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.
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 Courtney Gordner
Dystopian societies overrun by vampires, androids and zombies have been infecting our brains with late-night, page-turning cliffhangers. Unforeseen heroes and “knights in shining armor” charm our daydreams and engage us as we hang on to every image and detail. In a world full of blockbuster book series–Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter–people everywhere are buzzing about the rush you get from reading a book.
Why not go back then, and shed some light on those who started this whole science-fiction and fantasy craze? Believe it or not, classic authors have been toying with these same subjects long before ideas of new societies and worlds became mainstream. These “originals” were all at one point were considered “taboo” because their content was so avant-garde. If you like what’s hot today in literature, you should absolutely crack open some of these classics. They will not disappoint.
1. Fahrenheit 451- Ray Bradbury
(If you enjoy reading novels like Roth’s Divergent, Kacvinsky’s Awaken or Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.)
Banned Books Week is typically held the last week in September by the American Library Association, and this classic was banned due to its questionable themes and language. If you’re interested in reading about societal pressures and the fight for freedom of expression and intellect, this is the perfect book for you.
Guy Montag, a firefighter trained to burn books, comes across a young girl that changes his world forever. As she shows him a life full of free thought and beauty in words, he begins to see a world outside of government control; a world full of love, freedom and hope.
2. 1984- George Orwell
(If you enjoy reading novels like Collin’s The Hunger Games or Cline’s Ready Player One.)
Coincidentally enough, Orwell wrote this classic in 1948, prophesying the future and what he envisioned the world to be in 1984. He invented the idea of “Big Brother” and how the government can control a society and the ability to have free thought. This is a great read that paints a picture of concepts way ahead of his time.
The story follows a lower-class man, Winston, who works at the Ministry of Truth altering historical events to meet “The Party’s” needs. He receives a strange note from a young girl that says “I love you,” and he begins to question his place in the world. Writing his “crimes” or thoughts in his notebook, his oppression changes from subtle to oblivious. Another portrayal of human independence and freedom, Orwell captivates his audience at each page turn.
3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream- William Shakespeare
(If you enjoy reading novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight.)
Definitely not the typical romance novel, this classic play really captures the impulsive side of love and puts a satirical twist on “soul mates.” Shakespeare comments on how blindly and easily humans fall in love by showcasing a mash-up of love triangles that will confuse even the reader. However, with his fun quips, the characters extreme personalities will be sure to keep you in stitches.
4. Frankenstein- Mary Shelley
(If you enjoy reading novels such as Harry Potter, World War Z or Marion’s Warm Bodies.)
Contrary to the popular story of the horror movie giant, Shelley’s Frankenstein monster has a completely different outlook on life. Born into hatred and destruction, this novel commentates on society’s focus on appearances. Through the monster’s journey in understanding his place in the world, he is betrayed and cast-aside by society, allowing the reader to sympathize with him and see that he is truly a misunderstood creature. Shelley brings to life something we can constantly learn from today: humanity.
Even though our classics have a date that sets them back in time, they are timeless. The values and lessons that these books teach their readers are even relatable in the 21st century. Not only do they educate us on the value of life, independence, and the human spirit, they are some of the most entertaining reads ever written. So when the buzz for the newest series dies down, pick up one of these novels. You’ll be surprised how able they are to satisfy your reading cravings.
Courtney is a passionate blogger who loves sharing her views and thoughts with the world. You can read more from her on her blog, www.talkviral.com
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.
On January 5, 2013, we asked: What topics are you most interested in reading about on this blog? We appreciate all the responses we’ve received so far.
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The author of the abbreviated article below presents his case for enrolling in online degree programs and speaks specifically about online criminal justice programs. Because many of you who read this blog work in criminal justice, I ask you to submit your comments regarding this topic.
A question to get the discussion started:
Compared to traditional criminal justice degree programs, do you think online criminal justice degrees provide a comparable level of preparation for criminal justice careers?
I look forward to your comments.
A case for criminal justice e-learning
By Stephen Strings
A proper education is highly esteemed most anywhere in the world. Attaining a degree is regarded as a major achievement and this creates better chances for you to land a job. However not everybody gets selected in local institutions of higher learning and this has rendered many jobless. The good news is that there is online learning.
How online education is favourable
Online education has many advantages. If you have a job already and wonder if you can enroll in a criminal justice degree successfully and still work, you have nothing to worry about—online degrees are very flexible. Another great advantage is that you get to interact with other people who have different frames of mind and you can challenge yourself.
An online criminal justice degree is good for you because you get to study forensic science criminology and so many other interesting and exciting topics. When you do this online you get to meet people and network which increases your chances of getting a good job. When you take up an online degree, you are taught by staff who are dedicated and the best of the best.
Cross boarders and expand your horizons by enrolling in an online criminal justice degree.
