tv 2021 Miami Book Fair CSPAN November 21, 2021 4:00pm-5:01pm EST
own son. >> that is very sad. i think our time is just about up. was there anything that i should have asked you about the book that i didn't? >> no, you've had wonderful questions in all i would add is it that viewers are still curious they should buy the book and read the book. >> i highly recommend it. thank you so much. appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about it. >> thank you, marsha. ..
you guys are a safe distance. i'm going to introduce our author chris hedges, and he will be interviewed by daniel rivero. i will get to that in a moment. after the session the author will be at the autograph signing table on this floor, by the elevators to the right. i will be escorting him there afterwards. the talk will go on for about 45 minutes. we will have time for questions and answers at the end. we ask you to line up behind the mic there to take part in the q&a. so i have a couple of announcements. first is this is a great thing, the book fair. we have to thank our hundreds of volunteers who help make it happen as well as our sponsors. we have the support of the knight foundation, the bachelor foundation, the meredith foundation, the green family foundation, stephanie anson and
spencer stewart, t-mobile, and many others. without their support, we couldn't run the book fair. i needed to acknowledge that. and also, i wanted to know, do we have any friends of the book fair in the room? thank you for raising your hands. being a friend brings a lot of perks. we would like you to consider to become a friend of the book fair. you can find out information about that at the friends table at the bottom of the escalator. now, i mentioned autograph signing and q&a. with that, i'm going to introduce our author. chris hedges is a pulitzer prize winning journalist. he was the new york times foreign correspondent and bureau chief in the middle east for 15 years. he's also the author of numerous books and a national book critic circle finalist for his book "war is a force that gives us meaning." that book is for sale outside as
is his new book which he will discuss tonight. drama, literature, philosophy and history, in the college degree program offered by rutgers university at east jersey state prison and other correctional institutions in the state, since 2013. in his first class, students read and discussed plays by august wilson and set out to write a play of their own. you can hear more about that process. it's a core part of the book, and you will hear from the author directly. the title of the book "is our class: trauma and transformation in american prison". it gives a face and a voice to those our society too often demonizes and abandons. he will be interviewed by a reporter and producer for wlrn where he covers various issues including criminal justice, climate change, and state
politics. before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series and a digital reporter for fusion. he also an alumnus of miami-dade college. i discovered that talking to him in the back. with that here comes chris hedges and daniel rivero. [applause] >> hello. how's everyone doing? >> great. >> thank you for that intro. to get started, i think one good way just to set the tone and the tenor of the conversation is to make light of something that i think a lot of us forget, and that's that a lot of us here in
this room have probably done something that could have put us in the prison system. we might not have been caught. we might have been caught and gotten off somehow. but a lot of us, including me myself, have done things that could have put us in the prison system. i want to just lay that out there because i think there's a lot of times when we talk about people who are in the county jail or a state prison or in a federal prison, it's like them and us. no, no, no. we're all for the most part on the same plane. it's just different things happen to us along the way. so can i just comment on that because that's a very important point? >> yeah. >> so i have this book that we'll get into, but one of my students in prison was -- he was in a bar, and his girlfriend was offered a line of coke in the bathroom, and the guy who
offered her the coke tried to rape her, and she ran screaming out of the bathroom, and he killed a guy. and he spent 32 years in prison for that. i told him a story of my own experience that i think completely addresses that point, which i think is very smart. i ran a small church in rocksberry, the depressed section of boston when i was a seminary student at harvard divinity school, also a member of the greater boston ymca boxing team. there was only one air-conditioning unit which was on the first floor of this very dilapidated house that i lived in next to the church. there was a small alley between the church and the house. one night i heard screaming. i ran outside and it was -- i lived in the neighborhood, so i knew everyone. it was two heroin addicts attempting to rape a 14-year-old girl. i also knew that they had knives in their pockets and that i had
to disable them as fast as i could before they could get their hands in their pockets and pull out their knives. there's no heroics with this. anyone who has been around a heroin addict knows that they are just bones. but i really -- i mean i was throwing this -- throwing them into the sidewalk, throwing them against the brick wall to immobilize them and get the girl out. i could have easily killed one. my sole goal was to essentially disable them physically and remove the girl. but i always tell that story to my student. it could have, you know, easily gone the other way. but i think that's a really important point you made. >> thank you. what i was trying to get at by opening with that is that a lot of what comes down to whether you're in the system or not in the system sometimes is just maybe an inch, maybe a matter of one small decision or not, and sometimes there's other factors at play.
