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Chris Hedges: A Pipeline Straight to Jail

The defeat of the Harvard University debate team by a team from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills elucidates a truth known intimately by those of us who teach in prisons: that the failure of the American educational system to offer opportunities to the poor and the government’s abandonment of families and children living in blighted communities condemn millions of boys and girls, often of color, to a life of suffering, misery and early death. The income inequality, the trillions of dollars we divert to the war industry, the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas and the refusal to invest in our infrastructure wrecks life after innocent life.

I spent four years as a graduate student at Harvard University. Privilege, and especially white privilege, I discovered, is the primary prerequisite for attending an Ivy League university. I have also spent several years teaching in prisons. In class after class in prison, there is a core of students who could excel at Harvard. This is not hyperbolic, as the defeat of the Harvard debate team illustrates. But poverty condemned my students before they ever entered school. And as poverty expands, inflicting on communities and families a host of maladies including crime, addiction, rage, despair and hopelessness, the few remaining institutions that might intervene to lift the poor up are gutted or closed. Even when students in inner-city schools are not the targets of racial insults, racism worms into their lives because the institutions that should help them are nonexistent or deeply dysfunctional.

I stood outside a prison gate in Newark, N.J., at 7 a.m. last April 24. I waited for the release of one of my students, Boris Franklin, who had spent 11 years incarcerated. I had ridden to the gate with his mother, who spent her time reading Bible verses out loud in the car, and his sister. We watched him walk down the road toward us. He was wearing the baggy gray sweatpants, oversize white T-shirt and white Reeboks that prisoners purchase before their release. Franklin had laid out $50 for his new clothes. A prisoner in New Jersey earns $28 a month working in prison.

Franklin, with the broad shoulders and muscular chest and arms that come with years of lifting weights, clutched a manila envelope containing his medical records, instructions for parole, his birth certificate, his Social Security card and an ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles, his official form of identification. All his prison possessions, including his collection of roughly 100 books, had to be left behind.

The first words he spoke to me as a free man after more than a decade in prison were “I have to rebuild my library.”

“You don’t know what to think or feel at that moment,” he said to me recently about the moment of his release. “You are just walking. It is almost surreal. You can’t believe it. After such a traumatic experience you are numb. There is no sense of triumph.”

When Franklin was in prison, he was a student under the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP). Now, at 42, he is attending Rutgers under the university’s Mountainview Program for ex-offenders. He is seeking a degree in social work and plans to assist the formerly incarcerated. This is an unusual and rare opportunity for a freed prisoner.

Franklin, like many others I have taught, should never have ended up in prison. His brilliance, his hunger to learn and his passion for ideas, if nurtured, would have led him to a very different life. But when you are poor in America, everything conspires to make sure you remain poor. The invisible walls of our internal colonies, keeping the poor penned in like livestock, mirror the physical walls of prison that many in these communities are doomed to experience.

“I started school in Piscataway, N.J.,” he said. “It was predominantly white. There was a lot of space. It was clean. There was order. People walked down the halls in lines. I had been prepared in Head Start.”

When he was in the second grade, his family moved. He started attending an inner-city school in New Brunswick. The two schools, he said, “were night and day.” The classrooms in New Brunswick were shabby, dirty and overcrowded. Many of the children were “loud and disruptive.”

“In Piscataway we were taught how to learn, how to read and scan texts for information,” he said. “New Brunswick was a zoo. It was mostly black and Hispanic. There were fights all the time. I doubt the teachers were even qualified. It was not an environment where you could teach anything. Kids would come to school and slam things down or turn stuff over. They were angry. I remember seeing a girl in my class, a victim of child abuse, with welts all over her. She later became a drug addict. Your fight-or-flight mechanism as a child is activated even before you walk out of the house. Your blood pressure goes up. There are drugs and alcohol all around you. You see fights on the way to school. You see dope addicts slumped over. You see police jump on someone and beat ’em up. You run into gangs of kids.” [continue reading]

Copyright 2015 Chris Hedges. First published in TruthDig.

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3 comments on “Chris Hedges: A Pipeline Straight to Jail

  1. hiphopforchange1
    October 15, 2015

    Reblogged this on Hip Hop 4 Change.

    Like

  2. sharondoubiago
    October 15, 2015

    Thank you once again for this essay. I’m putting it up on my Facebook.”When I saw that those prisoners won the debate with the Harvard team I was not surprised.” I wasn’t either, except that the best team actually won, not Harvard just cuz it was Harvard.Chris Hedges: A Pipeline Straight To Jail

    Interview of me by Julia Doughtyhttp://www.sharondoubiago.com/blog.htm?post=1001628 From: Vox Populi To: sharondoubiago@yahoo.com Sent: Thursday, October 15, 2015 2:01 AM Subject: [New post] Chris Hedges: A Pipeline Straight to Jail #yiv6281691068 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv6281691068 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv6281691068 a.yiv6281691068primaryactionlink:link, #yiv6281691068 a.yiv6281691068primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv6281691068 a.yiv6281691068primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv6281691068 a.yiv6281691068primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv6281691068 WordPress.com | Vox Populi posted: “The defeat of the Harvard University debate team by a team from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility in the Catskills elucidates a truth known intimately by those of us who teach in prisons: that the failure of the American educational system to off” | |

    Like

  3. jfrobb
    October 15, 2015

    This is clear and direct, truth well said. Truth that we all need to pay attention to. Perhaps not a surprise, I see you and the Pope holding up the same sign. Thank you for your words; they come at a time to prompt me to reach out. Please keep holding up this sign – a sign we should all pay attention to (and act on!).

    Like

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