Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a Presbyterian minister, volunteered to teach a college-level English course to a group of university-enrolled students who are incarcerated at East Jersey State Prison in Rahway, New Jersey. At first, the men were guarded, but soon their personalities and talents began to emerge. He quickly had them discussing literary works and even presenting dramatic readings. This led to Mr. Hedges’ big idea: The men would write a play with enough parts for all 28 of them, and perform it. His book “Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison” tells of their experience.
Q: You write about the men “embarking on a journey that would shatter their emotional protective walls.” What happened?
To survive in prison means you do not show vulnerability, including pain and grief. You do not speak about your past; indeed, most times prisoners use a street name rather than their legal name. But these rules were shattered when we wrote the play “Caged.” Students, drawing on their past, including their trauma, wrote and spoke about the most intimate aspects of their lives, things many had never before spoken about publicly. The process created a unique bond in the classroom.
Q: Why do books hold such special value and meaning to the men in your class?
Most prisoners, like most of the general public, do not read. They watch television. But there is a strata of serious intellectuals in prison who turn their cells into libraries. They are very dedicated scholars, what the theorist Antonio Gramsci calls “organic” intellectuals. Their books are precious, especially since the cost of buying a book to prisoners making $28 a month is huge. These prisoners were my students. Because they were at once intellectually gifted and came from environments where they had no opportunity for a good education, their books were sacred objects and the time they spent in the classroom sacred space. When released, they lose all their possessions. The loss of their books is devastating. One student I write about in the book, Boris Franklin, walked out of the gate after 11 years in prison and the first thing he said to me was, “I have to rebuild my library.”
Q: Has the play been performed outside the prison?
It took Boris Franklin, the first student from the class who was released, and myself three years to get the play into a theater and published. This was our goal. We wanted the voices of those on the inside to be heard. It was performed at Passage Theatre Company in Trenton and was sold out nearly every night. We had one performance for the families of the students, and the audience sobbed from start to finish. Our work was done.
The play is available to read or to perform, which I expect will occur once more theaters reopen after having been closed during the pandemic.
Q: How are your students doing?
When you leave prison, you are thrown into a criminal caste system where you are locked out of employment because of background checks and denied public assistance. Some of my students, those with strong family support, have managed to do well. Others, especially those who lack support networks, are struggling, often living in homeless shelters. Within five years, some 76% of the formerly incarcerated return to prison. The recidivism rate is so high because, outside of the illegal economy, there are so few opportunities for those with prison records.