Changing Lives Through Literature

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An alternative to incarceration

By Kerri Price

Have you ever read a novel that has impacted your life in a profound and meaningful way, or made you feel as though you’re not alone? Literature has the power to transform lives. This is the driving philosophy behind Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL), an award-winning alternative sentencing program that has grown from one chapter in Massachusetts in the fall of 1991, to roughly 20 chapters across the United States and England today.

The program began as a collaboration between Dr. Robert Waxler, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts; Judge Robert Kane; and Wayne St. Pierre, a New Bedford District Court (MA) probation officer. With overburdened prisons unable to adequately attend to the rehabilitation needs of prisoners, they recognized the need to find alternatives to incarceration.

The process starts with the probation officer, who locates potential students and determines if the program is appropriate for them. Decisions are based on a variety of factors, including the participants’ reading level, whether they have job conflicts, and, if relevant, where they are in their drug or alcohol rehabilitation process. The program includes a wide range of offenders, both violent and non-violent, including those convicted of armed robbery, assault and battery, and with some participants having spent half of their lives in jail. According to Dr. Waxler, “CLTL demonstrates that literature can make a difference for those with a history of non-violent crimes, but also for those with a history of violence. Literature, I believe, can help alleviate violence. Literature can always make a difference in our lives.”

A typical class usually includes between eight and ten offenders and an instructor, often with the judge and parole officer attending as well. The group meets either weekly or biweekly for a period of between twelve and sixteen weeks and reads and discusses short stories and novels. The texts chosen allow participants to realize the connection between themselves and the fictional characters, causing them to reflect on their own experiences and behaviors. Selections taught include, among many others, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny's Blues.” When asked his favorite novel or short story to teach, Dr. Waxler responded, “That is a tough one, and I would probably answer it differently tomorrow. But, right now, I would say the novel Affliction by Russell Banks. That story is very powerful and seems to resonate at a deep level with most of the participants around the table. It is disturbing and so really shakes us all up. Exactly what great literature should do.”

As you may have guessed, libraries often play an important role in the success of CLTL programs, from offering meeting space to providing the books used by participants. Among the many successful programs operating in the United States and England, The Johnson County Library in Kansas is particularly noteworthy. This summer at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA, the library will be awarded the Marshall Cavendish Excellence in Library Programming award for their successful program, entitled Literature in the Justice System: The Surprising Antidote. It encompasses three successful literature programs: Read to Succeed, a program for teens incarcerated at the Juvenile Detention Center; Stories about Women, an adaptation of Read to Succeed for women in the Johnson County Corrections Adult Residential Center; and Changing Lives Through Literature.

The Johnson County Library program has had a positive impact on its participants as well as the community at large. The Johnson County Department of Corrections and the district courts have reported an impressive decline in recidivism rates, a common outcome in communities that host CLTL programs. A study by Jarjoura and Krumholz, published in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation (volume 28, 1998) shows “a reconviction rate of 18.75% in [a CLTL] study group, compared with 45% in a comparison group.”

But looking at success on a more personal level, Dr. Waxler relates a memorable experience he once had with a participant: “One of my favorite stories is about a young man who told the class one night that Santiago, the main character in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, had essentially kept him from returning to drugs in his old neighborhood. It was the heroic endurance of Santiago that had inspired this young man. If Santiago could keep going despite all his pain, this participant could keep going too, rather than turning off the main track back to his old haunt. Literature had made the difference here.”

This is one success story among many. As time goes on, the program’s success is undeniable, inspiring many participants to further pursue educational opportunities and to change their lives in positive, meaningful ways. For more information about CLTL, visit their website.