James Kilgore's Blog

James Kilgore’s Talk at the University of Johannesburg

I want to thank the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation , and in particular Salim Vally, Mondli Hlatshwayo and Eugenia Sekgobela for organizing this forum and to all of you for coming. But more importantly I want to add a special thanks for all those among you who supported myself and my family over the past years-from those of you who wrote letters to the court in mitigation of sentence to those who sent postcards, letters, books and newsletters to me during my time in prison. In the space where I work at home in Illinois, on the wall in front of me sit three collages of pictures that people sent to me while I was incarcerated. They keep me going, remind me constantly of the power of solidarity and support, the ways in which working together can help make a better world, a more just world possible. Without those acts of solidarity I wouldn’t be here today. Instead I could still be languishing in some prison somewhere or alternatively walking the streets as yet another madman broken by the experience of incarceration.

When I left South Africa on an SAA commercial flight in 2002 in the company of an FBI agent and two U.S. Marshals, I was entrapped in waist chains which my guards carefully covered up with a specially made jacket to make me look like a normal passenger. And as we flew over the African continent a phrase kept coming back into my head: “from Africa to America in chains”.

I realized the odd irony of my situation,that in a certain way I was following a course traveled by millions of Africans hundreds of years ago. Of course, there were several important differences-I was on an airplane, eating nicely prepared meals and watching a movie on the TV, not stashed away in the bottom of some slave ship. And while I was heading for captivity, it would be of a very different kind than that faced by those who had gone before me. Most importantly, I had at least the freedom to promise as I left South Africa that one day I would return to the continent to tell about what I had seen in that far away land called the United States that you hear so much about even though it lies on the other side of the world. So I am here today to keep that promise and talk a little bit about my own experience.

So there are three things I want to discuss here tonight. The first is perhaps the most important, my experience of six and half years of incarceration in the United States. Secondly,  I want to talk about what I do today, my daily life and the struggles for social justice which occupy my time in the quiet town of Champaign, Illinois where I live today. Lastly I would like to talk a little about my development as a writer.


So let me begin by talking about prison, the topic most people feel a little awkward to ask me about. Most people think that when you’ve been to prison and been released you want to put it all behind you, not talk about it, not think about it. I don’t take it that way. My six and a half years in prison are part of my life, as much a part of it as my time in university or my time working at Khanya College or  ILRIG. I learned a lot in prison-not that it was all pleasant lessons, but we know there are not so pleasant lessons to be learned in this world we live in today. Prison is but one expression of the great inequality and injustice that we see in the world today.

I thought I would give you the high points and the low points of my time in prison, rather than simply tell you where I was and how long I spent there. Since we usually like to finish on an upbeat note, I will begin with the low point. 

Low Point

The low point in my prison experience took place in July of 2006. I had just completed a little over three years in the Federal prison system, the one that is run by the national government with President Obama in charge. Since I had convictions on two different cases, one Federal one with the state of California, once I had done my time for the Federal case I had to move to the California state prison system. The time in the Federal penitentiary was not so difficult. There were lots of activities-sports, education, a reasonable library and very little violence. They even had a tennis court. You could, as they put it, do “your own time” there and not be bothered by anyone. Though there were a good number of white supremacists sporting their racist tattoos, they didn’t bother the small number of whites there who had an anti-racist perspective. We could socialize with whoever we wanted to. Also, I had lots of visits from my family, even Terri and my sons came a few times all the way from Cape Town. I got a job as a teacher’s aide and eventually became a computer literacy tutor which gave me access to a PC with a hard drive and a printer. It was as they say, “sweet.”

Then I entered another world when the CDCR sent me to High Desert State Prison. We traveled there chained up at the waist and ankles, wearing paper suits. I never knew they could make a suit out of paper but I had paper trousers, paper underpants and a paper shirt. The temperature during our seven hour bus ride was about 40 degrees, so the paper didn’t hold up that well. Once we got to High Desert, they put me in a gym that had been converted into a dormitory. On my first night, I sat there and got acquainted with two white guys who had been in for about ten years. They asked me a few questions and were quite interested when I told them I had lived in South Africa and worked as a teacher. Then they asked me if I was married. I said I was. Then they asked me if my wife was white or black. When I said she was black, they froze. “This conversation never happened,” they told me, “don’t ever tell anyone that you have a black wife for the rest of the time you are in prison or they will get you. If they find out we know, they will get us as well.” After spending the 1990s in South Africa during the transition from apartheid to democracy I had time traveled backwards, landing in a place where white supremacy and racial hatred was still king. Later I would find out the details of how this system of prison apartheid functioned. The prison population was divided by the administration into a number of racial groups: Northern Mexicans, Southern Mexicans, Mexican nationals, Blacks, Whites, American Indians and a final category they called “other.”  The prison administration followed segregation in terms of cell assignments.  As a white person, I could only live in a cell with another white and so forth. But not only was this system accepted by the authorities, the prison population itself went along with the program. Each racial group had their own leaders, a “shotcaller” as they were called. They set out the rules for their racial troops. Violating those rules could result in punishment, anything from a verbal warning to a fatal stabbing. The shot callers called the shots. For whites the rules meant- no sharing of food or drink with people of “another race”. Giving a black man a sip of your coffee would result in a beating or a stabbing.  But the worst crime of all was to be a “race traitor”- to have black visitors and worst of all-to have a child with a black woman. At High Desert, this would be a death sentence. So I had to send a cryptic letter to my wife and request an emergency visit from her white step dad in order to explain all this. This was a painful decision. I felt like I was betraying my family but it was the only way I could stay alive. Bucking the system was not going to work-the vast majority of the white guys there believed in some form of white supremacy. Even those who were lukewarm to the idea went along with the program as the path of least resistance. So for three and a half years, I didn’t see my family or any of my friends of color.

