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From Anita Barker’s article in the Guardian we learn about the case of Mitchell Rouse, who was convicted of two drug offenses in Houston.
Rouse faced a 60-year prison sentence in Texas, a state with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
It certainly seems the last place in the world that might choose a liberal-minded alternative to prison.
But the former x-ray technician first saw his sentence reduced to 30 years if he pleaded guilty — and then found out he would be put on probation and sentenced to read.
“I was doing it because it was a condition of my probation and it would reduce my community hours,” Rouse says. But he describes being sentenced to a reading group as a “miracle.”
He says the six-week reading course
…changed the way I look at life. It made me believe in my own potential. In the group you’re not wrong, you’re not necessarily right either, but your opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s.
Five years on, Rouse is free of drugs, holding down a job as a building contractor. He is reunited with his family.
He is one of thousands of offenders across the US who are placed on a rehabilitation program called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL).
Repeat offenders of serious crimes such as armed robbery, assault or drug dealing are made to attend a reading group where they discuss literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar, and Of Mice and Men.
The group Rouse joined was run by a part-time lecturer in liberal studies at Rice University in Houston named Larry Jablecki.
Jablecki uses the texts of Plato, Mill and Socrates to explore human concerns such as fate, love, anger, liberty, tolerance, and empathy.
Says Rouse, “I particularly liked some of the ideas in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.” He now wants to do a PhD in philosophy.
All groups are single sex. Books are chosen that resonate with some of the very issues the offenders are facing. Male groups may, for example, read books that deal thematically with male identity.
Sessions of 30 offenders are joined by a judge, a probation officer and an academic. They talk among themselves as equals.
In Brazoria County Texas, between 1997 and 2008, 597 offenders have completed the CLTL course. Only 36 of them, six percent, had their probations revoked and been sent to jail.
Changing Lives Through Literature is the brainchild of a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Robert Waxler.
Waxler convinced his friend, Judge Kane, to do an experiment: take eight criminals who repeatedly came before him, and, instead of sentencing them to prison, place them on a reading program of Waxler’s devising.
The program now runs in eight states, including Texas, Arizona and New York.
The initiative was initially met with criticism, with Waxler and his people described as “bleeding-heart liberals.” Waxler says
They were shocked at the idea of offenders going on to university campuses to read books for free while the students were paying their way through education. Some even thought the offenders would steal from them. It only takes one person to prove them right, but it’s never happened.
How do you win over the public? Great success rates and the cheap cost of running the programs. Rouse’s “rehabilitation” cost $500, instead of the $30,000 it would have taken to keep him in prison for a year.
Waxler points to the experiences of the offenders.
In one group we read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. The story focuses on Santiago, an old fisherman in Cuba, and opens with some heartache: Santiago is not able to catch fish. We talk about him and the endurance he seems to represent, the very fact that he gets up every morning despite the battering he takes.
The following time the group meet, one of the offenders wants to share something. He’d been walking down Main Street and he said he could hear, metaphorically speaking, the voices of his neighborhood. He’d been thinking about returning to his old life, to drugs, but as he listened to those voices, he also heard the voice of Santiago. If Santiago could continue to get up each day and make the right choice then he could do it too.
So a character in a novel had become the offender’s role model.
The huge problem, however, is that reading skills are often weak or non-existent .
Offenders are unlikely to be sentenced to the program if they can’t read, and a great many offenders have never been able to learn to read.
But those with poor reading skills are not completely excluded. Groups may read short stories, or excerpts from a novel may be read aloud so low-level readers can participate.
According to Rouse, it is admittedly hard to judge how much any reading group can turn a life around. He himself had already made a decision to change before first attending his CLTL group.
I didn’t want to lose my family.
But the group did give me the guidance and direction I needed in my life, and without it I’d have spent the rest of my life in jail. It gave me a second chance.
According to Waxler
…one of the great testaments of this program is that it demonstrates clearly that literature can make a difference to people’s lives.
And now a version of CLTL is running in a handful of prisons in the UK.
Called Stories Connect, it operates even though it has yet to get the support of the criminal justice system.
But Stories Connect has achieved a measure of success, and has also recently moved out into the community in Exeter — for people with drug and alcohol problems.
sole source: Anna Barker’s article at http://www.guardian.co.uk on July 21, 2010.
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