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The Classroom and the Cell

Who benefits from prison education?

Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison by Chris Hedges. Simon & Schuster, 272 pages.

Several years ago, I became a college tutor at a maximum-security prison. This decision was not prompted by a single moment of moral awakening, and while U.S. media had been awash in horrific depictions of mass incarceration, I cannot remember a particular book or documentary that spurred me to act. Instead, I was possessed by the idea that this was a good thing to do, even if that conviction was accompanied by a powerful suspicion that I might be attaching myself to an icky and absurd enterprise. As H.L. Mencken once noted, do-gooders tend to be less interested in serving than in exercising power.

My doubts were realized a few weeks into the program, when I presented my still-vertical driver’s license to a correctional officer. He gave me a long stare, and when he returned my ID, he did so with a smirk, wondering aloud if I was old enough to “ride this ride.” I had not given my age much thought before then, and the shame I felt in that moment made me never want to think of it again. But I began to consider the chasm of experience between myself and the men I had agreed to help with a new and bitter acuity.

I was among the great mass of people who migrated to teach in U.S. prisons and jails at the end of the last decade. Some twenty years had passed since the signing of the 1994 Crime Bill, which had decimated enrollment in college-behind-bars programs by outlawing Pell grants for incarcerated students. And while the Department of Education had started to roll back parts of that ban by 2015, much of the push for higher education in prisons was now coming from nonprofits like the Mellon Foundation, which has distributed more than $18 million in grants to support prison education since 2017.

Advocates of these programs pointed to many encouraging signs: improved morale among people in prison, lower rates of violence, and a much-reduced chance that those earning a college degree would be incarcerated again. Among Mellon’s beneficiaries was NJ-STEP, a program that the journalist Chris Hedges has taught in for several years. A former foreign correspondent at the New York Times, Hedges has spent much of this century reporting domestically, from the frontlines of an ailing and increasingly anomic America. His latest book, Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an America Prison, uses these teaching experiences as a window into our country’s vast penal system, which he once described as exemplifying “the perfect world of the corporate state and what they want to do to the rest of us.”

If it seems a bit too easy to blame corporations for the carceral state, it’s true that our justice system does little to prepare anyone for life “on the outside.” Of the six hundred thousand or so people released from prison each year, more than half will return within thirty-six months. Those who do not are likely to experience a severely diminished quality of life: a 2020 study led by the economist Joseph Stiglitz found that formerly incarcerated people bring home just $6,700 in income on average each year. The racial dimensions of these trends are predictably devastating. For the last twenty years, young Black men have been more likely to receive a prison sentence than a degree from a four-year college or university, making incarceration what sociologists call a “modal life event.”

Hedges’s book is partially an account of what that “modal life” looks like, told through the words of his students at East Jersey State Prison. It’s perhaps more striking, however, as a chronicle of the many frustrations and contradictions that await those eager to teach in America’s vast carceral network. Given the increasing interest in prison education, Our Class will hardly be the final word on these matters. But Hedges has given us an unusually intimate account of what it’s like inside the classroom, one that illustrates why prison education attracts so many, even with its evident shortcomings.

Parable of the Cage

The son of a minister, Hedges grew up expecting to serve in the Church. In his twenties, he eagerly enrolled in divinity school at Harvard, where he began to doubt both the devotion of his classmates and the liberal clergy, who pontificated endlessly about the plight of the poor but seemed to have little interest in alleviating poverty. Their preaching smacked of what Hedges would later call “boutique activism,” an ersatz humanism that elevated the performance of virtue to high art.

For the last twenty years, young Black men have been more likely to receive a prison sentence than a degree from a four-year college or university.

Increasingly frustrated, Hedges informed his religious mentors in 1983 that he planned to leave the country to write about the conflict in El Salvador. They chastened him, predictably: “We don’t ordain journalists,” they said. Hedges’s father saw things differently. “You are ordained to write,” he told his son after his ministry proposal was rejected. Taking the call to heart, Hedges went on to cover conflicts not just in Central America but across the world. In the course of that reporting, he was imprisoned, beaten by state police, deported, and shot at. “I would learn the bitter fact that we live in a morally neutral universe,” he writes, “that the rain falls on the just and unjust.”