The racial separation extended to daily life in the prison. There were showers for whites and showers for blacks, telephones for whites and telephones for blacks. On the yard, there were separate recreational facilities for each race, separate tables. As a white person if I went and sat at the table reserved for blacks, I would be beaten up, not by the blacks, but by the whites who would be punishing me because I was threatening to precipitate a race war by disrespecting another race. There was a system of peaceful coexistence established, underpinned by racial hatred. To anyone familiar with South African history, this was the strategy of divide and conquer with each shotcaller the equivalent of a Mangope or Gqozo. And of course, the shotcallers did benefit from this, receiving token favors from the prison authorities-a pair of takkies, a radio, a set of headphones. Crumbs from the master’s table but enough to keep the prison population divided and unable to protest effectively against the increasingly repressive ways in which the California version of criminal justice operated.

 High Point-Family Connections and Teaching

So that was the low point-finding apartheid alive and well in California, in the prison system some have called the Golden Gulag. I’ll talk a little bit more about the prison system in the U.S. later on but let me now move to the high points. There are two. The first were the visits from friends and family, but most importantly the visits from my mother who was able to visit me every week during my first nineteen months of incarceration. We were able to re-connect after nearly three decades apart. That was momentous. The other high point took place some two years after my arrival in High Desert. By that time I was well-established as a teacher’s aide. I specialized in teaching maths for the high school diploma equivalency course. The teacher who supervised me was a fairly liberal-minded person by prison educator standards. She even addressed everyone as Mr. So and So which was a step up from most. But she was an old-fashioned in terms of method-just stood in front of the class and talked, then gave them work to do from their textbooks. By this time I had been handling all the maths sessions for about six months. She knew about my background as an educator and trusted me to do a decent job. In the midst of this came the global economic crisis. When this kicked off, I sat and reminisced about my days as an educator in South Africa and thought what a wonderful teaching and learning opportunity this would be. I dreamt of sitting in a workshop full of SAMWU shop stewards or community activists and going through ins and outs of the financial whirlwind that was sweeping across the globe. I knew that things like the spike in food prices would be especially severe in South Africa and unpacking the complexity of the global commodity markets and agricultural subsidies would have been a fabulous opportunity for an educator. Then all of a sudden, it dawned on me that I could try this all right where I was-with the men in the class.  They weren’t as conscientized as people in organizations in South Africa, but they came from the poor and oppressed sectors of U.S. society. Their communities were the ones who would feel the economic pinch of global crisis in the worst way. I convinced myself that these issues would have meaning for them as well, even if they didn’t have structures to report back to. So I came up with a rough idea for a workshop plan which included things that had never been tried before in this school-group work, the use of flip charts, role plays, and a host of other activities. Then I went to my boss and ran the suggestion past her. She told me it was all fine as long as I made sure to break people into groups by race. She said she had tried group work about four years back in another prison and the men had rebelled when they entered a class and found the desks arranged in circles. They refused to sit down, claiming the teacher was trying to get them killed by making them sit with the wrong people-their racial enemies. I told her that I wouldn’t follow the segregated path, that there was already enough racial segregation in this prison. I told her I would approach every member of the class individually and find out if they would agree to this arrangement. She said if I could get everyone’s approval, I could do it. So I went around to each person individually and they all agreed to do the workshop.  Some just said they didn’t think the rules of segregation applied to education. Others said they were fed up with this racist politics, something they would never say in the more public space of the yard.

