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Teaching ‘Les Misérables’ in Prison


Teaching ‘Les Misérables’ in Prison

Chris Hedges

I spent the last four months teaching Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel “Les Misérables” at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey. My students—like Hugo’s main character, Jean Valjean, who served 19 years in prison—struggle with shame, guilt, injustice, poverty and discrimination, and yearn for redemption and transformation. The novel gave them a lens to view their lives and a ruling system every bit as cruel as Hugo’s 19th-century France.


Thanks Chris. Those 26 prisoners may be the only prisoners in America who feel that someone on the outside really understands and cares about our unfair system of ‘injustice’, but also so eloquently verbalizes their thoughts and feelings about the cruel hand dealt to them for whatever crime they may or may not be guilty of. Your quotes by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Hugo are just as relevant today as they were 150 years ago. Yet your article pains me as it is a lone cry for help in an empty desert. The millions of Americans who are locked up today have even less sympathy from the public than the millions of Africans who were “locked up” on slave plantations just over 150 years ago in roughly half of the U.S. In each case the ‘prisoners’ were deemed ‘guilty’ by their captors and placed to work for free while being always subjected to violence or the threat of violence by disproportional amounts of sociopaths enforcing the unjust system.
I would suggest “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, but I’m afraid it may drive the prisoners to rise up and be “virtuous” while accepting the reflexive, brutal, oppressive and predictable response from the authorities for their enlightened views.
I sure hope than someone at least tries to replace you when you finally stop your New Jersey prison visits. Where I live, none of the prisons have any reading materials available to prisoners after a right wing government ended funding for prison libraries with the promise that ‘volunteer agencies’ would pick up the slack. It never happened.
I tried to donate books with no success.
I don’t know where to turn, but you Chris… do inspire me! Keep up the good work and know that you’re widely appreciated.


Les Miz always contends for my favorite of all, because of the magnificent, paradoxical heroism of Valjean. So trapped, so like anyone hooked into the system today.

Another author you might think of sharing, Chris: Many years ago a total stranger in Shakespeare & Co. on Telegraph (since closed) recommended Donald Goines to me. Maybe that world Goines draws is so close, it could be too painful. I don’t know. I tend to think Goines is great literature (Dopefiend, Black Girl Lost) - meaning that you can nearly feel real flesh and blood pulsing through the pages, as profound passion swells in obedience to cathedral music. That kind of experience is where art proves its worth.


here’s to you chris hedges! if we accomplish little else the “labor of Love” to inspire a love for reading is a most valuable gift. reading a great novel allows the reader to identify with and experience life from a different perspective to as the saying goes, “walk a mile in another’s shoes”. reading broadens our understanding of humanity and gives insight into the challenges we may otherwise never comprehend. watching television is for the most part a passive activity failing to engage the imagination.

the men who join hedges’ class are fortunate in that at least one person in their world sees beyond the convict and speaks with respect to the human spirit within. very little else in their daily lives gives these prisoners a sense of self-worth and dignity. i feel certain that many of his students find ways to thank chris for being there, yet he may never know the extent of his gift. most of us remember those favorite teachers, the teacher who inspired us to make something better of our life.

so, here’s to you chris hedges!


Dear Chris,
James Luther Adams, Paul Tillich, all rejoice in the work you’ve done
here; giving new life to the Christian message through literature.


On the day of the final class a student, Joel, rose to speak, holding two pages of notes.

“I think about the final interaction between Valjean, Cosette and Marius [her husband],” he said. “I think about the strength in [Valjean] for all he had suffered, all he had sacrificed, all he had endured just for the beauty and simplicity of love. I think about those last moments between them, the thankfulness for the opportunity to love; the opportunity to not be alone in his last moments; the opportunity to live. I thank Hugo for the picture he painted for me here. … I think about the man who became my father and how much pain and suffering I have caused him. I think about the things he sacrificed for me.

Now think about how if that individual had had the ability to have Chris Hedges as a teacher before he had committed his crimes, and had thought about that pain and suffering earlier, and who he might have become…all the money we waste on war that could be spent on the education of the youth…