The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.
By Shari Randall
The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.
The following post is a followup to a 2010 blog found here, focusing on the efforts and success of the Speakout! adult literacy program.
By Vani Kannan
Those of us who have facilitated with the Colorado State University Community Literacy Center have seen the excitement when the Speakout! journals are published. It’s gratifying to pass them out to the workshop participants so they can see the fruits of their labor in print. However, we may not see what happens to the journals after they’re published. We know that they circulate around Fort Collins, the state, country, and indeed, the globe (CLC Director Tobi Jacobi brought journals with her to a conference in Prague this past year). But how are they being pedagogically employed in community literacy work?
Before I came to CSU, I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor at a public library in Brooklyn, NY. The students I worked with gravitated towards community literacy publications, particularly those that showcased the voices of language-learning writers. Students checked out the books from the library after our Saturday classes and brought them home to read during the week. They often came to class on Saturday having finished an entire collection of writing, and looking for something new.
Unfortunately, we ran out of such books quickly. It’s hard to find publications specifically tailored to adult literacy students—particularly language-learners and first-time writers. Students at the library responded well to texts with content that was relevant to their lives (e.g., essays on work and family), but written at an accessible reading level. The small grassroots press that had put out the collections we used at the library had gone out of business years earlier. Because of this, the library literacy center coordinators had to look to South African and Canadian publishers. (Of course, this meant that students learning English in the U.S. were learning from texts with non-U.S. spelling conventions!)
Adult literacy publishing is not a lucrative field, which is why it hasn’t taken off in the U.S. This is part of why the CLC’s work in publishing a grassroots journal is so important. As a facilitator in Brooklyn, I saw firsthand how vital it is for adult literacy students to recognize themselves in their readings. The adult voices in community literacy publications resonated and thus excited students about the act of reading. This excitement led them to read consistently at home, which improved their literacy levels tremendously in between our weekly classes.
When a friend started volunteering at a local literacy program in Philadelphia earlier this year, she called me and described her student—a woman who reads at a fourth-grade level and wants to try writing poetry for the first time. Unfortunately, the community literacy space where the volunteers and students meet does not have any texts available at all—let alone adult-specific texts—due to the fact that they operate out of a shared space where they cannot store materials. I sent her a copy of a recent Speakout! journal. She reports that her student was excited by the publication and took it home to read on her own the very same day. No doubt her literacy skills will benefit from reading the work of CLC workshop participants.
Vani Kannan is working on her MA in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She volunteers with CSU’s Speakout! program and has been involved in community literacy work since 2008.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.
By Joe Suhre
If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.
Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.
The modern courtroom
In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.
I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.
I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.
Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”
Javert against drinking and driving
One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.
I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.
“If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!”
The crucible of humanity
I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.
The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.
If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.
Victor Hugo himself stated,
“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”
Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.
By Wendy Robertson
Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.
Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.
Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.
In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’
When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.
My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.
We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.
These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.
Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.
My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.
In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.
The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.
On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.
The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.
After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” - both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here.
By Nancy E. Oliveira, Editor
Plan Now for Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week— July 21-27, 2013
Now is the time to start planning how you will acknowledge the American Probation and Parole Association’s Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week— July 21-27, 2013. This will be a time to recognize the accomplishments of the thousands of dedicated people working in our criminal justice system in the areas of pretrial services, probation, and parole.
The APPA says of these professionals: “They are Changing Lives and Building Futures every day.”
For more information: Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week
Image provided by appa-net.org.
Next Week: Summer Reading Info-graphic
Next week, before going on summer vacation, we will post a wonderful and fun summer reading info-graphic and article. Whether you’re looking for a book to read yourself or to share with a Changing Lives Through Literature group or other reading group, next week’s info-graphic will help you choose enjoyable and meaningful reading material.
Blog Takes Summer Break
This blog will go on summer break effective May 19, 2013. We will resume posting new material in September.
We’ve recently launched our 65th Infographic in the FryDayPoll series: “Should The Death Penalty Be Abolished?” It explores the history of the death penalty being practiced as a form of punishment across the globe. There are several facts and statistics that suggest a trend towards abolishing it. This well-researched infographic gives a clear picture of death penalty practices and various other factors that influence its adoption as a form of punishment.
