Above Photo: Stella Morris, partner of Julian Assange, waits to speak to the press outside the Royal Courts of Justice following an extradition hearing on December 10, 2021 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images.
Julian Assange has languished in Belmarsh Prison in the UK since 2019.
He is fighting extradition to the US to face prosecution under the Espionage Act.
Prison is always a political tool, and in the case of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, the use of incarceration to suppress, discourage, and silence dissent is self-evident. Since being imprisoned, Assange has married and even started a family—but has been kept apart from his wife and children. In the second part of a two-part conversation, Stella Assange and Chris Hedges discuss the conditions of Julian’s incarceration, and how it offers a glimpse into the overall brutality of the prison system.
Stella Assange: I wanted to ask you a bit about your work in prisons. How did it start?
Chris Hedges: So it started, I’d come back from overseas and lost my job at the New York Times for denouncing the war in Iraq, given a formal written reprimand, told I couldn’t speak about it. This is classic. We had another reporter, John Burns, who was cheering on the war in Iraq. They didn’t give him a reprimand. So it wasn’t…
Stella Assange: He was also involved in the New York Times dealings with Julian.
Chris Hedges: Was he?
Stella Assange: Oh yeah.
Chris Hedges: Okay. So Burns was cheerleading the war and I was denouncing it. So it wasn’t a matter of speaking out about the war. I was just speaking out about the war and saying the wrong thing. So I was finally told I couldn’t speak publicly and I left the paper. And I kind of floundered…I wrote my first book: “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning,” which I didn’t expect anyone to read. It was kind of about the culture of war and it wasn’t autobiographical, and it wasn’t even sequential, but it was about the culture of war, what it’s like, and I’ve covered, you know, at least a half dozen conflicts in depth. And I was teaching at Princeton, and I was living in Princeton, I was teaching the university. And a friend of mine who was the head of the history department of the College of New Jersey was going into the prison and teaching college courses to people who had their high school equivalency, what we call the GED. Now it didn’t have academic validity and she bought the books and that’s how I started because of her. And then I just I loved it. I mean they and then in 2013 Rutgers started a college degree program, and I started teaching in that. And these are serious, serious students who have turned their cells into libraries, who never had a chance, and that space in a prison classroom is really sacred because you’re given agency, it’s the only time in the day you’re given agency, you’re treated with respect.
I mean really ‘sacred’ is the only way to describe it. And so, you know, I’ve been teaching since 2010 and now I think I’ve tried to count about 600 students and a lot of my students are getting out. I help my students write a play, which was my book, our class was about that process. And it was, I know your mother’s a theater director your brother’s an actor, my wife is an actor. And I, but I, when I started it was kind of clueless. I was teaching drama, I was teaching August Wilson, all these great playwrights Baldwin and others but I realized from the first day they hadn’t seen any theater because they don’t have money to go see theater. Unlike in the old days in Europe where they used to subsidize. Even when I lived in Zagreb I could buy a ticket for $10 to go see great opera and they were all state employees. So whatever you say about communism, you know, they supported the arts and a great education. I mean, you could get through Charles University.
So I said, “Okay, well, why don’t you just try and…” I wanted to write in dramatic dialogue because that’s how emotions and information, everything is conveyed. And it turns out that one of my students had knew who I was and had recruited the best writers in the prison. So, I start reading through this stuff and I’m going, “Wow.” I mean, I have four or five really powerfully written. And so just I said to my wife
“I think I’m going to try and help them write a play.” Not that I know anything about writing a play. And then it just unraveled. Because in a prison you don’t even tell your cellmate anything about yourself. Because when you express vulnerability then the predators come for you. And guys would get up and they started writing these scenes of their lives. And some of them couldn’t read them or they’d stand up and their hands were shaking and they were crying. It was really powerful and because it inadvertently and organically became their grief, their loss all of that was expressed in a group of 28 among the 28. And then eventually… when I first asked, I said, “Who wants parts? Who wants a part?” Only seven people wanted parts of the 28. But as we started writing all 28… so I had to write 28. I was editing it, they were writing it, but I’d read 28 parts. I mean it was like a Fabian tract, you know. And then we had a reading and we couldn’t produce it because there was stuff in there that would anger the guards. So, I brought in Cornel West and the great theologian James Cone to hear it. But when we got to the lobby the warden was there and he said, “You’re not going to your classroom”. And they hauled into the chapel and there was a phalanx of guards all white at the back and then they brought my class in and of course they had to immediately decide which parts of the play they could read out loud and which they couldn’t. And they all huddled like in a big circle and I wanted to hear what they were editing out but I purposely walked all the way to the back of the room because I said it’s theirs, it’s their play.
