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Read a Book, Get Out of Jail

Susan Notes:

I regard this as lighting a
candle rather than cursing the darkness. We
must place these candles wherever we
can.


By Leah Price

In a scuffed-up college classroom in Dartmouth,
Mass., 14 people page through a short story by
T. C. Boyle. They debate the date at which the
action is set: when was the Chevy Bel Air
released, and what was the drinking age in New
York State that year? They question moral
responsibility: when the three friends in the
Bel Air assault a girl, should peer pressure be
blamed for their impulse, or hormones, drink,
sin? To which the man at the head of our table
rejoins: âThereâs a kind of complexity to human
experience that isnât always recognized. You
try to figure out whoâs right and whoâs wrong,
but sometimes both are wrong, right?â

Of the 14 people, a dozen are male. One is an
English professor, one is a graduate student,
two are judges and two are probation officers.
The eight othersare convicted criminalswho have
been granted probation in exchange for
attending, and doing the homework for, six
twice-monthly seminars on literature. The class
is taught through Changing Lives Through
Literature, an alternative sentencing program
that allows felons and other offenders to
choose between going to jail or joining a book
club. At each two-hour meeting, students
discuss fiction, memoirs and the occasional
poem; authors range from Frederick Douglass to
John Steinbeck to Toni Morrison, topics from
self- mutilation and family quarrels to the
Holocaust and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Robert Waxler, a professor of English at the
University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and the
man at the head of the table, founded the
reading program in 1991 with Superior Court
Judge Robert Kane and Wayne Saint Pierre, a
probation officer; since then, it has expanded
to eight other states. Led by literature
professors, the program has brought thousands
of convicts to college campuses even as the
withdrawal of Pell grants from prisoners (who
were ruled ineligible for federal college
financing in 1994) drove a wedge between the
two state-funded institutions where young
adults do time. Meanwhile, rehabilitative
reading has spread from Waxlerâs original all-
male seminar to similar women-only and mixed-
sex groups, to one-time experiments like the
seminar on âThe Road Not Takenâ to which a
Vermont judge last year sentenced 28 young
partyers who broke into Robert Frostâs old
house, leaving a trail of booze and vomit.
Picture âRemembrance of Things Pastâ as a
literary ankle bracelet that keeps you chained
to the desk for months.

The terms Waxler uses at the opening session
have one foot in literary criticism and another
in psychotherapy: âexploration,â âambiguity,â
âjourneying.â But new-age gerunds give way to
old-fashioned imperatives when the professor
hands off to the probation officer: good cop,
bad cop. Or rather, ambivalent cop.

âI donât want to be all negative,â the officer
begins, âbut you have to read this book.â Not
as in âThis is a must-read,â but âWeâve had
people go to jail for not reading.â

Any schoolchild knows thereâs nothing new about
required reading. But since the Vietnam draft
ended, college professors like me have rarely
had the obligation, or the opportunity, to hand
bad students over to the secular arm. One
instructor, Terri Hasseler of Bryant University
in Rhode Island, pauses to search for a
euphemism before explaining that âitâs a
condition of their . . . situation that they
have to do the reading.â

Changing Lives Through Literature looks less
exotic when you remember how many probation
sentences require attendance at 12-step
programs. There, too, stories provide a
catalyst â with the difference that in Waxlerâs
program, the narratives belong to fictional
characters, not to participants themselves.
Here, oversharers are politely cut off; one man
whispers the rest of an autobiographical
anecdote to the guy next to him, another waits
for the break. Yet the professor talks of
âworking through,â and as I listen to the words
students use to describe literary characters,
itâs hard not to hear echoes of time spent in
rehab: âHe made some bad choices.â âShe hadnât
figured out a healthy way to deal with the
problem.â âHe hit bottom before he realized
that it just wasnât him.â

Oprahâs Book Club has taught us all to reduce
(or elevate) books to prompts for cathartic
discussion of childhood traumas, relationship
conflicts and self-esteem deficits. Like
Oprahâs reading list, the programâs canon is
dominated by fiction and memoir. But the
demographics of the program differ
substantially from your average book club,
which is disproportionately white and even more
disproportionately female and middle-class.
Even without uniforms, itâs easy to tell whoâs
a student and whoâs an official. The course
depends, however, on suspending those
differences. âThe stories serve as a mirror for
everyone,â Waxler told me, ânot just the
offenders â the professors, the probation
officers, the judge.â The average court
official is more literate than the average
convict, but not necessarily more literary: for
the judge, too, classroom discussion can be a
revelation.

Reading has always provided a lifeline for
prisoners, whether for utilitarian purposes or
for spiritual searching. (In 2006, when Beard
v. Banks upheld a prisonâs right to deny
inmates access to printed matter, religious and
legal texts were among those excepted.) A
broader literary tradition stretching from
medieval English dream visions to
Solzhenitsynâs novels situates the most intense
and uninterrupted reading in prison. (Waxler
points out that âcellâ can refer to the space
in which monks write as easily as to a room in
jail.) Traditionally, books have offered
virtual escape from physical confinement. In
alternative sentencing programs, though, books
provide a more literal alternative to
incarceration; and the authoritiesâ job is not
to censor books, but to supply them.

Itâs easy to dismiss the program as utopian, or
worse. Waxler reports being berated by parents
paying college tuition for the same classes
that felons receive free. If the program works,
its economic logic is unassailable: running it
costs roughly $500 a head, Waxler says, as
opposed to about $30,000 for a year of
incarceration. But thatâs a big if. The most
conclusive study, which shows program
participants achieving half the recidivism rate
of a control group, involved fewer than 100
people. More important, the literacy level
needed to participate makes its population a
self-selecting one, and even among those
students with the skills to participate, many
never make it to the final session. On the day
I attended, one man missed class because his
halfway house had imposed lockdown, another
because a new conviction had landed him back in
jail.

âPoetry,â W. H. Auden once wrote, âmakes
nothing happen.â But Waxler insists that
âliterature can make a differenceâ â more
specifically, that lives are touched by printed
art as they canât be by the act of sitting
around a table arguing about a movie, a song, a
self-help book or oneâs own childhood. The
probation officer begins by telling
participants that âthis program isnât a
miracle,â but it works in mysterious ways.
Perhaps reading stories allows participants to
form narratives (whether conscious or not)
about their own past and future. In a study of
more traditional 12-step programs, the
criminologist Shadd Maruna has argued that
recovery from addiction requires the ability to
distinguish a âbeforeâ from an âafter.â
Searching for terms to explain the mechanism by
which literature âchangesâ readers,
participants come up with âturning points,â
âepiphanies,â even âgrace.â âWhen itâs
working,â Waxler says, âthis discussion has a
kind of magic to it.â

Thereâs nothing surprising about the idea that
certain books teach lessons, whether the Bible
or âThe Last Lecture.â Here, though, the medium
becomes the message: the act of reading changes
â or, as we used to say, converts â the reader,
even when the texts being read contain no
explicit moral injunctions. Like Sunday school
pupils, graduates of Changing Lives Through
Literature are given a book along with their
diploma. It hardly matters that the traditional
leatherette Bible is replaced by a sleek black
volume from the Library of America.

Leah Price is a professor of English at
Harvard and the author of âThe Anthology and
the Rise of the Novel.â

— Leah Price
New York Times


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