But we’ve lost any of that sense of the other and the concern for the meek among us. Isn’t that–I mean, and that’s what you really rebelled against, was the–in your speech you actually quoted, wasn’t in Marx who said Christians have–let me give you the exact quote: “You Christians have a vested interest in unjust structures which produce victims to whom you can then pour out your hearts in charity.” That’s a pretty powerful statement. 

CH: Well, it’s true. I mean, charity isn’t justice. Charity is often about self-exaltation. I mean, this is why all these repugnant billionaires–Bill Gates, and you know, will rebrand–the Rockefellers–will rebrand themselves as philanthropists. And they’ll toss a few crumbs, you know, well-publicized crumbs out of the windows of their limousine. So charity is not justice. And those who dole out charity are often the enemies of justice. Because there’s a cost that comes with accepting that kind of charity. Orwell writes about this really well in Down and Out in Paris and London. So I think that is the dividing line: are you for justice, or are you for burnishing your own credentials as a moral and religious person by doling out charity? That’s the difference. 

And the whole rise of the prosperity gospel, which has infected the Christian right–I call them Christian fascists; I don’t use the word lightly–but it’s also infected the mainline Church, Norman Vincent Peale and all this kind of stuff. And that was quite conscious, because there was a radical, out of Walter Rauschenbusch at the turn of the century, a radical socialist kind of Christian came out of the abolitionist movement. And the wealthy elites–Rockefeller being foremost among them, who built Riverside Church–were determined to redirect Christianity so that it was not hostile to capitalism. And those real radicals I admire very much–Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, the Berrigans, Phil and Dan Berrigan; Dan Berrigan I knew, he baptized my youngest daughter–that’s the religious, the radical religious tradition that my father was part of, and that I come out of. But at this point it’s almost a footnote in American Christianity. 

RS: Well, it’s interesting, because you mention Riverside Church, where Martin Luther King gave that speech. And what he did–and what your book–I want to get back to the book. But the spirit of this book is what is so compelling about it. And it’s a forced introduction to the throwaway people. You know, the people in these prisons, they emerge as–gosh, you know, I don’t even know the right words. I mean, they’re–you just can’t ignore them. You can’t ignore their humanity, you can’t ignore their aspirations. You can’t ignore the injustice that has been visited on so many of them. We know 95% of the people who get convicted don’t even have a trial. They’re dealt out, you know, they don’t have lawyers. Poverty is woven through the whole thing. And one thing that happened in that Riverside Church speech by another minister, Martin Luther King, was his raising the poverty issue very critically, along with the war issue. He said–you know, and that was his crusade; that was what he was killed doing, was the poor people’s march, beginning with Memphis and so forth. And you know, decrying the militarism, decrying the poverty. 

And you have–and I don’t want to give away the book. This is an incredible book, and it is a sermon. And let me say two things about his sermon and get back to it. I think you make a point about Orwell and Baldwin, James Baldwin. And you actually say that they had a gift of writing, that they started with something that really meant a lot to them. I think you quoted Orwell as saying that. That, no–this was not just weaving facts together and getting a good lede and having a career. You know, Orwell took a bullet in his neck, right, in the Spanish Civil War, trying to figure it out and all that. And you know, Baldwin was a man of incredible courage and principle. And so I think in this discussion you kind of put too low a bar for journalism. Because I think in your book you’re saying–and everybody knows you’re a really, maybe our most important journalist right now, in my eyes; certainly I think that way. But you bring up Baldwin and Orwell in this book in a very fundamental way of the responsibility of the writer, and the journalist. 

CH: Yeah. And that’s why I admire both of them so much. And I admire Orwell and Baldwin so much because they were so relentlessly self-critical as well. Baldwin has a very powerful essay about, he had written an article after he wore a suit to King’s funeral and said that he would never wear that suit again. Well, he had lots of friends in Harlem who didn’t own a suit, and they reached out and said, well, we’ll take it. You know, we’re happy to use it. And Baldwin really castigates himself for losing touch with what poverty meant. And Orwell the same. And so I think the ferocity of their honesty is empowered by the fact that they never deflected from themselves. 

But yes, Orwell, as you–I have a quote early on in the book where Orwell writes, “My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. 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.” That’s–you know, Baldwin was one of the most famous writers in the 1960s, as you know, living in Paris at the time in the early sixties and the inception of the Civil Rights Movement. And he came back and was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and other writers criticized him–you know, why are you putting so much energy into the Civil Rights Movement? And he said, because that’s my people. And my people are–you know, that’s where I have to stand. And Orwell also had that kind of deep humanism and solidarity with–I mean, both of them wrote about people who normally we wouldn’t hear their voice. I mean, The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia–I mean, these are just remarkable works. Then the whole collected essays, journalism, and letters of Orwell, all four volumes–which were the only four books that I had when I lived in South America for a year, and just read and reread as a kind of secular Bible. So they’re extremely important, because I think for journalists they keep us grounded in what we should be doing.