And you can’t replicate that power. However, they weren’t trained actors or anything, but it all came from here. And then my best writer, thank God, got out first. I met him at the gate. And we worked with a theater…a great director, Jeff Wise in New York, who workshopped it. And we had to reduce those parts back to seven parts. And then it was produced by the theater in Trenton New Jersey and and sold out every night for a month and then we had one night for the families and that was you know an amazing experience. So all of these families some of them had driven hours to get there. About four minutes into the play I hear people begin to cry and they just wept through the whole play. And so I wrote this book, ‘Our Class,’ that used that process
of writing the play to talk about mass incarceration because…every scene in that play happened to someone in that classroom including stuff that would just seem improbable. Like the guy whose first night in Trenton, which is the high security prison in New Jersey, the guard comes and goes, “You know that was your father’s cell.”
Or I said once to one of my…Okay, we were working on scenes, “we need to get a dialogue between the son and the mother”. And then a student comes up to me after class and goes “Well, what if we’re a product of rape?” And I said, “Well, that’s what you’ve got to write, Timmy.” So, he gets up he couldn’t read it, actually, and it was written into the play. And when we produced the play and he did read it he immediately went off stage and I said, “Where’s Timmy? Where’s Timmy?”. And I found him in the corner of the bathroom just shaking and sobbing. And the dialogue that he wrote, which was from his own experience, was he was product of rape and he was with his half-brother in a car and there was a weapon in the car and the car was searched by the police and it was his half-brother’s weapon and he said and he said “it’s mine.” And what he wrote was the phone call from the county jail to his mother which said “It doesn’t matter Ma, I was never supposed to be here anyway and you have the son you love”. That’s why he went to prison.
Stella Assange: Oh my god.
Chris Hedges: So it was, I mean, still even though I wrote the book, I pick it up and it kind of rips my heart out. So I’m really committed and they’re amazing guys. They remind me of war correspondents, actually. I don’t really like liberals too much. When I went to divinity school at Harvard, I lived in the inner city in Roxbury, I used to commute into Cambridge to go to school. I said, “That is where I learned to hate liberals.” All the people who talk about empowering people they never met.
So, now they’re getting out, a lot of them, and they’re brilliant. I’ve got several graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers and they’re tough, and they’re real, fiercely loyal. War correspondents are kind of rogues in many ways, but you earn your way into that fraternity by always watching the back of the person you’re with.
I mean, I can remember being in ambushes and every fiber in my body wanted to run. It’s terrifying, it’s scary, but you can’t until everyone goes out. And that kind of, they have that kind of loyalty. So, I’m, you know, now they’re… I’m getting back and going to court. As they get out, because it’s so hard to get work, you just get involved in their lives and I know their mothers and their kids.
Stella Assange: So, was this a specific prison with a management that thought this was a good idea?
Chris Hedges: No, that’s interesting.
So it was, the prison rights advocates organized to pass a law in New Jersey that said that if secondary education was provided, the prisons had to create a space for it. And so Rutgers, they raised several million dollars a year but it’s actually an entity within Rutgers, but it’s not Rutgers. So, at the beginning, the guards treated us really poorly because they were baiting us. They would treat us, I mean, just horrific stuff. The guards bring in the drugs, then there are overdoses, then the Special Investigation Division comes in and tries to find out who. So, one night I’m sitting there with a bunch of other Rutgers professors and we go into the rotunda at East Jersey State Prison which then the rotunda is completely surrounded by bars. And suddenly these guards come to us, now we’re all teachers. “Up against the bars! Up against the bars!”. So we all have to stand on the bars, we’re patted down and searched, then they bring the dogs to sniff us and then they go, “All right, get out, you’re not teaching tonight.” So, that’s like classic. And of course what happens is most professors don’t come back. That’s what they want, very hard to retain professors. And they can be very…but you can’t respond because if you say one thing…I’m sure you know what I’m talking about…then they write it up and you don’t come back. So, they could be really…it’s better now, and I think it’s better because in the prison that I just taught in, we have 140 people out of 2,000 in the college degree program. It’s really hard to get in. And if you have a lot of charges, i.e. if your disciplinary record is not good, you can’t get in. So, I think we had for the 146 or 700 applications but it means that the behaviors in the prisons are modified because people want to get into the program.
