For Violent and Lost Boys, Crime Stories Offer Hope
Susan Notes: One could wish more schools would find books with which students can connect.
By Dinitia Smith
ORLANDO, Fla. — On a recent weekday afternoon, Dennis Lehane, the best-selling crime writer, stood in front of 17 imprisoned teenagers, trying to establish his street credentials. He grew up in a violent neighborhood, he told them, Dorchester, in Boston. “One or two made it out of my neighborhood,” he said. “Sixteen other guys went down.”
Mr. Lehane was on a tour to publicize his new story collection, “Coronado” (HarperCollins), and had made an unusual stop: at the Youthful Offender Program at the Orange County Jail here. The participants had been reading “Coronado” as part of a class called, in an effort to use language familiar to teenagers, “Literature n’ Living.”
Most of the boys, who are 14 to 17, had been accused of crimes so serious that they were being tried as adults. Some were awaiting trial, others serving sentences of less than a year. Many of the characters in “Coronado,” are, like the prisoners, young, lost and violent, and the book had been assigned to them by John Richter, the program’s coordinator, in an effort to get them to read — anything.
Mr. Richter had tested the boys to make sure they understood the book, and had them write reports, which they were now delivering to Mr. Lehane, whose 2001 novel, “Mystic River,” was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood. In addition to meeting Mr. Lehane, the boys would get another prize: a contact visit with their families (most visits at the jail are conducted by video screen), plus a real dinner: fried chicken, pizza, submarine sandwiches, collard greens.
Brian Mitchell, 17, accused of hiring a hit man to kill a witness in a murder case, focused his book report on a searing story called “Until Gwen.” After serving his sentence, a young man is picked up from prison by his father in a stolen truck, with a prostitute in the back. The father wants his son to reveal the whereabouts of a stolen jewel. The story reaches a violent climax and contains a terrible revelation: “He got mean, told you you aren’t his anyway, some whore’s kid he found in a barrel, decided might come in useful on a missing-baby scam they were running back then.”
Brian, an aloof, self-contained boy, read from his report in an assured voice: “I was able to relate this story to many aspects of my own life. I also grew up different from most people, isolated because of my physical handicap.” When he was an infant both of his legs were amputated at the knee because of a birth defect.
After the reports were read, there were questions. Dexter Johnson, 17, charged with shooting a man and robbing him of his cellphone, read a question written in advance: “What’s helped you drive through the obstacles in your life to achieve your ambition?” he asked, reading intently, his voice halting.
Mr. Lehane was succinct: “No. 1, my parents,” he replied. “No. 2, just seeing the waste around me.”
In one of the book’s stories, “Gone Down to Corpus,” the narrator’s father is a depressed drunk who sits on his front porch weeping. The boy goes with a group of friends to the house of a rich family, intending to trash it. The story ends with him on a bed with a girl and a gun at his side, waiting for the family to return. “I wonder what I’ll do,” the character muses. “Make that pudgy man draw. I don’t know. I know that at the moment I hate the pudgy man.” Tyler Kucera, 16, charged with robbing a man and threatening to blow his leg off with a shotgun, asked Mr. Lehane in a shy voice, strangled in back of his throat, “What happened when the residents of the house came home?”
But Mr. Lehane had ended on that question, and he refused to say what happened.
When Mr. Richter first arrived at the unit in 1992, the youths were fighting among themselves and refusing to attend the jail’s high school program. “A lot of them didn’t know how to read,” he said. They were ashamed, he said, and school was their nemesis, the symbol of all their failures.
Before being imprisoned, he said, more than half the boys had dropped out, been expelled or suspended from their regular schools.
“In order for them to learn to read you have to get them to focus on a piece of writing so they will struggle through it with a teacher,” Mr. Richter said. “ You have to be motivated,” he said. “You can’t use ‘Dick and Jane.’ ” He tried a production of “Julius Caesar” with a gang theme, and got only so-so results. Around 1995 he found a book he thought might interest the boys, Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress.” “It was relatively easy to read, and you have black characters,” he said. Most of the prisoners are black or Hispanic. The book worked, and so did the incentives of contact visits with families. “Literature n’ Living ” was born.
Mr. Richter began sending copies of the teenagers’ book reports and photographs of classes to authors, hoping to entice them to visit the jail. Ernest J. Gaines was the first author to come, in 2001, after the group read “A Lesson Before Dying” (Random House), about a black youth sentenced to death. He has visited twice. Brian Jacques, author of the “Redwall” series, about mice who fight off evil rats, foxes and other predators, has also visited twice, on a book tour for his publisher, Penguin, from England. “They’d say, ‘Why am I reading about mice?’ ” Mr. Richter remembered. “I’d say, ‘Shuddup and read the book.’ Now they love ’em.” So far, 12 authors have visited.
Mr. Richter, 56, who has been working in prisons for 33 years, has no statistics testifying to the program’s success or its effect on recidivism rates. But, he said: “When we first began there were lots of incidents of violence. It was nothing for somebody to walk into that unit and see three or four kids waiting in shackles to be put in disciplinary lockdown.” Nowadays, he said, “we have very few incidents of violence. We may have a fight once every three months.”
For Tyler, charged with armed robbery, the program, “brings you into a whole new life for a brief period. Whatever you’re facing here, you can put it aside.”
The boys stay at the jail for an average of four to eight months. Eighty-five percent are convicted and go to adult prisons where there are few programs like this. What’s the point of offering them this brief look at literature? “If there is a salvageable lot, it’s these kids,” Mr. Richter said. “You can see it after they’ve been here a while. Their eyes grow a little less hard. They begin to believe there is hope for them.”
“They realize they don’t have to be dirtbags,” he said, “though they might think they have to be.”
New York Times
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