Prison Playwrights

Radio Open Source
6 min readOct 17, 2021


This week: a conversation with Chris Hedges, Boris Franklin, and Lawrence Bell about writing and teaching in prison. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.

In his new book Our Class, the journalist Chris Hedges describes teaching plays and playwriting in East Jersey State Prison, also known as Rahway State Prison. On this week’s show, Hedges joins us with two of his star students, Boris Franklin and Lawrence Bell.

We learn that the transition from war correspondent to teacher in a prison was a natural one for Hedges, as was the eventual shift to leading a class in which students create a play. Hedges says:

I think I gravitated quite naturally towards those who the great theologian James Cone called the crucified of the Earth . . . That’s how I went into the prison. In terms of this particular class, it was a kind of organic process. I had no intention when I went in there of having them write a play.

Chris Hedges.

One of his students, Boris Franklin, tells us, about his teacher:

The thing that won me over was his ability to be tough in a very aggressive space. I mean, he came in and he laid down the law, and I knew that he going out on what he said. We say, “You’re going out on your shield.” That means if I say I’m not going to tolerate something, I’m not going to tolerate it. And that means that I’m prepared to stand my ground on that.

Boris Franklin.

He came into a space where you had a bunch of individuals who have been cast as hardened criminals, almost everyone in the classroom was locked up for homicide or something, and he didn’t flinch one bit. He said, “This is going to be the coach of this class, and this is how we‘re going to proceed.” And that was the end of it. So first thing he won was my respect, before I even was beginning to respect him as a writer or academic or anything else. He won my respect as a human being.

Lawrence Bell, reflecting on this transformative class, says:

One of the things that was said to me in one of my many long conversations, and it probably was from Boris: our voices were suppressed not only by the system, but by ourselves, and by our own fears for so many years, that now I live in a space and I occupy a realm where I refuse to be silenced about anything. And that is probably my biggest takeaway from being in this class and having my voice heard for the first time in my life.

Lawrence Bell.

Read: Our Class

Hedges’ book meditates on prison life, theatre, and education all at once. There are also passages of Hedges’ teachings, like the following, on the generally transcendent qualities of art:

“The role of art is transcendence, creating the capacity for empathy, especially for those who appear strange, foreign, different,” I said. “Art is not about entertainment, or at least not solely about entertainment. It goes deeper than that. It’s about dealing with what we call the nonrational forces in human life. These forces are not irrational. They are nonrational. They are absolutely essential to being whole as a human being. They are not. quantifiable. They cannot be measured empirically. Yet they are real—maybe more real than those things we can see and touch and count. Grief, beauty, truth, justice, a life of meaning, the struggle with our own mortality, love. These nonrational forces are honored by the artist. The origins of all religions are fused with art, poetry, music. This is because religion, like art, deals with transcendence, with empathy, with justice, with love—realitis we experience viscerally but that are often beyond articulation.”

Listen/Read: Hurricane

Another literary inmate of Rahway was the boxer Rubin Carter, also an author, and the subject of “Hurricane,” the Bob Dylan song. From the FT:

. . . it grabbed the public imagination, combining as it does the passionate rage against injustice of Dylan’s protest songs — of feeling “ashamed to live in a land/Where justice is a game” — with fuel for the race-relations ferment of the time in its tale of two black men cynically framed and convicted by white cops, white witnesses and an all-white jury.

In December 1975, Dylan played a concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden which raised $100,000 for Carter’s defence and, whether or not it had anything to do with the song, in 1976 Carter and Artis were granted a new trial. This was unsuccessful, and it wasn’t until 1985 that Carter was finally released from jail, a new judge ruling that the original prosecution had been “based on racism rather than reason”. By this time, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter had spent 19 years in jail.

See: Jasper Johns

The giant Jasper Johns retrospective Mind/Mirror is at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art; each exhibit is meant to mirror and reflect the other. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl (who calls Johns “contemporary art’s philosopher-king”) says “you keep coming home to him if you care at all about art’s relevance to lived experience. The Present show obliterates contexts. The present show is Jasper Johns’ is top to bottom of what art can do to us.” Couldn’t have said it better ourselves. On til February 13.

Listen: Because of Anita

There’s lots we don’t remember or didn’t know about Anita Hill’s testimony 30 years ago this month. Like, Kimberle’ Crenshaw was one of Anita’s lawyers; like, there were several other women ready to come forward to corroborate her testimony, and Uncle Joe, who was head of the Judiciary committee didn’t call them. Because of Anita features a conversation with Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford.

This week’s ephemeral library

Angela Flournoy on Mickalene Thomas in the NY Times Magazine. Brandon Taylor on Knausgaard. Katy Waldman on The Bad Art Friend. Democrats Can’t Just Give the People What They Want.

We’ll be back next week with Amitav Ghosh and a conversation about imagination and climate change.

Til then!

The OS players



Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.