OUR CLASS/Hedges – online excerpt
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. 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.