That’s my guess. And then you’ve got the class issue because the guards didn’t go to college. And they’re going, “Why do these people get free…”. And it’s a legitimate question, I mean, so… And then the other factor you’ve got is that most of these people, a lot of the guards were in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, they’ve got very bad PTSD. And I’ll pull in there and they’re all coming in their pickup trucks and totally pumped up probably on steroids. And it’s a job like cops where you can be paid very well to be a sadist. I mean, nobody’s gonna…
Stella Assange: The vocational ones.
Chris Hedges: Yes.
Stella Assange: I think it’s…for people who haven’t been in that kind of environment it’s very difficult to understand the kind of dynamic that develops very quickly. Because I think maybe the first or second time you go in there and you kind of, you want to stand your ground on all sorts of small things.
Chris Hedges: That’s a bad idea.
Stella Assange: It’s a bad idea. And you notice people who are new coming into the prison, you’re like, “just run with it”, you know, because, first of all, it’s a little fiefdom right.
Chris Hedges: It’s a totalitarian system, I mean, completely.
Stella Assange: And they control everything, I mean literally everything.
Chris Hedges: On a whim too. It’s a whim. There’s no rule, they just feel like it, they do it.
Stella Assange: Exactly. So you’re, you have to play along.
Chris Hedges: Yeah.
Stella Assange: You have to make compromises. Compromise in order to pick your battles. Because I mean at times I have to…I’ve tweeted about things that have happened in the prison but maybe one time out of every six because I have to do that calculation. Yeah, that’s right.
I was just, I was just in Rome. I don’t know if you know. Yes, I saw the Pope in a private audience and I gave…
Chris Hedges: You speak Spanish too, right?
Stella Assange: Yes.
Chris Hedges: Did you speak Spanish with him?
Stella Assange: Yes, we spoke Spanish.
Chris Hedges: Except he speaks Argentine Spanish, but it’s alright.
Stella Assange: And I was thinking, I have to give him, I want to give him a gift, but what gift do you give the Pope? And so the gift that I ended up giving was two printouts of the famous wedding pictures.
Chris Hedges: Oh, that’s nice.
Stella Assange: Because, as you know, I mean, you were meant to be there, you were meant to be a witness.
Chris Hedges: I was there, just as outside, that’s all, listening to Craig Murray.
Stella Assange: Well, one of the objections they had to having you as a witness was that you were a journalist.
Chris Hedges: I know. Well, they didn’t let your photographer in there.
Stella Assange: Exactly. So, the prison took the pictures. A prison guard, who is the same prison guard that does the pictures for cell raids. And Julian and I sort of joked that our wedding pictures would look like a cell raid and they kind of do. So, we haven’t actually been given the digital files. We’ve been given, both Julian and I each, printed out copies of the wedding in A4, like porous, not photographic paper and that’s what I have, right. I just have that one copy. Supposedly the prison has been is retaining the digital copy. We got Julian’s solicitor to write to the prison and they said yes they would retain it.
Chris Hedges: Right, that’s classic prison behavior. I mean, it’s just, yeah, they just invent like obstacles just because they like to do it, I guess. I don’t know.
Stella Assange: Well, the thing is they said we weren’t allowed to bring the photographer in because it was a security issue. But then they chose a location. The location had to be a room with nothing on the wall. Like a blank wall
Chris Hedges: As opposed to the chapel.
Stella Assange: As opposed to the chapel. And then, so they had total control over the only thing in the picture is Julian and me in our wedding clothes. That’s it. So, anyway, this is, apparently this is also a security risk.
Chris Hedges: The picture?
Stella Assange: The picture. So, when they sent the pictures to me they also sent what they call a compact which is just this form. And asked me to sign it. I haven’t signed it. But, saying “here are your pictures, you’re not allowed to share this on social media and you’re not allowed to share it with the press.” And so they’re censored wedding pictures.
Chris Hedges: Wow.