the reality is the people that are in prison generally don't look like the people in this room, myself included. chris, to start talking about your book, you have one student in your book who becomes obsessed with something that a judge told him upon sentencing, which the judge said that he's ir redeemable. -- ir redeemable, and this character through really you getting to know him takes that to heart and makes it a life lesson to try to prove the judge wrong and to prove that he is indeed a person of dignity, despite anything he's done in his life, that he has dignity. i think that general feeling is one of the big themes of this book. can you just speak to us about that? >> yeah. i mean, i look at matt's
incarceration as the civil rights issue of our age. 2.3 million prisoners, 40% of whom are not charged with physically harming with another human being, drug laws sentences are three or four times longer than they are anywhere else in the world. and then of course they don't get a jury trial. 94% are railroaded into the prison system, coerced into accepting a plea. and the way they do that is the police and the prosecutor stack all sorts of charges against you, which they are acutely aware of you didn't commit, but it's a bargaining chip, so we'll remove this. we'll remove that. and you are forced to accept the plea. the tragedy in the system, as i write in the book, is that those with the longest sentences are inevitably those who insisted on a jury trial, and the reason they insisted on a jury trial because in most cases, perhaps all -- i mean, my anecdotal
experience, almost all the cases they didn't commit the crime, and they thought the system would validate their innocence, but of course it was punitive. they charged them with all of the charges, didn't remove any, and so they have the longest sentences. and you're speaking about one of my students -- so i teach through rutgers university. it's the ba program. these are exceptional men. i have also taught exceptional women in the women's prison in new jersey who have turned themselves into libraries. they are serious scholars, serious intellectuals, and one of them is lawrence bell. lawrence bell, his father died when he was 2. his mother died when he was 9. he was living as an orphan in an abandoned building in camden, new jersey, which per capita is the poorest city in america, and year after year, usually per capita, has the highest homicide
rate in america. he was 90 pounds, functionally illiterate. there's a rape and a murder. he's grabbed by the camden city police detectives, dragged into the police station. he has no adult, you know, nobody's watching out for him. there's no guardian, no legal representation. he's coerced into signing a confession. he doesn't know what's in it. he gets to court. he hears what supposedly he's confessed to. he attempts to protest. he's slapped down. and you're right, the judge in his sentence, now, remember he's a child. he's 14 years old. he calls him irredeemable, and he's sentenced as an adult, and he's not eligible to go before a parole board until he's 70 years old. that doesn't mean he gets out at 70, if he lives that long. that means that he can ask to get out, and it's very rare, the
first time around before a parole board that you get out. and he like so many of my students just decided to be the best person he could become. you know, i always tell my students it is not what you do in life. it is what you do with what life gives you. so he's a stellar student. now, remember, he came into the prison illiterate, so he rose to get into this college program. he's a straight a student. i taught a course after this course that i write about called conquest. we read latin america, bearing my heart, it wounded me, and the great history of the haitian revolution, the haitian slave revolt, the only successful slave revolt in human history, and haiti's been paying for it ever since. he waits until everyone leaves the room, and he says to me, i know i'm going to die in this prison.
but i work as hard as i do because one day i'm going to be a teacher like you and walks out. a wonderful public defender in new jersey, jennifer stilletti, she's not paid for this, spends two years working on his case, to get him a resentencing hearing, but of course he has no family. so i go as his not only his character witness, but even if they resentence him, they won't release him unless he has an address that he can go to, and so i raise the money to rent him an apartment for a year. my garage was filled with household items donated by other formerly incarcerated, and i am -- i don't wear it on my sleeve. i'm an ordained presbyterian minister, and for that court date, i put on my clerical collar.
