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.
The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.
Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig
The American Library Association encourages you to celebrate National Library Week, April 14-20, with the theme Communities matter @ your library.
Local free public libraries continue to provide equal access to literature—from the classics to the latest best-sellers—to all members of their communities. Whether you’re wealthy or poor, educated or not, libraries provide you with great works of literature.
Literature has the power to transform lives. Libraries provide the books—the tangible resources—to help make those transformations happen.
Whether you’re running a Changing Lives Through Literature alternative sentencing group or some other literature discussion group, encourage your members to continue reading and thinking about literature.
Find out how your community matters to your local library by visiting your library during National Library Week. Comment on this blog post to share with us how you participated in National Library Week.
For more information visit American Library Association – National Library Week.
Image provided by American Library Association.
The Great American Book Drive.
Bring Us Your Books!
Ever wonder what to do with all those books collecting dust on your shelves, piling up in your closet, or hiding under your bed? Put them to work for the Prison Book Program and City Mission Society by bringing them to the 5th annual Great American Book Drive. Choose to support reuse, help open doors for prisoners, and promote social justice by donating your gently used books.
Saturday, April 13
10 am – 3 pm
The Nonprofit Center
89 South Street (near South Station)
Boston, MA (directions)
Better World Books will sell them to people all over the world who will cherish them…and the Prison Book Program and the City Mission Society will benefit with every sale. It’s about literacy, not landfill.
For complete information visit www.prisonbookprogram.org/bookdrive.
Pam Boiros of the Prison Book Program provided the above information. Thank you to JoAnne Breault for sharing Pam’s book drive information with our blog readers.
Boston Book Festival panel discussion covers remorse, redemption, and resiliency
By JoAnne Breault
“When you are in prison, you don’t get to make a lot of choices and you have a lot of time to think about why you are there. You lose your sense of time,” explained former inmate William Gaul to a crowd at the Boston Public Library.
Many prisoners have little or no access to education, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation opportunities. “The Prison Book Program was a godsend to me,” said Gaul. “I began reading in prison and books had a profound meaning.”
Gaul was one of four panelists at Unbound: Books Behind Bars, a panel discussion at this year’s Boston Book Festival, New England’s largest annual literary event. Gaul served his eight-year sentence and graduated from college with a BA in Biblical Theology. He then worked as a coordinator for a criminal justice program and advocated for criminal offenders at American Friends Service Committee. He has been both a client and a volunteer with the Prison Book Program, a Quincy, MA non-profit organization. “While in prison, I traveled the world through reading. I want to give that back,” said Gaul.
Stories of remorse, redemption, and resiliency resonated throughout the panel discussion as representatives of literacy organizations and former criminal offenders interacted with each other. Independent studies show that criminal offenders who participate in literacy programs are less likely to re-offend.
In addition to former inmate Gaul, the panelists included Judge Robert Kane, Edson Monteiro, and Michael Krupa.
Dr. Robert P. Waxler, author and Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, moderated the panel. “Books create an opportunity,” said Waxler. “They can liberate beyond the steel of a rigid prison.”
Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane co-founded Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL), an alternative sentencing program. CLTL gives criminal offenders opportunities to participate in reading discussion groups—a probation requirement for some.
Panelist Edson Monteiro, an urbane young man, told his compelling story of being diagnosed with Leukemia as a college varsity soccer player. Plagued with surmounting medical bills, Monteiro quit school. “I made some bad decisions,” admitted Monteiro.
Monteiro was convicted of a crime. While serving his time, he began reading books about managing finances, business, buying stocks, and religion. “I sought books that would help me excel in life and expand my knowledge,” he said.
Today Monteiro represents a prison success story. He graduated from college in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science degree and has started his own IT company. Books remain an important part of his life.
Panelist Michael Krupa serves as the board chair of Concord (MA) Prison Outreach and leads weekly book discussion groups at MCI Concord and the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, MA. “As volunteers we come into the prison system and try and humanize their experience,” said Krupa.
During the panel’s question and answer period, Katelyn, a young blonde woman in a tight ponytail, bravely made her way to the podium. She labeled herself as a byproduct of Boston’s inner city. She confided that she had gotten into trouble and ended up in a juvenile detention center. “It was not until after I was incarcerated that I developed an interest in reading books.” Today she attends community college and aspires to become a journalist.