Stella Assange: And I got asked because I wrote a tweet saying that I had given these pictures and that bizarrely the prison hasn’t allowed me to share it with the press or on social media and then I was reading the comments “Well, why don’t you do it anyway?” and that’s, I mean it’s a logical question, but it’s also, if your loved one…if someone is inside the prison they’re exposed to all sorts of…
Chris Hedges: They’re exposed to retribution and they’re always looking for ways to keep you out. So, I have unfortunately… do you know the old character from the movies in America ‘Step and Fetch it’? from the 30s, it’s this horrible black stereotype you know, where step and fetch it, you know, he’s every black stereotype you could…racist stereotype you could want. Where he doesn’t want to work and he’s completely obsequious to white people and awful. But, that’s what I feel like in the prison. And it’s not my nature and it’s not yours but you got to swallow it because I’ve got to get in there for my students. And I know they’re looking. Like, I’m not allowed to have any email contact any phone contact any written contact with any of my students in the prison. And I don’t violate that rule because they monitor it. And I know the first time I would send an email that’s a hard and fast rule. And they don’t like me there. I mean, they’ve tried twice not to give me credentials. Fortunately, I mean one of the times I was teaching at the University of Princeton to call the commissioner. So, I mean, I could play that white privilege power game that got me back in, but they don’t like me in there. So, that’s what people don’t get. Yeah, and I think the other thing that people don’t get is that when you have someone you love in prison to a certain extent, your family is incarcerated as well. I mean, that’s hard to describe to people, but just the fact your children have to go to a prison, they have to see that. What mother wants their children to see that naked face of the police state? I mean, and then you ask questions and then there’s of course the whole, I mean, one of the reasons I’m so fiercely against mass incarceration is what it does to families. And in the States, they jack up…it’s all privatized. I don’t know if it’s like the same here. So, the phone rates are really high. And the only way that incarcerated parents can communicate with their children is over the phone. And they’re gouging them. We’re talking about the poorest of the poor people really struggling, and it’s $15 for 15 minutes. And the people who run this…I just did a protest at Princeton Theological Seminary because the owner or the guy who owns…It used to be GlobalTelLink…of the prison phones, who’s worth, I don’t know, $10 billion. I’m not making that up. I mean, he’s the chairman of the trustee board of the seminary. And so, again, it gets into how corrupt the institutions, how wedded the institutions are. So, there’s this…and you have to pay in advance. I mean, it’s so awful. There’s so many little things like that I’m talking about the people who live outside, that becomes so burdensome and stressful, which you’re going through, that if you’re not connected to the prison system, you don’t get it. It’s not just the person who’s locked up. In a way, you’ve locked up the whole family.
Stella Assange: Yep. Well, our kids only ever get an hour and a bit with Julian. And there’s something called Family Day, which we’ve never experienced because Julian is never on the list of favored prisoners
Chris Hedges: Oh, you have to be selected for Family Day?
Stella Assange: Yeah, I have to be selected for family day. And Family Day is, I think, five hours and you can watch a movie or something. I don’t know, I’ve only ever heard. It’s like a, it’s… I hear it’s real, but we’re never…
Chris Hedges: But you’re still within the walls of the prison.
Stella Assange: Yeah.
Chris Hedges: I mean, so when visiting hours would come… And we actually had a riot in the prison, I taught, because one guy was with his kids, and the guard came and started harassing and insulting him in front of his children. And he got up and he said out loud to the other prisoners, “This guy is disrespecting me in front of my kids.” There was a riot. Everyone started fighting. But what they do in that prison is that they stop the visit and you’ve got to move immediately. And they put all the prisoners on one side and they put all the families, including the children, on the other. And then they pull ha curtain like this. And then it’s strip searched. All the men are strip searched. And that in and of itself…and that’s why… and then they will also harass the families who come to visit. So, you can wait for hours. There’s no bathroom. If you wait, you’re off and outside in the rain. There’s no protection from the rain. Then the guards…so a lot of my students tell their mothers, “Don’t come,” because they are so upset and they’re powerless at seeing their mothers disrespected by the guards. That’s very common. They say, “Just, don’t come.” Then people who have long sentences, the first thing they do is they get the paralegals to write out the divorce papers. I say, “If you don’t walk out of that prison system angry, you don’t have a heart.” And people say, “What keeps you going?” I said, “Well, how can I walk out of that classroom I walk out, they don’t.” But it’s…and Julian’s detention conditions are probably even worse. I mean, they are worse, I think, than my students. And then let’s be clear. I mean, you know, what you’re doing is torture. Solitary confinement. I had a student, he had a cell phone sold to him by a guard. They catch it and they throw him in solitary for a year. I mean, he graduated summa cum laude he’s out now, he’s working as a community organizer. But, if you go back to that year, he’s never gotten over that trauma. And we know from just, you know, studies, six days in solitary confinement will start to really mess your head up. So, these are systems designed to torture, which is of course what they’re doing to Julian, but it’s not just Julian. I think Julian probably gets it worse than they do. In the supermax prisons though…
I taught a… They won’t put the college degree program in the supermax prison in the state of New Jersey because in the words of the warden “It’s a waste of time because they’re all going to die in here anyway.” That’s a quote.