i was all he had. and they don't tell you, when you sit there -- they didn't at least give us those in the courtroom a schedule. i go in the marning at 10:00. -- i go in the morning at 10:00. it is now 4:00 in the afternoon. i'm waiting for lawrence to be brought before the judge. the courtroom is empty. the sheriff's deputy would open the side door. they are all shackled with a chain around their stomach. their feet are shackled. he sees i'm there for lawrence. he turns to lawrence, and he goes who is that minister? lawrence goes that's my pastor. lawrence is muslim. almost all my students are muslim. as someone who comes out of the left wing tradition of the church, my father was a presbyterian minister, very involved in the antiwar movement, veteran of world war ii, fought in north africa, he was very involved in the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement which the church
was very unforgiving. my uncle, his youngest brother was gay. my father had a particular sensitivity of the pain of being a gay man in america in the 50s and 60s. for me it is about as the great theologian james comb writes, standing with the crucified. it is not about bringing them to jesus. i speak arabic. i was the middle east bureau chief for the new york times. i spent seven years in the middle east. i have tremendous respect for islam. but that was for me quite a beautiful moment, and he was released. he graduated from rutgers. he's now working as a community organizer and driving my old car. [applause] >> so a lot of your students, a lot of the characters in this book stand accused or have admitted that they have done
violent things. we live in a profoundly violent society. i know several people that have been killed by gunshots. i'm sure many of us do too. it kind of surrounds us in this culture that we're in. now, within that context, a lot of your writing, and in this book in particular, really calls for empathy, despite persistent violence all around us. and i'm curious. because one of the things that we always have to confront when we talk about the justice system, the prison system, is just the scale of it. it's not one thing in one place. it is pervasive in every part of the country. so i'm curious, when you think about empathy, for people that a lot of times have admitted that they have done pretty bad things or, you know, they were in close
proximity to it, how do you think about the potential of systemizing some kind of empathy or bringing it -- scaling it up from one-on-one to potentially something greater than that? >> well, they are not their crime. that's what's important to remember. number one. number two, they pay, not with money, but with their life, separated from their communities, their family, their children. and i always tell my students, i don't know who you were 20 or 30 years ago. and i don't care. i know who you are now. i don't -- you know, i believe in the possibility of transformation. i believe in the possibility of redemption. and i'm not naive about violence. i spent 20 years abroad around a lot of violence. and i -- killers frighten me,
but there are in fact very few killers in a prison, ie psychopaths who find a sadistic enjoyment in murder. in fact, those people are ostracized in the prison. i covered the war in el salvador for five years, and most of the salvadoran soldiers did not want to get shot. when there was an ambush, they would take their m-16 and crouch down and fire it over their head, which was spraying bullets. they had no idea where. and my students said oh, yeah, that's just like a drive-by. so they have powerful weapons, especially these automatic weapons that you can buy, and they're not trained to use them. that's first. so, you know, it's -- in an impulsive moment, a moment of fear, killings take place or -- that's the first thing. then the other thing is remember, they are often very young. there's the reason that the army
and marine corps recruit kids who are 18 years old because their brains are not fully developed. they're malleable. they're subject to peer pressure. so, you know, how do you deal with that? my students wear their crime like a scarlet letter, not overtly, but i know it's there. i mean, it is obviously for those who were killed and their families, it is a greater burden, but it is also a burden for them because they have a conscience. and, you know, there's an expression in all prison systems that you age out of crime, so by the time -- i'm teaching in a maximum security prison. these students are in their 30s and 40s. i think that's kind of right. they age out of crime. remember, when you're in a depressed de-industrialized community, and you are working in the illegal economy, you can't go to the police.
you can't go to the courts. all illegal economies depend -- for those people who function in them, on enforcers, on people who will carry out acts of violence. it is a kind of predatory environment. i mean, i deal with a lot of students who were big-time drug dealers, and there's an entire sub sect -- according to them -- of groups that just prey on drug dealers because they have drugs and they have money. so -- and they are not going to call the cops on you. >> and they are not going to call the cops, right >> so at a few points in the book, you draw some parallels between the deprivation you have seen in inner city america, especially in the northeast, and some of the scenes that you con fronted as a war correspondent,
and i have two quotes here from your students. one from boris. he says, quote, if you grew up poor, then prison is not a culture shock, end quote. meaning basically the conditions outside prepare you for the inside. there's another one from your student steph, he says just in terms of the social contract about whether you abide by the rules that we have in place, the laws we have in place, steph says, quote, when you feel that country is letting you down, you're less likely to abide by those rules, end quote. it's a pretty harrowing picture of america. a lot of us would like to pretend that doesn't exist. can you tell me a little bit about the parallels you do draw between what you saw overseas and what you are seeing in some parts of the united states? >> right, so in war, and i covered, you know, five years in central america, was in gaza, covered the war in former