Teaching in prison has similarly religious dimensions for Hedges, so much so that he was compelled to go through the ordination process again, this time successfully. “I was possessed by a vision, a call to tell the truth,” he explains, “to stand with those who suffered from Central America, to Gaza, to Iraq, to Sarajevo, to the United States’ vast archipelago of prisons.” This creed is shared by many of the instructors Hedges meets at East Jersey: at a program dinner, he learns that all of them have graduated from seminary.

It should come as little surprise, then, that Christian faith looms large in the pages of Our Class. It seeps into Hedges’s narration, which is righteous and rather polemical, though the effect is most apparent in his storytelling. “We gain a conscience only by building relationships with those who suffer,” he tells his incarcerated students during one lecture. And his goal in Our Class, as in much of his writing, is to get the reader as close to suffering as possible. There’s certainly plenty of it at East Jersey, even if Hedges is less sentimental about his students once they enter the classroom. (He writes of having little tolerance for class clowns or distracted pupils and goes so far as to remove unmotivated students from early courses.) Hedges wants his students to grapple with “the system,” all the ways in which the state wears down the aspirations and opportunities of the oppressed. This is reflected in his assignments, which include titles like Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But unlike the universities he has previously taught at like Princeton and Columbia, Hedges trusts his students will understand these matters intuitively. “You begin discussions in [prison] classrooms at a level that these privileged white kids can’t even begin to meet,” he explained in an interview last year.

Nevertheless, his early classes do not go well. His students are largely middle-aged—most have been incarcerated for about two decades by the time they enroll—and they have grown weary of speaking their minds. Hedges is not exactly surprised. “I was from the outside,” he explains. “I was not poor. I was white. I was educated. These were not assets.”

Things begin to change after he asks students to submit first-person scenes for a class assignment. The results are not outstanding—there are lots of “tired, hypermasculine clichés,” he reports. But it gives Hedges an idea. If the students wrote about what they really knew, maybe these scenes could be hammered into a full play. The class is enthusiastic, and Hedges signs up for an extra day of instruction to give them the time necessary to prepare a script.

The result of these efforts is Caged, a story about two brothers, Omar and Quan, coming of age in Newark, New Jersey. Omar has spent much of his life selling drugs to keep his family afloat. He is deeply protective of Quan, adamant that he stays off the streets. In the play’s first scene, as Omar bags drugs, Quan dreams of one day owning a bowling alley. Omar supports the plan, if only because it’s a future in which he doesn’t have to count his money in grams and ounces. But the duo is hanging on by a thread—their mother is dying of cancer and their father is battling an often-crippling drug use disorder. Things collapse when police bribe a local addict into giving false testimony against Omar, who is imprisoned. Realizing he has no other way to cover his brother’s legal expenses, Quan starts selling drugs, only to be killed by a rival dealer.

Omar’s life is not so much a fiction as a composite of the injustices that have marked the lives of Hedges’s students. Some describe how their legal cases were tainted by police or prosecutorial misconduct—one writes “I AM INNOCENT” at the bottom of each page he submits. Many more come from areas Hedges has described as “sacrifice zones,” communities that have been wiped out by disinvestment, criminalization, and the other plagues of racial capitalism. “I am the epitome of systemic failures,” says one of the class’s playwrights. “If you want to talk about how systems fail, just look at my life.”

Giving Orders

While the men revise Caged, Hedges lectures on dramatic writing and American history. He has many questions for his students:

“Has our national conversation on crime, which refuses to confront the economic, social, and political systems of exploitation and white supremacy, been a whitewash?”

“Are the vast pools of the unemployed and underemployed, especially among people of color, the inevitable result of predatory corporate capitalism?”

“Is the primary task of state institutions, especially the police, the courts, the jails, and the prisons, justice, or is it the social control of those cast aside?”

These are matters of grave significance, but we get the sense that Hedges’s students would know the answers even if they hadn’t done the assigned reading. And what of this book’s intended audience? It’s difficult to see these as prompts for serious reflection. Rather, they read as rhetorical fodder, invitations for us to share in Hedges’s vast indignation. While it might work for some, the performance feels mostly like an opportunity for Hedges to distinguish himself from the do-gooders he derided back at Harvard. I can certainly appreciate his defensiveness, the desire to appear helpful while wondering privately whether such a thing is possible. But these diatribes are distracting, with Hedges so eager to appear high-minded that he ultimately risks upstaging his students.