Stephen Strings is a blogger who works for online degrees provider E Degree USA. He loves to write articles and blogs on online education. He has covered a variety of topics like online criminal justice degrees, business degrees and more providing tips and suggestions to students worldwide.
By Sara Dawkins
While reading, you use your imagination to visualize a story’s characters as if they’re starring in a movie within your mind. Although the author’s words greatly impact the flow of your mind-movie, your imagination fills in the blanks. Reading about characters who have similar circumstances to yours can help shed light on your own situation. This is one of the base beliefs behind the alternative sentencing program called Changing Lives Through Literature. How can literature encourage positive change in a criminal’s way of thinking?
1. Reflection: When offenders openly analyze their own lives through literary characters, they get a chance for inner reflection that they may never have explored before. They put themselves in the spotlight for self-examination.
2. Positive Role Models: After ordering CLTL classes as part of sentencing, judges may attend the classes involving the offenders-turned-students. By contributing to the literary discussions, the judges start becoming positive role models in the students’ lives—possibly changing how the students view the world. Parole officers can become role models just as much by participating in the students’ progress in the classes. This can greatly increase the chances of rehabilitation and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.
3. Self-Worth: In order for the program to work, students must have a capacity to accept responsibility for their actions. Students must show and demonstrate that they can be proactive in their own rehabilitation. For some, it is difficult to rely only on themselves to stay motivated enough for better lives. Family histories can be pivotal to how students adapt to this method of rehabilitation.
4. Perspective: This alternative method of sentencing is more than just a book club. The literary works chosen reflect students’ lives—either through the characters or the situations. It’s a way for students to examine their actions from the perceptions of others. As their imaginations explore the settings, the literature often drives a point home better than more jail time would.
5. Safety: The philosophy behind CLTL is such that it allows students to feel safe when discussing literature. Students open themselves up and discuss the actions of literary characters, and how the characters relate to themselves.
Alternative sentencing methods for criminal offenders has had great success. Support is growing for methods such as these. Words can be powerful to those who are open to their meanings. We should embrace the success of CLTL and support rehabilitation over punishment to those who need it and who are willing to benefit from it.
Sara Dawkins is an active nanny as well as an active freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor of http://www.nannypro.com/.
Lessons: Stories that connect from Stories Connect
By Sally Flint
People’s lives have been changed not only by reading and discussing literature, but by writing creatively too. In Exeter, England, this has culminated in publishing a book of linked short stories and poems. This book is Lessons and it comes from Stories Connect—a community project, similar in format to Changing Lives Through Literature, that takes place outside prisons to help ex-offenders, substance misusers and other vulnerable people get over difficult times in their lives.
In 2011, after reading Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads and Andrea Levy’s Small Island, discussions centred on the significance of characters in storytelling, how our lives interconnect, and how perceptions of one another can be very different according to our individual experiences. Rather than read more texts to illustrate this, both the participants and facilitators of Stories Connect began a collaborative writing experiment.
Each person invented a character—then got to know his imaginary person through answering a questionnaire which not only detailed a physical description and obvious things such as what the character did for a job, but also smaller things such as what the character kept under his bed. Once each character was firmly established in each writer’s mind the group discussed how the characters’ lives might overlap and be brought together. Part of the success of this collection is that each writer firmly took ownership of his own imaginary character and stepped into his character’s shoes.
However, to bring the characters together it was decided something more was needed—an event. Parties and weddings and all sorts of other occasions were brainstormed and somehow, out of talking about school reunions, the idea surfaced that the characters would all attend a memorial service for a recently retired headmaster, Keith Simon Lung.
Everyone discussed, debated and created—then each person wrote his character’s story in a way that linked to the headmaster and his memorial. The stories took months to shape, edit and bring together as an anthology. This process fostered an environment of trust and commitment. It motivated both participants and facilitators to further improve their communicative and observational skills. Everyone worked hard to make each story stand alone, while ensuring there are many intriguing links to be made across the whole collection and questioned by the reader.
Some of the contributors had never written a story or poem before while some had read and written lots. Perhaps what this book reveals best, and why the group wanted it published, is to show how the process of writing brought them together. The result, Lessons, proves that stretching imaginations and the practice of storytelling unites people at all levels, regardless of age, background, ethnicity or past histories. In the process of creating, the group encountered the unexpected and overcame challenges and, it has to be said, they all laughed lots!
“This is a consummate piece of group story-telling, a feat of cooperation and collaboration,” writes poet and broadcaster Matt Harvey in the book’s forward. He supports and works with Stories Connect.
Lessons is published by Dirt Pie Press, University of Exeter: www.riptidejournal.co.uk
For more information, e-mail either:
Dr. Sally Flint, facilitator and publisher: firstname.lastname@example.org
Louise Ross, Stories Connect co-ordinator: email@example.com