2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States today. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, it costs taxpayers $43,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner. Programs like the Prison Book Program and Changing Lives Through Literature only cost approximately $500.00 per participant. The end result is a reduction in recidivism.
JoAnne Breault is seeking her Master’s Degree in Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations writing.
Photos by JoAnne Breault.
By Nancy E. Oliveira
On Saturday, October 27, 2012 the Boston Book Festival will host a panel discussion—Books Behind Bars—sponsored by the Prison Book Program. Hear formerly incarcerated people, and literacy organization representatives who serve prison populations, discuss how books and reading have impacted their lives both in and out of prison.
“Pam Boiros from the Prison Book Project has put together a wonderful panel for the Boston Book Festival,” says UMass Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler. “I am honored she has asked me to serve as moderator and look forward to an exciting discussion about the power of books to change lives. Come and participate in the conversation.”
The panel discussion starts at 4pm in the Boston Public Library’s Commonwealth room. It is free and open to the public.
The Books Behind Bars panel discussion is one of many free events taking place at this year’s Boston Book Festival, held at the Boston Public Library and the surrounding Copley Square area.
Learn more about the Prison Book Program.
Learn more about the Boston Book Festival.
Learn more about Books Behind Bars.
By Tam Neville
After lunch the group heard a presentation on “Research: Does it work?” led by Ron P. Corbett Jr. He began by saying that evidence-based practices are used in many settings.
Is there empirical support for what you do?
Is it having the effects you want on the people you work with?
All in Changing Lives Through Literature believe that it does change lives. A recidivism study has recently been done at UMass/Boston by retired professor Taylor Stoehr, Professor of Sociology, Russell Schutt, and Associate Professor, faculty member of the Criminal Justice Program, Xiaogang Deng. The study showed a reduction in offending for CLTL graduates.
Do we have the ability to help people reduce offending sometimes or altogether?
There was an experimental group and a control group. We looked at behavior 18 months before CLTL and 18 months after CLTL. There were 600 participants in the study. There was a 60 % drop for CLTL participants and 16% for others. Both the number and severity of incidents were reduced. Also the participants worked with a parole officer and took one other program (such as substance abuse, batterers, etc.).
What is it about Changing Lives that leads to a reduction in offending? What is the link between graduates of the program and those who offend less? Stoehr reports on this study:
“This group was larger than the Jarjoura/Rogers study and ran for a longer time. We had five jurisdictions: New Bedford, Lynn/Lowell, Dorchester, and two smaller courts. We had a larger range of information.
For the probationers, someone was paying attention to them. This is what was missing from their lives. In the Dorchester men’s class we have big groups so we break them up into smaller groups. Once in a class discussion, we had five guys who were great talkers, all talking at once. Then one held up his hand and said, “This is what our problem is, we don’t listen, we just talk.” Moments like this begin to happen in the third class. The process is unpredictable. You let go of controls. In Dorchester we don’t stick so hard to the text. The main thing is what happens in the classroom.
In the Dorchester program, we have a set of questions that we work with that go in a sequence. For example: What does it take to grow up? Does anybody ever learn things in school? And towards the end of the semester – What does it take to hit bottom? The questions get bigger and bigger.
In mid-semester we ask, “What is your evaluation of street smarts?” By this time there is trust. On street smarts – almost all are proud of their street smarts. The staff has a different view: street smarts prevent you from learning anything new. Many students cling to street smarts. The most important thing about Changing Lives is that people belong to a community that has the same concerns that they have. We have so little of that in America – where does that happen in your life? That makes a huge difference in what you do with your life.”
Books bring universality. A student realized, “I’m not the only one with this problem.” Through books students learn how to fight with words, not fists. They build a community together.
Reading is a cognitive behavior intervention – it makes thinking more flexible and more expansive, more empathetic.
The program boosts self-esteem too. To have a conversation with a judge can boost a student’s confidence. A student completes an assignment, voices an opinion, and is listened to.
Judge Kane said, “We’ve had the program for 20 years and there has never been a scary incident in these years. We get gratitude from our students.”