yugoslavia, i was in kosovo, what you have is a breakdown of social systems. you rupture what a sociologist would call social bonds. and that sociologist's great book on suicide. my last book was called "america the fare well tour". it drew a lot from that sociologist. he argued that when you're no longer integrated into a society, and work, a sense of place, dignity, position, all that is taken away from you, then he writes that you engage both groups and individuals engage in self-destructive pathologies, such as, violence, opioid use, suicide, hate groups, he writes, because he said those who seek the annihilation of others are driven by desires for self-annihilation. so that would characterize war. i mean, in a war environment, if you think about it, every system
that nurtures and protects life is targeted and destroyed, including when the serbs shelled the magnificent library and turned it into a bonfire. so that was a parallel, i think. and so the kinds of activities that they were -- remember, in order to function, they're forced into the illegal economy in one way or another, in order to survive. and it's in the book, but the stories they tell of constant evictions, of course the men have already been removed because they're in the system, constantly changing schools, no stability. matthew diamond wrote a very good book on this, on evictions, which is worth reading, so the
social bonds are destroyed. and i think that is a parallel to what i had witnessed in war zones, with the same kind of result. >> i want to start talking about you going into the prisons and the place where a lot of the book actually takes place. so to start off the book, you described with a lot of detail, what it's like to physically enter into a maximum security prison. the x-ray machines, the different layers of barricades, and in a scene that your students write, and that you help them with, they go into excruciating detail about what a strip search actually means in a prison system. can you tell us why you think those details are so important for members of the general public to have to confront?
it's easy to just gloss over >> yeah, because it's, you know, like entering the rings of daunte's inferno, i mean, by the time you get to the epicenter, you are stripped of all humanity. indeed they don't refer to you by your name. they refer to you by your prison number. so it's -- and then in order to survive in that environment, you have to build these emotionally protective walls because if you show any kind of vulnerability, it's seen as a sign of weakness. so steph in the book describes, he buys a contraband cell phone from a guard for $200. he's caught with it. they send him to solitary confinement for a year, which in solitary confinement, unless you're psychologically quite robust, you break down, as
that's what meant to. people start screaming. and there's like feces smeared all over the wall, and you go crazy. and then they drug you up. we forget that 25% of our prison population is severely mentally ill. and they put you on these psychotropic drugs that turn you into a zombie, so you just sleep all day long, and then eventually you get the shakes. you're zombified. so the -- and that was what i think was so unique about that classroom is because in the process of writing this play, which wasn't premeditated, i was teaching drama, and it just came out of the progress, those walls were stripped away because people began to write scenes about their life, and you're right, the play was called "caged". it was eventually performed at the theater in trenton, sold out every night, and then published. but "caged", the first half of
the play is outside the prison. it is all of the invisible walls that keep the poor poor, tin -- the inner locking systems of probation, police, schools, banks, can't get loans to get out, probation officers, all the mechanisms by which people are trapped, largely people of color within what malcolm x called these internal colonies. it is meant to be a -- you are turned into an object, both by the prison culler which -- prison culture and by the prison administration. that's why. very astute of you to pick that up, yeah. >> in the process of writing the play, once the class is really going, and you guys settled on that this is what you are going to do, can you tell us a little bit about what was running through your mind, maybe running through your heart when you saw those facades start to come down? and you saw a little bit of
vulnerability creeping in, where there was really a wall there before? like was there a change in the classroom? >> yeah. it was miraculous because when the door closed, it was as if the prison wasn't there. that was inadvertent. it was accidental. i didn't plan on it. maybe because it was organic, maybe that's why it didn't work. i had 28 students in that class. what i didn't know is that one of the students had listened to me and knew who i was because he listened to a station in new york, wbai, and so he recruited the best writers in the prison. i probably had a half dozen very very talented writers, students who wrote poetry. one of them had written a book. and when i started teaching, i was teaching august wilson, baldwin, the brother sister plays, which i think are set in
miami, right. they're great. >> he wrote "moonlight qtss -- "moonlight". >> yeah, he wrote "moonlight". they had never seen a play because they didn't have $150 to go to new york and see "fences". they had so little familiarity with drama, that i just on a whim said well, write scenes because i want you to get used to dramatic dialogue so you understand the engine of how theater works. and so i bring home the first set of scenes, 28 scenes, all written -- hand-written on lined paper, and it all carries that kind of musty smell of the prison, and i hit one after another. stunning. my wife is an actor, graduate of julliard. i showed her after a couple of weeks this stuff, i said, you know, i think i will help them write a play.