It’s not the only pedagogical choice in Our Class that will raise eyebrows. In another episode, Hedges tells a student that he must write about his experiences being born after his mother was raped—and later asks the student to share his writing in front of the class. The encounter is retold in largely positive terms: Hedges reads the assignment with the student’s permission, along with another piece that describes a man learning of his wife’s infidelity through an innocent remark made by his son. Both pieces are met with astonishment: the students recognize these are remarkable disclosures of vulnerability, offered in an environment that relentlessly punishes weakness. In Hedges’s telling, they are galvanizing moments that bring the class together and encourage them to write with the candor required to “build a play that would at least be authentic and real.”

Still, it is worth pausing to consider the assumptions that animate this scene. The strength of Hedges’s imperative stands out: “That’s what you have to write,” he says. We, in turn, have to wonder: Can a command from a teacher—who has shown no qualms about disciplining “unmotivated” students—really sound all that different from the usual battery of directives issued by the carceral state’s agents? Then there’s the more troubling question of why Hedges’s students are presumed to be interested in sharing these experiences in the first place. To Hedges, publicly confronting the wounds of the past seems a person’s best shot at healing. Reading Our Class, we might be led to believe that all pain can be made meaningful, if only we pick at the scabs hard enough. But suffering can dampen our senses, too. Representing pain does not necessarily bring us any closer to understanding it, nor does it bind us in a struggle to rid the world of its most senseless varieties.

So, while there’s no ignoring Hedges’s talent for documenting deprivation, I was often left wondering whether he really thinks a better world can emerge from exhuming all this pain. After all, even those students who manage to depart prison as “changed men” return to what Hedges calls “the social hell of Urban America.” They sleep in homeless shelters full of pests and struggle to find work. One former student, who gets a job at Whole Foods, is fired when his manager finds out about his criminal record. “We are educated,” he tells Hedges, “just enough to occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder.”

To correctional officials and policymakers none of that especially matters. To them, Hedges’s former student looks like a success story. He is not in prison. He has not recidivated. But surely this isn’t the best we can do.

Pedagogy of the Oppressor

Like Hedges, the first prison educators came from the cloth. In 1787, the same year the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia, preachers William White and William Rogers arrived at the city’s Walnut Street Jail ready to share the word of God. They were initially rebuffed by the jail’s overseer, John Reynolds, who claimed their lectures would place them in great danger and perhaps even allow prisoners to escape. But Reynolds was not really motivated by an interest in “public safety.” He had amassed a fortune by capitalizing on the secrecy that surrounded Walnut Street, selling the “free” labor of incarcerated people to the public, and then selling liquor and other essentials back to those in prison. Reynolds was eventually overruled by his superiors, but he still had a surprise for White and Rogers when they returned. He first demanded the pair hand over all their valuables. Then, he instructed a guard to point a loaded cannon at the congregation for the duration of the gathering to discourage any “bad behavior.”

The authorities get what they want, and the strike leaders end up in indefinite solitary confinement.

Nevertheless, White and Rogers’s success represented something of a breakthrough—later religious reformers would typically face less overt antagonism from penal officials. By the end of the century, some prisons were even encouraging teaching for the “whole man,” though, in practice, this mostly involved telling poor people that they were emotionally and intellectually deficient, and that these deficiencies explained their criminal behavior. This basic understanding—that criminality emerges from personal defects or flaws—would inform the work of prison educators for much of the next two hundred years. “Through improved skill in communication, the offender presumably will be able to reveal and express underlying misunderstandings and conflicts which have caused his deviate behavior,” explained Delyte Morris, the founder of the United States’ first college-in-prison program. “The student prisoner will be able to comprehend more fully his personal problems and his relationships with other persons. . . . Through better understanding of government and society, he will be moved toward responsible citizenship.”

Journalists, politicians, and penal administrators all tend to glide over prison education’s history of repression and social engineering. And though it’s well known how the individual has become our most important unit of political analysis, it’s worth noting the role this plays in mass incarceration. Rather than transform how the disfavored are treated, our legal institutions have focused on devising reforms that allow an infinitesimal elect to become favorable according to terms set by their subjugators.