Judge Dever said, “People come into the program looking at life subjectively. In this program, through literature, they start looking at life objectively. This changes their ability to communicate. This then may help them with job interviews, things they thought were unattainable.
Reading slows you down – you have to find a quiet place and be by yourself. This is new for them – it leads to self-reflection.”
Stoehr talked about juveniles saying, “They don’t’ have a place to go with no noise and they’re full of hormones. Think of something you can do at the meeting, very short things (maybe rap), something that gives them a little challenge at the moment.”
Teresa Owens (PO, Taunton Division) said, “CLTL gives them a safe setting. One thing that always came out of the Dorchester women’s class was the question of choices. Were there other choices I could have made? Or, you can go to someone else to ask and say ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Also, people in class were accountable to each other in terms of doing the reading, homework, etc.”
CLTL is a team experience. When people have a chance to reflect on choices, this is their time, a time they can actually think. They don’t have that luxury in their lives. In CLTL they learn that there are more options, more choices.
Professor Waxler said, “We collectively make a community. The activity is primarily verbal. Reading brings engagement with narrative – you see that you are connected to other people. The story that I just read is my story too. Then discussion with everyone sitting around a table, there’s an open relationship between our experience and narrative. Story gives us meaning and helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”
To begin the final session, a probation officer new to the program spoke using herself as an example. She said, “Say I want to start a program. How do I get a judge involved, a facilitator, and probation officers?”
Judge Kane answered her on the matter of judicial involvement. “At least have someone who will let you run the program. You will need a judge’s support to get POs behind it. Having a judge is very important.”
Jean Trounstine added, “Get a judge talking to a judge. This will increase the chance of their going to class. You then have to go out and find facilitators.”
Someone else commented, “You have to get the judge to commit to an incentive if CLTL is not a condition of probation.”
The question of incentive: Outcomes are more positive where a court can create incentives such as six months off probation period, discount on supervision fees, etc. This information is in the literature and on the website. Dee Kennedy pointed out that, “Many students start off by saying, ‘I never would have taken this without the time off’ but by graduation, their attitude has changed.”
To find a facilitator ask Jean Flanagan. Jean Trounstine added, “Try to find a facilitator who has a connection with a school. It’s good to have a school as a place to meet. Call an English department. We can help you – you don’t need to do this in a vacuum.”
Ideally, a university campus is the best place to hold a class. The students get a taste of college life and it makes them proud to go to a college campus. This is especially important with juveniles.
To start a class, ask probation officers to recruit students from among their probationers. Myrna Thornquist (PO, Waltham District Court) advised, “I check a person out – do they like to read? What is their education? In the beginning I don’t tell them what I’m thinking – that they would be a good candidate. I do a little research on a person. Then, are they interested? Sometimes it takes 6-12 months to be sure of someone as a candidate.”
On books, Jean Trounstine said, “We give the students the books, they don’t buy them and the facilitator is reimbursed for these. We also encourage every student to get a library card.”
How many students should be in a class? We have had classes with 5 or with 13. Taylor Stoehr said, “One day we had 50. We split into two groups, then used small groups of 4 to 5.”
Any staff has to be regular. It’s important that all the staff agrees on the class ground rules. If we have an issue sometimes we talk about it afterwards. For the most part we tell the students, be sober and straight, do your homework and be on time.”
For the graduation ceremony, the Lynn/Lowell programs hold graduation in the court house during the first session. Those in the dock witness graduation. The graduates receive books and a certificate. It’s a day for celebration.
This meeting was a very successful one and we now have several courts who are interested in starting a program. We need facilitators. If you, or anyone you know, would like to facilitate a Changing Lives Program please get in touch with Jean Trounstiine at: TROUNSTINEJ@middlesex.mass.edu
By Annie Bolthrunis, editor
“The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, largely due to misguided drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements.” – drugpolicy.org
As the “leader of the free world,” the United States is grossly behind many other developed countries in terms of imprisonment and sentencing laws. For instance, of the 194 countries that are part of the UN, 50% have abolished the death penalty entirely, 4% employ it in extraordinary circumstances, and 25% have it on the books for ordinary crimes, but have not used it in ten or more years. The United States falls into the 22% of UN members or countries with UN Observer status who maintain the death penalty both in theory and practice. We are one of only a few countries who are willing to sentence both teenagers and the mentally retarded to death.