So, I was just buying the books and going in and teaching a course like I had done before with the college program. And I taught — you know these things like teaching Shakespeare in prison? Then all these academics write books about how it changed their lives. Well, I’ve taught Shakespeare in prison and it’s good for them, but it didn’t change their life. I think they couldn’t wait to finish. But I did. I taught Lear, a close read of Lear. It was a whole course, line by line, and I wish I’d taped it because I’d have them do summaries, you know, of like, “So yeah, Lear, he’s got like his posse and like his two bitches and you know, they don’t…” It was hilarious. But, we got to Gloucester of suicide and it turns out a third of my class had tried to kill themselves. A third. And that’s that supermax. I mean, there’s no rec time, they can’t lift weights they will go four or five days without getting out to the yard. It is, yeah it is…And the mood in that prison or that classroom is unlike any other. I teach mostly in maximum security prison, the supermax…it’s unlike any.
And of course, Julian’s held under these same kind of conditions. I mean, he eats in a cell, right? He doesn’t, he eats in his cell.
Stella Assange: Yeah, and these things become kind of…it’s very disturbing how this – I think as you’re exposed to it and as time goes by – you see, I saw this in myself. I kind of took a – I had this moment of objectivity at one point when we were getting our, what’s it called? The bureaucratic stuff you have to do before getting married. You get the registrar to come and, so the registrar came to the prison, had to have us both present and so on. So this was in a different room to where we usually meet, which is a big hall. It was where the legal meetings take place and they are small rooms with a table and some chairs. And I came out of this meeting feeling so fortunate for having spent an hour and a half with Julian in a different space. And it’s very disturbing how you kind of assimilate the restrictions. And normal was in the visit hall and just being with Julian in this different room was, I felt like, I had been really fortunate.
Chris Hedges: That’s what prison does. It reduces you, well, I mean, look, it’s bondage, it’s a form of slavery, really and it reduces you to rejoicing in the broader context insignificant privileges that the master grants you.
Stella Assange: Yes, yes. Have you tried to get into or have you been in ADX Florence?
Chris Hedges: No, it’s really hard to get in.
Stella Assange: This is a prison that Julian will likely be taken to if he…
Chris Hedges: Yeah, so I’ve been in Marion to visit Daniel Hale and he’s in the MCU which replicates – if Julian’s extradited – the conditions he’ll be held under. Like when I was visiting with Daniel…So, I couldn’t…It was behind a glass, behind plexiglass. Let’s remember, this is a guy who never committed a violent crime in his life, like Julian, ever. And so it was me and him talking and the guards were recording and I could hear in the other room, because they turned the volume up, I could hear our conversation being recorded, that they were playing. And that, of course is, you know, Baraitser is a pretty repugnant figure, but she did recognizes the savagery of the American prison system, to her credit. And it is savage, having been in it. It’s really savage. Yeah.
Stella Assange: Has any documentary crew followed you into the prison?
Chris Hedges: They can’t, they won’t allow it. There’s no electronics in the prison. You can’t do that.
Stella Assange: Well, not in Belmarsh either, but then you have some TV programs about Belmarsh that make Belmarsh look good.