So when the workshop day arrived, I had printed out worksheets, courtesy of my boss, plus a packet of flip charts and lots of kokies. I began with an input on economic measurements and different approaches to economic crisis theory. Then  I talked a little bit about the background to the present crisis, particularly looking at the ways in which it affected different people in different parts of the world. Then I had them do a short reading and answer some questions. They did this with great enthusiasm, carefully recording their responses on the flip charts. I also asked them to make a drawing which showed the complexities of the crisis. One man drew a lovely cartoon of a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of worthless currency notes.

All told I did three of these workshops. The highlight was a simulation of UN discussion on the crisis, with each group representing a different constituency in the global economy. One group was an unemployed Haitian woman of four, another was a family farmer in the Midwest of the U.S.who benefited from agricultural subsidies. Still another was a farmer in West Africa, while a final group spoke as a representative of the Chinese government. The last workshop dealt with the home mortgage crisis and the sub-prime loan scandal. It was so successful that one of the class members told me that he had schooled his visitors over the weekend about what was really behind it all and that his family was amazed that someone in prison could be teaching them about all this.

Unfortunately, after that, my boss got transferred to another class, and she was replaced by a retired military man who had no interest in education or critiques of the global economy. My attempt to bring the methods of popular education, the pedagogy of the oppressed as it were, into the prison had drawn to a close. Nonetheless, I still felt it was a triumph, proving that there was something to this method of participatory education even in this very difficult context. Plus, I also felt it had contributed to a certain confidence building process among the learners, even in the short time span we had to put it into practice. But of course, I also felt that, unbeknownst to my learners, I had brought a taste of South Africa’s democratic movement and educational methodology, a bit of Khanya College and ILRIG if you will,  to this cauldron of racial hatred and pushed the racial boundaries just a little bit. They still, however, had a long way to go. I know the majority of the some 140,000 people still sitting in prison in California continue to live in that  horrible environment of racial hatred.


Now allow me to fast forward to my release and post-prison reality. At midnight on May 10, 2009 a parole officer met me at the front gate of High Desert State Prison and told me to get into an SUV.  We started driving down a back road in the dark. There were no street lights, no houses, nothing in sight except dry brush and dusty soil, much like the more barren parts of the Karoo. I asked him what the plan was. He told me they had a plan but he couldn’t tell me what it was. That didn’t make me feel at ease. They could have done anything to me there on that backwoods road and no one would have been the wiser. But despite my fears, he delivered me to his office in town where we spent the next two hours filling in forms and getting pictures taken, etc. Then at some point, they brought in Terri and we hugged while the parole officer and a couple of his mates looked on. A bittersweet first encounter, but still far more sweet than bitter. A few minutes later we were released and within 36 hours we were in our house in the placid little university town of Champaign, Illinois, nestled in the vast maize fields of what must be one of the flattest areas on the globe. I often say that whoever came up with the theory that the earth was flat must have lived somewhere in our neck of the woods.

Settling into Champaign

So I settled into re-connecting with my family. My sons had done a very horrible thing in my absence-they had grown taller than me. It was difficult to get used to looking up to them but I gradually learned how. Also, my mother had moved to Champaign so our family was together in a way it had never been before. Terri had managed to pull all this together and also land a job at the local University to pay the bills. As a freshly released man with a felony conviction, my job prospects were a bit dim.

At first I saw Champaign through a narrow lens-it looked like nothing more than a bastion of privilege-a very white town where everyone lived off the fat of the 42,000 students who attend the University of Illinois there. But gradually I began to realize that it had an invisible history like many places in the Midwest and an invisible present as well. The invisible history included decades of racial segregation. I found out that the African-American grandmother of one of my son’s soccer teammates was one of the first Black students at the university but that they didn’t allow her to eat in the dining commons but she had to take her lunch in a closet. I also found out that the University only let black students into the residences in 1970 and that many Illinois towns around Champaign had been Sundown Towns-places where black people had to be out of town before the sun went down. If you search for sundown towns on the Internet you’ll find there were hundreds of these across the U.S.

And my prison experience had taught me a lot about the nature of the criminal justice system in the U.S. I could see that on every prison yard where I lived, the vast majority of people were young African-Americans and Latinos. When I got out I began to study this system of what people call mass incarceration. Since 1980 with the War on Drugs and other get tough on crime policies the U.S. prison population has grown from less than half a million to 2.3 million, giving the U.S. the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. This population is some 70% African-American and Latino. While research has shown that drug usage and drug selling among young whites and young Blacks is relatively equal, Blacks are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug usage. African-Americans in the U.S. are now incarcerated on a per capita basis at a higher rate than blacks under apartheid in South Africa.  The state of California where I was incarcerated spends more on prisons than on higher education. Prison guards have higher salaries than teachers. Some earn in excess of R750 000 a year, while the state is busy closing down health care facilities, child care programs and constantly raising the fees for university education. In the state of Illinois, only 15 percent of the population is African-American but 58 percent of those in prison are black.