i'm not a play wright. so i was working on a book which i dropped because i became a full time editor for my class in addition to teaching the class, and i needed more time. the only way i could get more time -- i could sign up students for remedial help on a friday night. without asking, the tyranny of being a professor, i signed the entire class up for remedial help and then announced it. there was a little grumbling, but they all showed up. that was really over this four-month period. but what became so moving is that by writing about their loss, trauma, grief, everything they had undergone, they couldn't hold back, these emotions that were buried inside of them, so -- and they're big guys. they call it the 400 club which means you bench over 400 pounds.
these big guys would get up, some of them covered with prison tattoos, and their hands would be shaking, and their eyes would be welling up with tears. i mean, there's a story in the book. we were trying to work on a scene with the mother, and i said all right, everybody for the next class got to write a dialogue, a conversation with their mother. one of my students came up and said well what if we're a product of rape? i said well, that's what you have to write. what he writes which is autobiographical -- everything in that play happened to someone in that classroom, including one of my students who is locked into the prison in trenton, and on the first night, the guard comes and tells him that that was the cell his father was in. so timmy comes in, and he has written a scene. it's from the county jail. and he was -- he's from patterson, new jersey, and he's in the car, with his half-brother, and the car is stopped by the police and
searched, and they find the weapon. the weapon belongs to his half-brother. if no one takes responsibility for the weapon, then they are all charged with weapons possession. but timmy says it's mine. the conversation he has from the county to his mom is it doesn't matter, ma. i was never supposed to be here anyway. you have the son you love. that's why he went to prison. >> after the play's done, one of your students comes out. you guys rework it. and it's ultimately performed at the passage theater in trenton, new jersey, for a full month, i understand. it was amazing. but before it was ran for the public, you all had a night where you brought the families of your students in and only them. can you tell us how that was that night?
and why it was important for them to get a special audience? >> well, we had read august wilson's great play joe turner come and gone where -- and wilson writes a cycle of plays every decade for the experience in america. this one is set i think around 1910, the turn of the century. most of his plays are set in pittsburgh. and if you haven't seen viola davis black bottom, watch it. it is stunning. i taught on jim crow, taken from
the muddy water. after the civil war, with emancipation, suddenly, black bodies were criminalized, especially when they needed to pick the cotton or go into the camps in northern florida where we don't know. thousands upon thousands -- >> florida still leases inmates by the way. >> the mortality rate was -- we don't know, staggering because it was slavery by another name. but they didn't buy them. they didn't have to pay for them. so it didn't matter if they died. and the way they did convict leasing is they would pick you up for some fictional crime, like vagrancy. today it's loose cigarettes or my favorite is obstructing pedestrian traffic, which means standing too long on a sidewalk. and they would put you on a [inaudible] and march you down the river. people would pay a small fee, the plantation owners for a seven-year period, you would be a slave. this character with all of that
bitterness is coming north to try and find his wife who has come to pittsburgh. and there's a conjurer in the play. i mean, the ancestors, the voices of the ancestors are extremely important. i think correctly for august wilson, this is what the piano and other plays are about because the dominant society is never going to tell you who you are, where you came from. they will give you the fictional narrative that buttresses those who have power. and he keeps telling this character loomis that he has to find his song, which means he has to find out where he came from, who he was, what -- in order to be whole. and that was for me what that became, their song. and i -- that last night when i
left the prison, was a very -- we were in mourning, really. i mean, what we had in that classroom was so powerful and so unique, and, you know, the bond -- i write that in the first paragraph of the book, the bonds that we created exist to this day, especially as my students get out, some of them, and so it was making that song heard, and then my fortunately my best writer horris franklin got out. when i first said who wanted parts, only seven said they wanted it. but in the end all 28 wanted parts. i promised them i would work as hard as i could -- i said i don't know anything about producing plays, but i will learn. in that process, we had to