Chris Hedges: Or, what my students hate is these shows like Real Prison or whatever it’s called where they are all animals, you know? So you can get TV, but you know, they’re not going to film two hours of us discussing James Baldwin. That would make really good TV. And that’s what all my experience in prison is. So, I love those students. And they come to my house now and, you know, they’re just amazing human beings and I spend a lot of time trying to get them jobs, which is hard. But, they’re really remarkable. I mean, to end up where they have ended up. I mean very few of us could have gone through what they went through and ended up where they end up. They are really remarkable people. Yeah, no they won’t allow it. I mean, I’m in there by sufferance because they don’t want the publicity, which I would of course generate if they threw me out. And I have heard anecdotally the governor said, “I don’t want to so just give them the clearance.” But yeah, they’re amazing human beings. And you know, August Wilson writes about it. So, does Solzhenitsyn. The finest people…I’m sure Julian says that, some of the finest people he’s met from prison. And there was that, remember there was in the prison that act of solidarity on the part of the prisoners on Julian’s behalf? I can’t remember the details of it.
Stella Assange: Yes, I mean, Julian, when he was arrested, he spent a few weeks in the general population and then he was taken to the health care wing.
Chris Hedges: Hell wing, is that what they call it?
Stella Assange: Yeah, it’s a misnomer. And he was there for six months and this was the hardest period because the prison had the…The reasoning from the prison was that he was in severe suicide risk. They had found that he had hidden a razor in his cell. And he was kept in this “health wing” for six months. And you can just imagine in a prison like Belmarsh where you have about 750 prisoners, the health wing is maybe a dozen, a little, yeah, probably about a dozen prisoners. You have the acutely suicidal, the prisoners who are dying, and then people who were having some kind of mental health episode. And that’s who you find there. And they’re kept in isolation from each other. So when he would be let into the yard, that’s who he would find. And he was extremely… Yes, isolated during that period. And he also couldn’t make many phone calls, so it was the prisoners who worked as cleaners in that section who observed Julian’s state and put in a petition to the governor to ask for him to be moved into the general population. and eventually that worked. And the terrible period in the health wing…It’s been bad with COVID and so on. For six months I couldn’t visit him. There were periods where he was in solitary with this health reasoning. There was an outbreak in his wing, about 70% of prisoners…This was even early on in the pandemic. But, it was never as bad as it was when he was in this health wing. And it was thanks to these prisoners that he got moved. And there is that kind of thing in the prison. But, it’s not, you know, Belmarsh is a harsh prison. They keep people isolated a lot of the time. As you said, you eat in your cell. Sometimes, you have association within the wing, which is an hour where you can move in the corridor and speak to other prisoners. But they prefer it not to be that way because from the perspective of an underfunded prison management, the more you have prisoners interacting, the more risk you have of some incident. So, the incentives are just to keep people inside their cells. And of course, that in itself carries all sorts of consequences.
Chris Hedges: Well, it makes their job easier. I mean, so, you know, when I was teaching in Trenton, I would post the class. And I did this, I don’t know, three or four times, and then the prison called and said, “Oh, we posted your class. Nobody wants to take it.” And the social worker at some risk called and said, “They never posted your class”. Because they don’t want the movement. They don’t want to deal with it. It’s something to keep them locked up for 23 hours a day. It’s easier. And that’s always the push in the prisons because any kind of social interaction or an education program requires more work and they don’t want to do it.
Stella Assange: Well, people are used to seeing these prisons ‘Prison Break’, these TV programs where everyone in this mess hall.
Chris Hedges: Mess hall.
Stella Assange: Do you call it that?
Chris Hedges: Mess hall, yeah.
Stella Assange: People interacting for most of the time. It’s nothing like that, at least in Belmarsh. It’s really the exception to the rule that you are out of your cell.
Chris Hedges: Right, so in a supermax prison you don’t get that. In a maximum security prison you will get a mess and a yard and all that kind of stuff. You have sections of the prison, management control units or what they call the hole or just isolation. So, you have sections in the prison where people are under those conditions. But, he’s of course held in a very high security prison. So, that’s typical for how they operate. And really the end is to keep them locked in their cells almost all the time. That’s how they cope with it. I don’t know what does he get, 23 hours a day in the cell?
