God “caged” in Jersey

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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 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



Joshua Scheer