Capital punishment is a contentious issue in the United States today, but the death penalty is not the most dangerous law on the books in the US. The recent Trayvon Martin case illustrates other problems with our justice system as it’s brought Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use “necessary force” in self defense outside of the home, to the public eye and has sparked debate about the constitutionality of such self-defense laws. Perhaps the most unfair of our laws are mandatory sentencing laws.
While some crimes obviously warrant a harsh sentence (murder, child abuse), harsh mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders do nothing but hurt not only the offender, but also society as a whole. Taking people out of society and imprisoning them for long periods of time doesn’t do much except prevent people who could be rehabilitated from being rehabilitated, and in some cases, may even turn these people into violent offenders, as life in prison is vastly different from life on the outside – prisoners may learn “tricks” or develop habits that could turn them into violent offenders once they are released.
Imprisoning a single person can cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the state and the length of the sentence. While drug rehabilitation isn’t cheap, it’s a much shorter-term option which, in the long run, would cost less than many sentences, such as California’s “Three Strikes” laws, which enable to court to imprison someone for life once they have three offenses on their record, regardless of the crimes committed.
One of the major problems with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is they seem to unfairly target minority offenders. According to Executive Summary: Report to Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, “Hispanic offenders accounted for the largest group (38.3%) of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, followed by Black offenders at 31.5 percent, White offenders at 27.4 percent and Other Race offenders at 2.7 percent.”
Clearly, the United States has moved leaps and bounds in terms of racial disparity since the Civil Rights movement of the 60′s, but these statistics show that we have no come far enough. I might be more likely to believe in these mandatory minimum sentencing laws if they affected all races equally, but they do not. The majority of US citizens are not hispanic (although in many states they make up a larger portion than in the past), and the rates of drug use among races is roughly the same. Another startling statistic that shows the disparity of the application of sentencing between races: according to The Sentencing Project, in 2003, with 34/50 states responding, it was found that per million people, 2562 people who were imprisoned for drug offenses were black, while 253 were white.
It will be impossible to make all laws fair to all people all the time, but there is plenty of room for improvement. As a country, we are sending a message to minorities that they do not have equal opportunities within our justice system – they are clearly at a distinct disadvantage. They have less access to premium defenders; they frequently have to rely on public defenders who are notoriously unreliable (many are very good and some are very bad, many fall in between.)
It is up to to population as a whole to promote programs like Changing Lives, which aim to alleviate the strain on the prison and criminal justice system by promoting rehabilitation rather than punishment. While promoting and supporting alternative sentencing programs will not solve all of the countries problems with our criminal justice system, acting in support of these programs will raise awareness to their existence. If people are vocal about their support for the elimination of such injustices as mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses and “Three Strikes” laws, perhaps the people who are getting the laws on books and ballots will be moved. It’s an election year, everyone – the perfect time to make our voices heard. Of the people, by the people, for the people: let this be our mantra when it comes to injustice in our justice system.
by Sarah Fudin, c/o the University of Southern California
In celebration of National March Into Literacy Month, the MAT@USC has created a fun and informative infographic entitled, “The Most Loved Children’s Books”. In it, they have recounted their favorite books as a way to celebrate children’s literature throughout the years.
Changing Lives Through Literature is committed to promoting the access to literature, not just for children but for the world at large. We live in a society where social and economic inequality has become a norm. This disparity has unfortunately burdened with a vicious cycle of crime and incarceration that only we have the power to break. CLTL seeks to end this cycle by taking whatever means necessary to ensure that individuals in the prison system are making productive use of their time through literacy development. However, our efforts do not end there. Preventative measures must also be exhausted by taking the time to effectively communicate the power of reading to the youth of the nation.
Books can unlock a wealth of opportunities for individuals, and gaining access to literature at an early age allows us to tap into our youths’ potential as they grow up. Join us as we celebrate the value of books and how they contribute to changing lives!
(click image for to view the infographic in full-screen)
Sarah Fudin works for the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of education. She can be reached by e-mail here. For more information on becoming a teacher through USC Rossier Online, visit Become a Teacher.