Stella Assange: Yes, sometimes. You know, you can leave your cell to collect medication. To go the shower. You can leave at certain times. But you know, they knock on the door and say, “Do you want a shower?” and then you come out. Its not like you can open the door…
Chris Hedges: I have a question for you. I asked John (Shipton). I loved Ithaka. But I really loved Ithaka because John didn’t answer any question they asked him. I mean, I love John. I think it’s great, but every time they’d ask him a question, he was completely elliptical. It was so great. It was so funny. I mean, he’s a wonderful guy. But I was here, you know, the night of your wedding, and I said to John something about…I don’t know what came up, because, I don’t know if John’s religious or comes out of a religious tradition, but I do, and I sense he has a kind of… I said something about Julian being an atheist? He goes, “Well, I don’t know.” So I wanted to ask you, because I didn’t explore it with John, and I know Julian likes Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn went into the Gulag an atheist and walked out a Christian. And I’m just curious, and I know that there’s been some support from the Pope and that kind of stuff, I’m just curious about, as somebody went to seminary, what you’ve seen in terms of Julian’s perspective vis-a-vis faith?
Stella Assange: Well, I don t think I can put words in his mouth. I can talk a bit about the process. I think that we ve both experienced through this. And I have seen people react rather viscerally when…For example, when I said that there was a Catholic chaplain in the prison who had blessed our wedding and this kind of thing. And people project a lot of things…
Chris Hedges: Okay, I have to throw in the story because I remember you telling me and I thought it was great. This for me elevated this Catholic chaplain. Like you’re not allowed to hug
but he kept saying, “Now you can kiss the bride. Now you can hold the bride.”
Stella Assange: I think we had both the registrar and the chaplain were…actually everyone in the room, even the guards, were I think quite moved and enthused by the situation. It was worth facilitating. So yeah, I heard John make some comments about how prolonged the kiss was. But I think you can’t go through something like this without going through some process of becoming quite spiritual. And I’ve gone through, I think, a process of…understanding the importance of…community and human connection. And I think it’s something that I’m constantly striving to understand and just kind of trying to make sense of what is happening. And how you can go forward when you have this complete cruelty being…
Chris Hedges: Well, let’s call it what it is, it’s evil.
Stella Assange: Well, it’s evil. It’s evil. And you have to go through a process. You have to process it and you have to go through a process to learn how to manage your emotions and your… and understand humanity and how some things are completely… It’s also made me think a lot about justice and the justice system, which is just like…something that floats on top of reality and then sometimes it activates, sometimes it’s denied. But, then there’s a bigger sense of justice that people have a natural sense of. And then there are some people who are outside of that. What I can say is that inside the prison, the structure of the chaplaincy provides a place for humanity, for connection, in this brutal environment. So, in whatever way, I don’t know how Julian would describe it but I know that he’s found support within that structure and so have I.
Chris Hedges: Well, because it’s stripped down to an existential battle and every time you walk into that prison with your kids, it’s the forces of life confronting, in a very palpable sense the forces of death. I certainly experienced that in war. So palpable that I could feel it. And these are non-rational, not irrational, but non-rational forces that go into…
I mean, I think artists, you come out of an artistic family, deal with it. I think religious thinkers are the best ones who deal with it. But those forces go into making a complete life, and yet we can’t measure them. And because of where Julian is and because of where you are, and because of what you bring, which is really life, sustenance, eros, love. And you bring it into a space where everything is conspiring to crush, love, compassion and empathy. That is an existential experience that…I think, and I see it in my students in the prison, forces them to begin to ask questions that in a protected environment or an environment outside of that starkness, you don’t ask. And that’s why I love Solzhenitsyn.
I taught the Gulag Archipelago in the prison last fall, all three volumes, and I’m a Nazi. I would like, quiz them to make sure they did the reading. But that is the Gulag Archipelago. It is about his spiritual journey. And like Julian, he went into prison with this notoriety and power. He was a captain in the Red Army. He was a brilliant university graduate. And he talks about wearing his officer’s coat for the longest time, ’cause he couldn’t shed himself of that status.’ And then the last volume is about rebellion and resistance. So, I’m not surprised. I mean, that, you know, given, you know, working in a prison and knowing what you confront, you know, it is stripped down to the most basic level of human existence. And those of us who fight for life, when we’re in war, or when we’re in Belmarsh, we see the face of death. We do. And you know that there are forces, powerful forces that are trying to kill Julian. They’re trying to kill him. And you’re Joan of Arc.
Stella Assange: I don’t know if we can finish on that note.
Chris Hedges: Sure, we can.
Stella Assange: Thanks, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.
Chris Hedges: I’m going to cry, too.