In Champaign County, where I live, the County Board is considering a proposal to spend $20 million on a new jail. They have built two jails in the last 35 years, but they want more. While they cut back on education spending and close health care facilities and drug treatment programs, they always seem to find money to build more prisons and jails. None of this surprises me, of course because during my time in South Africa we studied the ways in which the role of the state has changed under globalization. The state no longer plays a welfare role but focuses on security-building up the police, the military and the prison system. So a big part of my work has been with a group called Champiagn-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice.  We are running a campaign to stop them from building this jail. We are mobilizing people from various constituencies in this effort. Right before I left, I wrote an article in the newspaper with Ken Salo, a South African who also lives in Champaign. We wrote about the need for popular participation in the planning and spending of taxpayers money, the need to put people before profits. We have brought some of the spirit and the method of the democratic movement in South Africa to this quiet little Midwestern town. I am proud to say that I carry that past with me, that it will always be a part of what I do wherever I am.

 Writing Fiction

Lastly let me talk a little bit about my writing. During my time in prison, I developed into a fiction writer. I didn’t write or read much fiction before my incarceration but in prison you read everything you can get your hands on. I would have loved to have continued writing the kinds of educational materials I used to write for ILRIG, but there was no constituency, no organisations who could make use of them. Plus, I didn’t have access to Internet, email, even a decent library to do research. So I turned to another style of writing. For me writing was more than just a way to pass time or to produce something. It was a way of staying connected to the two decades of my life that I had spent in southern Africa, keeping alive emotional ties to people, organisations and struggles in this region. Also thinking and writing every day about southern Africa, even if it was fiction, helped strengthen my ties to my family and friends who were still here.

Writing fiction, though was a big challenge. I wrote a first draft of a novel on a manual typewriter and sent a very messy manuscript to a friend of mine who had just finished a Ph.D. in literature in the U.K. I was quite sure that she would declare my work a masterpiece and tell me I was headed for greatness. Prison does distort your notions of reality sometimes.  So not surprisingly when she wrote back, she told me that my novel lacked all the key elements of fiction-like an interesting story, characters who seemed authentic and dialog that sound like real human beings talking. She didn’t say it was rubbish but I could read between the lines. So I went back to square one and found a set of books on how to write fiction in the prison library and read through them. Then I read a lot more novels- all the way from Dickens and Herman  Melville’s Moby Dick to the latest by Zakes Mda and Ngugi wa Thiongo. And gradually I managed to piece together 570 pages of a handwritten manuscript for We Are All Zimbabweans Now which was finally published in 2009 by Umuzi, just after my release from prison. This book would never have come to fruition without the support of many, many people —most importantly a set of friends of mine from Australia with whom I had taught in Zimbabwe.  Led by Stephen Morrow, they took on the task of decoding my horrible handwriting and entering onto a computer file, with my mother-in-law, Pat Barnes-McConnell as the middle woman. Since the prison had a rule that I couldn’t receive more than ten printed pages in any single envelope, she dutifully photocopie’d all their printouts,packaged them into separate ten page bundles and sent them off to me for proofreading. Amazing what friends and solidarity can do. This is why I never give up.

So after that I wrote several other novels. The second of these deals with water struggles in South Africa. It’s called Freedom Never Rests. I think that’s true. Freedom Never Rests, it’s a moving target. When you think you are free it turns out you are not as free as you think you were. When South Africa had elections in 1994, many people thought they had arrived at freedom. But freedom seems to have moved down the road. I thought when I was released from prison I was free, but how can I be free when so many others remain behind in those prisons where I left them? Freedom is something we keep fighting for and we make the path to freedom by walking it. No one blazes that trial for us.

Nowadays, my fiction writing combines my Southern African experience with my prison experience. My most recent book, released just last month in the U.S. is called Prudence Couldn’t Swim. It’s a murder mystery where the person who is murdered is a Zimbabwean woman living in the United States illegally. Those who solve the murder are white ex-convicts, much like many of those I met in High Desert and other places. They are joined in solving this murder by a friend of the victim, a South African woman named Mandisa Jack who also lives in the U.S. I am trying to write interesting stories here but also to unpack that white supremacy that dominates the California state prison system and show that these poor whites can become better human beings, can become more than just a mindless billboard for racist tattoos.

 So that’s where I’m at today, some nine and a half years after the South African Police plucked me off the streets of Cape Town. It has been a long and sometimes twisted road that brought me here tonight. But fortunately for me lots of comrades and friends have been there for major parts of this journey and my family—Terri, my 99 year old mother, my sons Lewis and Lonnie, my mother and father-in -law have been there for the distance. I have had a wild and crazy life but I still have a lot of struggle left in me and in the end I consider myself a lucky man to be here tonight with all of you. It can’t get much better than this.

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