RS: And also give us a word about Baldwin. Because, again, now he’s an icon; you know, just like Martin Luther King is, and like Orwell is. And that means we don’t really take their word seriously. And your tribute to Baldwin in this book–and then we’re going to get to your tribute to the prisoners that we’re talking about here–is fundamental to this book, I think. 

CH: Yeah, because Baldwin is in my mind–I mean, I write that there’s probably more real theology in Baldwin than there is in most of the contemporary theologians and preachers who lived when he was alive. There’s more gospel. And if you look at Baldwin’s books and essays, they really are prophetic sermons. He doesn’t hide it. “Nobody Knows My Name,” “The Fire Next Time,” “The Devil Finds Work,” “Princes and Powers”–these are chapter titles–“Down at the Cross.” His great kind of semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, has three chapters: “The Seventh Day,” “The Prayers of the Saints,” and “The Threshing Floor.” And so, yeah, I have a deep kind of affinity for both Orwell and Baldwin, but especially Baldwin because his father was a preacher and he for a while was a young king of child preacher in Harlem. And he remained true to, I think, the radical message of the Gospel in a way that the institutional Church rarely does. You know, Orwell was an atheist and quite secular. But I think that they both were possessed–and I don’t use that word lightly–by a vision. And as Baldwin writes, it’s not so much that they followed the vision as they found themselves driven by it. And that’s the, you know, that is the definition of a prophet. 

RS: You know, let’s now switch to the prison population. And I think the way to understand this book is that picture; there’s a picture of you with, what, the graduating class–

CH: That’s the class I taught. 

RS: Yeah. The class, yeah, which is the book. But that picture–you are wearing a tie and jacket, suit, I don’t know about a suit, jacket. And you seem to be the whitest person in the room; there might have been some others, a few. But it is a picture of, what, 20 people of color–

CH: Twenty-eight.

RS: Twenty-eight, there you go. And it’s compelling. I’m, you know, wherever I print this I’ll use that picture. But what is so clear, physically–in size, everywhere else–you are part of the crowd. You’re not the leader, you’re not the teacher. And the book conveys that. You are learning all the time from these students. You are not the expert coming in from outside and telling them what it’s all about. And that’s what I find really impressive about this work. And one key element–and I want to get into this before we conclude this–we don’t talk about poverty much. And the thing that unites these prisoners, aside from, yes, for many it’s race–but poverty. Poverty is the–and I want to quote something from your book. George Bernard Shaw, you say:

“George Bernard Shaw got it right. 

“‘Poverty,’ he writes, ‘is the worst of crimes. All the other crimes are virtues beside it; all the other dishonors are chivalry itself by comparison. Poverty blights whole cities, spreads horrible pestilences, strikes dead the very souls of all who come within sight, sound, or smell of it. What you call crime is nothing: a murder here and a theft there, a blow now, and a curse then. What do they matter? They are only the accidents and illnesses of life; there are not fifty genuine professional criminals in London. But there are millions of poor people, abject people, dirty people, ill-fed, ill-clothed people. They poison us morally and physically: they kill the happiness of society: they force us to do away with our own liberties and to organize unnatural cruelties for fear they should rise against us and drag us down into their abyss. Only fools fear crime; we all fear poverty.’

And then you go on to quote Rabbi Abraham Heschel saying something very similar. I’m talking to you from the center of L.A., where there’s encampments of homeless people all around, in downtown Los Angeles. All around. And we accept it now as the new normal, you know. I mean, it’s unbelievable, and the sharp increase in class difference in America, the really large majority of people mired in one form of poverty or another. And the prison system is really the enabler of that, or the outgrowth of that, or the way of disguising that. 

So let’s get back to the heart of this book. You’re not talking about a marginal problem. You’re talking about this deep illness, this death-seeking cancer at the center of the American experience.

CH: Well, we’ve created a carcel state, where we invest solely in mechanisms of repression and control, and no longer invest in people. We deindustrialize whole cities, casting people aside, treating them like human refuse, severing the social bonds that knit them to the society. And then send in militarized police forces, in essence armed forces of occupation that create reigns of terror. I don’t use that word lightly. And kill, I think, three people a day are killed by police in the United States, most all of them unarmed. And the world’s largest prison system, 25% of the world’s prison population. So the forms of social control are completely negative. They are, it’s institutionalized repression colored with the poison of white supremacy. 