Image provided by Saroj Kumar – MapsofWorld.com
By Kyle T. Green
With the issue of prison overpopulation on the nation’s collective mind, a closer look at alternative sentencing trends may help to provide answers. Since 1997, total state and federal incarceration rates have gradually increased, by a total of about ten percent to date. The increase corresponds with a consistent decreasing trend in alternative sentencing such as probation, probation with confinement, and prison with community confinement. Perhaps more surprisingly, is the sizable disparity in alternative sentencing between citizens and non-citizens, linking the incarceration rate growth to the rise in non-citizen offenders in the federal sentencing population.
Alternative Sentencing Disparity
In a report entitled “Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System,” the United States Sentencing Commission found that, while non-citizens represent only 8.6% of the nation’s population, they comprise upwards of 15% of the total prison population and nearly 30% of the Federal prison population. According to the study, sentencing policies differ vastly between U.S. citizens and non-citizens, as non-citizens rarely receive alternative sentencing. For the purpose of comparing rates and procedures of citizens and non-citizens in the federal system, the USSC divides offender sentences into four zones:
- Zone A: 0-6 month confinement—probation only; probation with confinement; prison with community confinement; imprisonment
- Zone B: 1-12 months confinement—probation with community confinement can be substituted for imprisonment; one month of the total term imposed must be imprisonment
- Zone C: 8-16 months confinement—imprisonment for at least half of the minimum range of the sentence, with the remaining half in community confinement
- Zone D: 1 year-life—no probation or community confinement
The vast majority (between 86% and 95%) of non-citizens in Zones A, B and C were sentenced to prison, while far less U.S. citizens in corresponding zones were sentenced to imprisonment.
U.S. citizen offenders in Zone A have consistently been sentenced to probation at a rate of approximately 75 percent. Probation for non-citizen offenders in the corresponding zone had dropped to 13.1% in 2007, making the ratio of alternative sentencing almost six to one, of U.S. citizens versus non-citizens.
Trends are similar in Zones B and C: 30-50% of citizens are sentenced to probation versus 3-4% of non-citizens. Only in Zone D do sentences correlate. Zone D sentences do not fluctuate as much due to the harshness of the crimes involved. The great majority of both U.S. citizens and non-citizens are sentenced to prison for Zone D-related crimes.
Sentencing Policy and Antiquated Law
The explanation of this disparity lies in a mix of sentencing policy and antiquated law. For instance, illegal aliens are subject to deportation and account for approximately 80.3% of non-citizen Federal offenders. The Bureau of Prisons assigns deportable aliens to confinement at their second highest custody level, requiring institutional supervision and prohibiting work details or other programs outside the secure institution.
At the same time, since 1917 there has been a law which provides that immigrants can be deported only after they have served their sentences here in the U.S., in order to ensure that they were adequately punished. Therefore, an illegal immigrant who is convicted of a crime, even an immigration offense, is automatically sent to Federal prison, where they must serve their sentence with little to no chance for parole or other alternatives before they can be deported.
Deportation Loophole as a Solution to Prison Overpopulation
Now, a loophole does exist that allows immigrants to be deported without serving their full sentences if they were convicted of non-violent offenses. However, the appropriate power must request early deportation and correction officials almost never use the exception. Thus, it is clear that some change must be made in the imprisonment-before-deportation rule to reduce the number of non-violent illegal immigrants being held in the system. Amending the law to allow for immediate deportation of immigration related offenses could, not only balance the disparity of alternative sentencing, but ease overcrowding and prison budget crises as well.
Kyle T. Green is a criminal defense attorney in Mesa, Arizona. Mr. Green has handled cases on both sides of the law and is a passionate advocate for justice.
By Eve Pearce
One of the main problems with the prison system is that inmates are often clueless as to what they are going to do when they are finally released. This can lead prisoners to believe that they have no choice but to return to a life of crime the minute they are set free. For some, writing can provide a career path as well as a means of self-expression.
A perfect example of this is the case of former drug baron Shaun Attwood, who served twenty-six months in prison after being caught running an ecstasy ring in Arizona. During his incarceration, Attwood sent out details of everyday prison life to be published on an Internet blog. His blog was featured in a number of different national newspapers in his home country of England and sparked a passion for writing within him.
He has since had a highly successful book published entitled Hard Time, which describes his descent into crime and subsequent incarceration. He also won a Koestler Trust award for literature, which is an arts prize awarded to prisoners and ex-offenders. Creative writing has ensured that Attwood has remained on the straight and narrow.
