Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison
American society is in an ever deepening crisis. Half the population is poor or near poor. Three men including Jeff Bezos of Amazon own as much as all these tens of millions of people combined. Climate catastrophe threatens life on our planet. Equally threatening is a very real potential for a nuclear war. Democracy and the rule of law are in free fall.
A manifestation of this societal crisis is our system of mass incarceration. It is the largest in the world, warehousing well over 2 million people. It is, along with militarized police, the primary form of social control, especially for poor people of color, in de-industrialized cities where the poor have been abandoned and are treated little better than human refuse.
Black Americans have especially suffered. They are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans. Nationally, one in 81 Black adults in the U.S. is serving time in state prison. Wisconsin leads the nation in Black imprisonment rates; 1 of every 36 Black Wisconsinites is in prison. In 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Seven states maintain a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. Chris Hedges has taught in the college degree program offered by Rutgers University in the New Jersey prison system for over a decade.
His new book Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison, is the story of a class he taught in East Jersey State Prison. His 28 students, who collectively had spent 515 years in prison, wrote a play about their lives called “Caged.”
The process of writing the play, which was eventually performed at The Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey to sold out audiences and was published by Haymarket Books, ripped down the emotional walls most erect in prison and allowed his students to express in heartbreaking detail the trauma, grief, loss and violence that marked their, as well as the institutionally racist structures, often unseen by those on the outside, which keep the poor poor. And yet, the play they wrote was, at its core, about radical love, the solidarity and bonds that keep them human outside and inside prison walls.
Guest – Chris Hedges spent two decades as a foreign correspondent, 15 of them with The New York Times, covering conflicts in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the former Yugoslavia. He learned overseas that the evils of empire are the external expression of white supremacy, just as mass incarceration, which he describes as the civil rights issue of our age, is the most brutal internal expression of white supremacy. Prisons , he writes, are the modern iteration of slave plantations. Hedges is the author of 14 books, The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, a graduate of Harvard Divinity school, and an ordained Presbyterian minister.