And we have failed these people. I mean, 40% of the people in our prison population have never been charged with physically harming another person. And then you’ve got to figure, like Biden–I mean, half of the students I teach wouldn’t be in prison but for Biden. And Clinton, we had 300,000 people incarcerated in 1970; we have 2.3 million today. And I would say–it’s anecdotal, but 20-30% of the people I teach never committed the crime, and some of those people are going to die in prison. Because they’re railroaded through plea agreements, and if you don’t plea out, the system’s not designed–only 6% get a jury trial–it’s not designed to, the system would crash if they had jury trials. So, you know, the students with the longest sentences are usually the ones who didn’t commit the crime, and thought that if they went to court their innocence would be recognized, and of course the opposite happens. Because they have to be made an example of so that people don’t go to court. 

It’s an absolutely appalling system. I mean, I have stories in the book; one of my students, 14 years old, his father died when he was two, his mother died when he was nine, he’s living in an abandoned house alone as a child, and he’s grabbed by a bunch of detectives for a rape and a murder he didn’t commit; he can hardly read, he’s kept all night. This is a child with no adult protection, forced to sign a confession. He gets to court, he hears what’s read, he can’t believe it, he wants to tell the judge that it’s not true, and it doesn’t matter; he’s condemned as an adult, and he’s not eligible to go before a parole board until he’s 70 years old. That’s our system. I mean, there’s story after story like that. Which, if you’re Black and poor in America, you know. 

But you’re right, the wider society doesn’t look behind those prison walls, doesn’t want to look. And the demonization, the criminal caste system–and I blame a lot of the mass media for this; you know, I see all these shows; I don’t watch them. But my experience in a prison is a two-hour discussion of James Baldwin, which doesn’t make for very good TV, but is the reality. And that’s the tragedy. I mean, these–Gramsci writes about these organic intellectuals, and you know that because you come out of the working class; much of my family and my mother’s family comes out of the working class in Maine. My grandfather was very gifted intellectually but never finished high school, because his sister’s husband, his brother-in-law, died when he was 17, and somebody had to work the farm. And that was it. You know, in America if you’re poor, at best you get one chance, and if you’re from the elite like George W. Bush, who was a cocaine addict and a mediocre student and went AWOL, you get chance after chance after chance. That’s the difference. 

And these people never had a chance. We failed them as a society. And we’re all impoverished by that. Not just their families and their communities, but all of us, given the talents and gifts that they have. And that came out in the process; the book really follows the trajectory of them writing a play, “Caged,” about their lives. About the invisible cages on the outside, and the very tangible cages on the inside, and what those meant. And that play was eventually performed at the theater in Trenton, New Jersey; it was sold out every night, and then published by Haymarket. But it gave voice to, you know, these incredibly brilliant people with tremendous dignity and integrity and courage. I don’t think very many of us could go through what they went through and become who they have become. But we don’t hear those voices. And you know, they’ve really been rendered by commercial media, not only invisible, but the caricature of them, of course, has been demonized as the criminal, the criminal caste.

RS: Yeah, and the whole thing only works because we have a courtier class of people who work in these big organizations, run the universities, run the newspapers. Basically serving power, and dealing with power. And this is true in all of the societies that claim to be democratic and enlightened and so forth. We have this class of people who apologize for it, justify for it, and make a pretty good living from it. And what you’ve done, really, is break with that class. I mean, the whole point of going to Harvard to get the divinity degree was to then get some big position, or a position as a writer about religious affairs. To basically make people of power secure, in that most other people would think well of them, and accept it. And the way to do that is, again, this throwaway people notion: that the people who are locked up–and yeah, people will say there must be some innocent ones and so forth. But the idea that the system itself is at the heart of it, and that it’s not an accident that innocent people are jailed, or people with potential are denied their potential. And what is uncomfortable about your book is we can’t read your book and think these are throwaway people. That they’re no-account people. That’s really the way we put it–you quote Rabbi Heschel again, one of the great civil rights leaders and a supporter of Martin Luther King, saying we are all responsible. We’re not all, you know, the one that turned that key, but we are responsible. 

And that’s what I come away [with] from reading this book. You know, how dare I not think about this? I’ve had a few occasions, usually in foreign countries, where I ran afoul of the law, and you have, certainly, as a correspondent. That’s not the same as the grinding poverty, alienation, disenfranchisement, lack of access to any kind of fairness and decency, of the population that you go in and teach and learn from. That is the power of this book. Anyway, maybe that’s a good point on which to end it. I certainly, I think this is maybe your most important–I’m not demeaning it when I call it a sermon. Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison. And maybe this will bring back the play as a production, right? I don’t know. But, you know, far be it from me to declare this, but I think you’re doing God’s work. You’ll probably tell me I got it all wrong and have no right to say that, but you know, that’s my view, from Bobby Scheer. 

That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Obviously Chris Hedges, I should give him the last word on the almighty, but you know, he’ll write a couple of books about it. And I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for posting these podcasts. I want to thank Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who puts it all together. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, a winner along with Chris Hedges of L.A. Press Club’s awards these weeks, for writing the introduction. Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. And I want to thank the JWK Foundation, which in the memory of Jean Stein, an independent journalist, helps support the show. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Thank you. 

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