[inaudible] characters. you can't have a play with 28 characters. but boris was key. my wife helped. so we could create a central kind of core, maybe half a dozen, or eight characters that we could build the play around. that was their song. and our goal -- my goal, boris's goal was to make that song heard outside of those prison walls. yes, we had a night -- and we didn't want anyone else there. we only wanted the families. and it's interesting when you talk about the strip search, and we had some -- actually a fair number of formerly incarcerated -- and in the play there's a strip search, where you are forced -- because they are constantly strip searched, like, if they are in solitary, they're strip searched every time they come out of the cell. if they -- in new jersey, when you carry out a visit, you're strip searched before you go into the visiting room, and then when they end the visit, the
guards will pull a curtain between the prisoners and their families. it is quite traumatic, especially for the children. on the other side of that curtain, all of those prisoners are being strip searched. it is humiliating. steph writes about it in the book, they they open your mouth, you know, lift your nut sack, and then the guards will make you redo it. after you touch [inaudible], you put your fingers in your mouth again, just to humiliate. that scene in the play was the most traumatic for both the families and even people -- it triggered stuff for people who had been incarcerated, but after about four or five minutes into the play, i heard sobbing, and then just weeping for the entire, you know, 90 minutes of the play. but we wanted a space one of those nights where those families could grieve and those
families could hear the song, and, you know, of course it was incredibly powerful evening. >> so the process of you writing the play and getting to know your students, having them drop their veils and not just writing the play itself, but also you introducing them to a lot of drama and books and intellectuals and writers and whatnot, just through the course of the book, you really start to see some people grow into themselves and grow into people they may never thought they could have been, and towards the end, you have a line that i'm going to quote, it is, you will become fatalistic when you strive against the monolithic evil. that evil you are talking about is the prison system itself. small acts of resistance matter in the face of this, you argue,
and it seems to me that even by saying that the prison system is evil is just calling attention to the moral imperative of resisting it. it's not a small thing to call resistance to something like that, especially when you are on the inside, for those on the inside. but it does bring -- because your writing is very moralistic. you flaunt your colors, if i will say that. but the broader society, so many of us don't pay attention to what happens in the criminal justice system. it's just -- don't think about it. on a broader scale, considering your experience on the inside, considering your relationships with the people in there and on the outside, what's the current state of the morality of this country? it seems to be an open question.
>> well, it's written oath within the lives of the individuals of the societies, and we live in a death-saturated culture. we live in a culture that doesn't invest in people, but invests in systems of control. in fact, we have abandoned huge numbers of people, including the white working class, which has led many of them into the embrace of a demagogue like trump, and trump isn't going away, whether it's trump again or not, i don't know. but the failure to address that very real pain. now, remember, if you're black, you're disenfranchised from the society. you're thrown into a criminal caste system. i don't know what the status is in florida. what is it proposition 4 or something? >> amendment 4, yes. >> amendment 4, but you can't
vote. you lose your passport. you can't get public assistance. you can't get food stamps. you can't get public housing. so my students are -- many of them, you know, just the last few days, actually the guy who recruited all of the students for the class two years out, he's still homeless. he got a job at whole foods. it was during covid. the courts were closed. the courts opened up. they ran a background check. he's fired. i went to the manager of whole foods. i might as well have been talking to a deaf person. it didn't make any difference. that's why you have 76% recidivism rate within five years because of all the hurdles that are thrown up. and it really gets down to making money off of the bodies of black and brown people. because on the streets of a
de-industrialized city, they don't generate money for the corporate state. but if you lock them in a cage, they generate 50, 60,000 dollars a year, for the prison contractors, construction companies, guards, everything within -- we talk about private prisons. that's not at the problem. but the bigger problem is everything within state and federal systems is privatized, the phone service, the money transfer. you know, in florida, huge sections of prisons have been poisoned with food poisoning. and the commissary is privatized. i got -- so you're making under the 13th amendment you don't have to pay them minimum wage. i mean, you in new jersey pay them 22 cents an hour. i don't know what it is in florida. you know? >> not specifically. >> but in some states you don't get paid at all.