Maricopa County Jail
Attwood was incarcerated in Maricopa County (Arizona) Jail, which is run by strict authoritarian Joe Arpaio and regarded by many people as America’s toughest jail. Attwood went from a life of drug-taking and hedonistic excess to having to quit cigarettes, alcohol and narcotics and survive amongst murderers, crystal meth addicts and violent white supremacist gang members. The Maricopa County Jail is famous for its strict routine. Inmates must go without nicotine, R- and X-rated television, and coffee. They are made to wear pink uniforms and fed food that some people argue is not fit for human consumption.
Attwood learned that crime does not pay. His blog did not attempt to justify his actions; he admitted that he had been extremely stupid. It merely chronicled the conditions that he was forced to live in and questioned whether the Maricopa County Jail was conducive to producing rehabilitated prisoners or whether it would send them back into the world worse than they were when they arrived in the jail.
Upon his release from prison, Attwood wrote Hard Time, which told his story from start to finish and concluded by saying how stupid and misguided his criminal career had been. He managed to secure a publishing deal with Mainstream Publishing and his book received critical acclaim. It was featured in numerous local and national newspapers and even appeared on Sky News.
He has since released two e-books and has a third book on the way, chronicling the time that he spent as an ecstasy dealer and reflecting upon how foolish he was. Instead of committing crime, he now travels around his native England, giving talks to schoolchildren about the dangers of breaking the law. Had he not had writing to occupy his time, who knows how differently his story might have ended.
From Jail to a Writing Career
One of the dangers of being released from prison is that an individual can have nothing to go out to. If somebody feels that he or she is doomed to a life of joblessness due to his or her criminal record then lawbreaking might take place as a result.
Writing can provide an alternative.
Everybody has a story to tell and for those who possess sufficient talent, putting pen to paper can produce financial rewards. It can mean the difference between leaving an institution without a clue what to do next and being set free with dreams of being a successful author.
Not everybody can embark upon a writing career but the most important thing is that the possibility of doing so can give people hope. It can also give individuals a much-needed channel for creative expression that can help them to reflect upon the mistakes that they have made in the past and ensure that they avoid making similar mistakes throughout the years to come.
Sometimes people commit crime because they genuinely have no idea what else to do. Writing can provide an alternative and help keep people on the correct path.
Eve Pearce is a full-time feature writer as well as an art and photography aficionado. She has written for numerous sites on various topics over the past few years.
By Jack Meyers
As alternative sentencing gains in popularity, many will wonder just how this form of “punishment” enlightens offenders. Instead of sticking people in jail to think about what they have done—usually devising better ways to be criminals—literature and support groups can help offenders realize how their decisions affect those around them.
Characters and stories in literature can impact how an individual processes information. A well written novel correlating to an offender’s specific crime can create more of a positive impact on the offender’s mind, compared to being locked up. How can literature be so inspiring to those who read it?
1. Caring about what happens
Well written novels can develop characters that readers can connect with on an emotional level. These connections can stir emotions as tribulations unfold within the novels causing readers to care about what happens to the characters.
Connecting with literary characters can lead offenders to emotionally bond with the stories. Understanding the characters’ decisions can help offenders begin to understand why circumstances happen and how to deal with them in ways other than breaking the law.
2. Analyzing the affects of actions
If offenders can discover how their actions affect the world around them, it could lead to enlightening realizations of how their actions hurt those involved.
The imagination is a powerful tool. It can create objects of wonder or items of destruction. Using their imaginations could help them realize the damage they have wrought with their actions. By helping offenders analyze their circumstances in relation to literature, there is a good chance that they will have an epiphany about their own experiences and how their surroundings were affected.
3. Getting support
One of the most important aspects of alternative sentencing through literature is the presence of supportive individuals who help offenders discuss the nature of each chosen novel.
Most of the support groups using alternative sentencing methods consist of visits by parole officers and the judges who sentenced the offenders. This could be a vital piece of the puzzle—it shows the offenders that there are those that care about whether they succeed or not.
Whether it is the Bible or a coveted novel, the stories and characters in books can reveal a lot about who you are. This isn’t saying that books can cure all criminal intentions, but they can go a long way in helping some offenders see how their actions can lead to a ripple effect in the pond of life.
Jack Meyers is a regular contributor for www.nannybackgroundcheck.com. As a detective he wants to spread the knowledge of the terrible things that can happen when people don’t fully verify the credentials of a caregiver or any employee. He also writes for various law enforcement blogs and sites.