This is not to say that people in prison do not achieve remarkable things despite living with violence, persistent human rights abuses, and the ever-looming threat of solitary confinement. But prisons also have a habit of turning the exceptional into the expected, of setting the standards for “good behavior” higher and higher. Incarcerated activists have long understood this. Malcolm X, who learned to read while in juvenile detention, chafed at the idea of attending college. (When asked once about his alma mater, he replied plainly: “Books.”) He knew that a degree was a status symbol, a schooling in the relations of power. He also realized that these dynamics did not lose their meaning simply because the location of a person’s education changed. As George Jackson quips in Soledad Brother, a collection of his letters from San Quentin, “The schools in the joint are no different than those out there in the colony.” Hardly a surly or apathetic student, Jackson often wrote to his family and friends with requests for new reading. At the same time, he was painfully aware that his ideas about a useful education had little in common with his overseers—and that like all matters in prison, these disagreements were non-negotiable.

Hedges offers up an example of one such dispute in Our Class, when a group of students leads a sit-down strike to protest a change in rules at the prison. He writes that their cells are torn apart, that each is brutally interrogated, and that when the men do not cooperate, the threats come rolling in: disclose the name of the leaders or lose your spot in the class. Unsurprisingly, the authorities get what they want, and the strike leaders end up in indefinite solitary confinement. Occurrences like these are hard to square with the more salubrious accounts of prison educators who speak about their programs as “partnerships” between universities and Departments of Correction. These are not equal relationships among peers, but more polite exercises in subordination. Every person who teaches in prison long enough comes to appreciate these dynamics. And the more routine the visits become, the harder it is to avoid thinking: What difference am I making here?

This question lingers as Hedges reaches the conclusion of his book. With the preliminary draft of Caged completed, the students have assembled with their scripts, ready to present to an audience including Cornel West and the theologian James Cone. At the last minute, the prison’s top administrator decides that he wants to attend the reading, too. There are hasty discussions about which scenes are safe to read and which must be discarded. Hedges watches from the sidelines. “For months, editing the play had dominated my life,” he writes. “But I let go, with loss but deep pride in my students.”

When the class eventually gathers on the stage, they gaze out on a column of white correctional officers, who leer from the back of the room. At the reading’s conclusion, we detect as much anguish as joy. Hedges tries to put an optimistic spin on things, quoting from the end of The Gulag Archipelago. “If we had not all been so sensible,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “not all been forever whining to each other: ‘It won’t help! It can’t do any good!’ our land would have been quite different.” But it’s hard not to feel the gloom slip in. If the reading has been a victory at all, it’s certainly a pyrrhic one. “This is a house of grief,” one student observes, as if to say there is only so much one can expect.

Time Served

I never had the chance to say goodbye to my students, and I was devastated by this. If you would have asked me why in the moment, I might have said I needed closure. But what I really wanted was impossible: to leave the classroom unburdened by the ambivalence that had marked my entrance to it. Now, I think it’s something of a blessing that I never gave the speech I had spent so many hours preparing on lined paper—that I do not have to recall the embarrassment that would have accompanied that poor attempt at exoneration.

One of my former students still writes to me, with a regularity I struggle to match. He tells me about his coursework and his family, sends me essays, asks about my life and my writing. I’m never quite sure how to reply to his questions. But when I share a particularly good meal with friends or spend a day reading under the sun at the park, I tend to think about him reflexively. I can’t help but imagine him writing to me from his cell, a space so small that he can touch both walls with his hands. I worry about the imbalances in our relationship, possessed by the same lingering doubts that sprung up after my encounter with the correctional officer. I cannot escape this basic fact: I will never be able to give my former student the one thing he really wants. His freedom.

I can try to cast away these guilty thoughts, to remember the weightless moments in the classroom when it seemed like we all forgot where we were for a second or two. As if we had just come together in an old building with cracked, painted bricks and a deafening radiator, to talk about Kant, or Gloria Anzaldúa, or some science fiction book that wasn’t on the syllabus but seemed worth our attention. Perhaps there is relief to be found in that form of forgetfulness, though I remain unconvinced that more college diplomas will change much inside prisons.

There is another lesson that Our Class makes clear, too: being impressed with people is not any way to achieve lasting justice. In the final analysis, such awed sentiments may even prove a dangerous distraction. But if it’s true that prison education cannot change prisons, I’m not sure I could renounce it given a second chance. I don’t want to overstate my faith in these programs—or the people who run them. And I cannot emphasize enough what a disquieting place the classroom can be: neither of the prison, nor entirely free of its rules and regulations, its disastrous desire for concessions and its coercive habits of thought. Still, I’d like to think that even that purgatory was something of a reprieve for my students, a place where we could find new ways to look at one another and become more aware of how we might use our talents to care for one another, to grow, and to create change, even amid conditions so hostile to human flourishing.