in georgia you just -- so, i got the list of commissary prices for 1996, and the prices now, we're talking toothpaste, deoderant, all the prices have gone up over 100%. the other thing is you get fines. when you are sentenced, you are stacked with thousands of dollars of fines. you're only making $28 a month. lawrence is in 30 years. he had about 10,000 in fines. when he got out, he still owed $6,000. if you can't pay it back, there's a warrant out for your arrest and you go back in. so it's all about money. it's about -- it's all these lobbyists. i mean, prisons have been turned into warehouses. the programs a few decades ago, the vocational programs, the educational programs, all of that's gone. and so in fact, people come out -- people who already had trauma when they went in, they
come out with even greater trauma. it makes them extremely difficult for them to integrate number one psychological and motionally into society -- emotionally into society, but also everything else against them. it is written that if you want to understand the society, look at the prisons. that's where people are vulnerable and powerless and you see how cruel corporations are. for instance, if you want to communicate with a family member in prison, you can't call them up. you have to pay in advance. >> j pay. >> j pay for money transfer, but global telling. you have to pay in advance. and you're talking about the poorest of the poor. you're talking about people who have nothing. and then within the prison, all of the work is done by the prisoners. you couldn't run a prison without that basically bonded labor. and that's why the free alabama
movement, a few years ago, when they did a prison strike for ten days in four prisons, it cost the state millions of dollars to bring in compensated labor. and i'm in contact with them. my favorite story with them is -- one of them, by the way, the leaders of it, the three leaders are in indefinite solitary confinement. since it is alabama, it is so corrupt, you can get anything you want. one of them called me on a cell phone once, which of course you can only get from a guard. that's where they got it. i said oh i'm going to grab my tape recorder. he said oh, well, i'll call you back. i will get the other two guys. we'll do a conference call. [laughter] and then they said okay, when are you going to publish this because we've got to get the phone us out of the cell. you know, i mean -- but they argue if you want to break the back of this movement, you have to support the prison strikes, that demand minimum wage, bah -- because if they paid minimum
wage, the system would be economically unsustainable. that's the short-term goal. the long-term goal is overthrow of corporate power which has now reconfigured the united states into this horrific oligarchic entity where all the institutions within the united states essentially work to consolidate both the wealth and the power of this tiny [inaudible]. i went to boarding school, as a scholarship kid, my graduation speaker in high school was john d. rockefeller, but we forget that when he died, he was worth about 3 billion. the oligarchs now, bezos, we've never seen money, 180 billion or -- that it's unlike anything we have seen in american history. and i studied classics at harvard. aristotle got it, that when you
create an oligarchic system, i'm quoting aristotle, you have two options tyranny or revolution. unfortunately, we're barrelling towards corporate tyranny. i had to throw that in. that has nothing to do with the book. >> i think we want to take some questions from the audience. >> if you have questions, you can line up at the microphone. we'll try to get to your question, so one question per customer. >> oh good, great. >> i just wanted to commend you on your work. my name's paul fletcher. i used to do similar work at mcneil's penitentiary and washington state penitentiary, and the inmates wrote a grant, and they went to the federal government and got it funded. i got them out on furlough. and we got a halfway house which was one of the first in washington state in 1968. then we set up a halfway house on a top floor of the dorm at
the university of washington, and if they were two years towards their parole, they got paroled to that halfway house, and they checked themselves out and went to class, and then they came back. there's one of the play wrights who was in that prison was named ron. he was in a couple of hollywood movies, but he also wrote plays when he was in the prison, so i know how those systems work. it is just interesting that you ended with rockefeller because rockefeller was the one who stopped the whole system from doing any kind of education. >> that's right. >> so you're doing some hard work. i appreciate what you're doing, and keep it up. >> have you read heather ann thompson's book "blood in the water". >> that's the one they did on rockefeller. >> on attica. it is brilliant. the way she ends the book is the response by the ruling white oligarchy because of attic shgs
a -- attica. it is fascinating to read the internal documents of the nixon white house. they believe it is the beginning of a malice revolution. she argues the demonizing of especially black men, but also the foundation of this draconian carcel state as a response. one of the characters in the book based on a real figure, who i interviewed for about six hours because i wanted exactly what you said this old consciousness from the 60s and early 70s by black radicals so he was a member of the black liberation army, he is kind of the old head in the prison play. when he gets to prison, we forget, solitary confinement was created in early 70s for black radicals. so when he gets to prison, he's
