Chris Hedges gave this talk to 27 graduating students who were formerly incarcerated—several of whom he taught in prison—and their families at Rutgers University on Friday. The ceremony was held by the Mountainview Program at Rutgers, which helps students complete their degrees at Rutgers after they take college courses inside prisons through the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP) program.
My fellow college graduates: Integrity is not an inherited trait. It is not conferred by privilege or status or wealth. It cannot be bequeathed by elite schools or institutions. It is not a product of birth or race or gender. Integrity is not a pedigree or a brand. Integrity is earned. Integrity is determined not by what we do in life, but what we do with what life gives us. It is what we overcome. Integrity is the ability to affirm our dignity even when the world tells us we are worthless. Integrity is forged in pain and suffering, loss and tragedy. It is forged in the courtrooms where you were sentenced…
Several of you are my former students: Boris, Steph, Tone, Hanif and Ron—although to be honest it is hard for me to use the word “former.” To me you always will be my students. I have spent many hours with you in prison classrooms. I know the scars you bear. You will bear these scars, this trauma, for life. Own your suffering. Do not deny it. And know that healing comes only by reaching out to others who suffer. It is to say to those thrown aside by society: “I too was despised. I too was where you are. I too felt alone and abandoned. But like me, you can and will endure.”
“There are people in this room who committed crimes, but there are no criminals here today.”
My first student to get out of prison, nearly four years ago, Boris Franklin, is graduating today. I met him with his mother at the gate. He had spent 11 years inside. His first words to me were “I have to rebuild my library.”
Boris was part of the class in East Jersey State Prison that wrote the play “Caged.” He and I devoted hundreds of hours over the last four years editing and rewriting it for the stage. It was performed a year ago at the Passage Theatre in Trenton, with Boris taking one of the pivotal roles. It was sold out nearly every night, attended by families who knew too intimately the pain of mass incarceration.
By Chris Hedges and Mr. Fish