never committed a -- [inaudible]. within the prison, he's immediately put in solitary confinement for 22 years. they don't want him preaching revolution. they don't want him raising consciousness. i interviewed him. he didn't want to be interviewed. i had to twist -- i had to move a lot of connections. i showed up looking like this of course. i went to my class. they all knew him. he's famous in the prison system. and i said i don't know. i don't think he trusts white people. and they go oh, no, don't worry. he doesn't trust anyone. but on his tier, he refused to wear a uniform. so he would go naked. he stopped the runners, the people who would do the courier work for the guards. he said that's not your job. they put the snitch on the tier. there would be mysterious fires in that cell till there were no snitches. i asked him -- he was arrested finally for a shoot-out after robbing a bank. taking money from the capitalist
state, to quote him. i said wow, what was it like to be in a shoot-out with the new york police? he said i felt like the freest black man in america. [laughter] >> perhaps two questions. >> are there any successful reform efforts in various states that you would suggest or mention, and if you could imagine a politician addressing the issues you're raising, clearly, what would they be urging? >> to dismantle the carcel state. so you rupture the social bonds, your two primary forms of social control, a militarized police, that kill with impunity and
create reins of terror. i don't use that word lightly, terror. that's what happens when they kick your door down at 2:00 a.m. for a non-violent drug warrant, and mass incarceration, those become the pillars of social control because those social bonds have been ruptured. we have to recreate the social bonds whereby people are integrated and given a place and a sense of dignity and purpose and meaning in the society. but unfortunately, everything now conspires within the system. so the school system gives you enough numeric literacy to work, stack shelves in a warehouse or work in a wal-mart or something and nothing else. some of my students said nobody ever called me the n word. i said okay describe to me your high school. it is falling apart. there are metal-detectors. there's, you know, leaky roofs. there's no scientific equipment, etc. i said now i'm going to describe
to you the high school in princeton, new jersey, where i live with the 1 million dollars black box theater, the olympic swimming pools, the, i don't know, [inaudible]. i said that's racism. that's racism. so the bigger project is about reconstructing our society so that it serves the citizens, rather than criminal organizations, like goldman sachs. [applause] >> i used to like believe in kind of the criminal justice system, but recently, you know, when you see like people hiding behind corporate law, like even the politicians who are basically killing people by
cutting down on vaccination and masks, almost like a premeditated murder or something, and it is like -- trump and his criminal family, and it's like -- it's been very ugly and very hard for me to like see this. for the inmates, i would imagine it is even worse because it seems like the justice system is only for the poor, and the rich can do anything and get away with it. >> yeah. a good book was written about this called "divide" where the author looked at poor courts and he looked at -- i mean courts that prosecute the poor and then all the thieves on wall street who never had to pay a price for trashing the global economy and engaging in horrific and massive acts of fraud. and that's of course what i'm talking about. what's interesting about teaching in a prison, and i've taught at princeton, columbia, a few other schools, very elite schools is that the level of discussion begins at a place
that these elite kids or want to be elite kids can't even reach. they understand white supremacy. they understand neoliberalism. they understand how the system is configured to keep them where they are. dysfunctional judicial system, they get it all. and let's not give biden a pass. biden and clinton, in early 1990s, decided they would take back the law and order issue from the republicans, and that's where you got the vast expansion of the carcel state, almost doubled under the clinton administration. 1970, we had 300,000 people incarcerated. what people don't often recognize, crime rates have gone down. and biden was at the forefront of this, in the senate. so that three strikes you're out laws, the militarization of police, the expansion of the
death penalty for federal crimes, that was out of biden's office, which went from one or two, you may know, to like 51, i think. and he bragged about it. >> yeah. >> and half of my students at least would not be in that prison system but for biden and clinton. >> yeah. >> so, you know, a good book was written on this "the first civil rights". the democratic party has been one of the -- if you go back to clinton, i would say the primary engine between the creation of both these occupation armies in poor neighborhoods. they are occupation forces. they are militarized forces, and the carcel state. you know, i -- but what's interesting is that that's -- that can be a contentious thing to say outside of prison, but inside, the consciousness is at a whole other level.
it's been called organic intellectuals. a few years ago, a prison debate team debated at harvard and shocked them, that was national news, but not to those of us who teach in the prison. these are formidable intellectuals. i have two students, boris, i was telling you, his picture is in book. he has arms the size of his thighs. he's huge. another one, i didn't teach him, but he was in the college program, he's -- he says -- he's one of those guys who is so tall that he lies to lower his -- he says he's 6'8", but bigger than 6'8", 310, black guy. gets out, graduates from rutgers, gets the first truman fellowship which is national fellowship for scholars at any student at rutgers, in over a decade, he goes to the university of cambridge in england and gets a masters degree in philosophy.
we're walking down the street in princeton. i said i'm sure somebody goes what are those two black guys doing with that white guy? i said they don't know what i know is that you go home at night and read, and you're nerds just like me. [laughter] >> yeah, great. thank you. >> thank you. [applause] >> we're out of time. ::. [applause] next on the miami book fair a