Les Miserables and the Criminal Justice System

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.

dockedship

dockedship

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.

Verbal shorthand

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.


Clear the Cobwebs off the Classics: Popular Literature Reads

By Courtney Gordner

Courtney + Page

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

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(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

Colin Dunn

Colin Dunn

(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.

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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


The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

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.

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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. 


Can You Learn Creative Writing or Is It Only for the Naturally Gifted?

By Selena Marimba

For aspiring writers, the type of writing that receives a significant amount of attention is creative writing. The most obvious reason is that creativity is an art, not a science, so people who are naturally creative stand a better chance at being successful creative writers than those who think mechanically. Be aware that there’s a format and approach to any writing, but the genius is not in the approach but in the idea created. Follow these easy tips to achieve your goal of being a fantastic creative writer.

Uncontrolled Reading
It’s said that good writers are good readers. When creative writers are being exposed to another writer’s creativity and seeing how those stories translate, they’re able to learn techniques and develop skills. Expose yourself to a variety of ideas by reading all genres and all types of stories. This includes fiction, non-fiction, and even poetry. The goal here is to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible so you can find something you may not have thought of previously.

Scribble and Jot
Write down (or record) your thoughts and ideas in a written or audio journal to go back and review later. When you get into this habit, you’ll find that there are things that don’t make sense when you first write them down but will fit together later when you are connecting the dots.

Become A Wordsmith
A wordsmith is simply someone who knows how to use words, either in speaking or writing, though generally the context is writing. For any writer, but especially for a creative writer, the goal is to use the right words in the right order, something that is a matter of both style and personal creativity. This is one dimension of writing that cannot be taught because it is intuitive. But keep in mind that there is a discipline to using your intuition since not all good ideas translate into successful writing.

Be Creatively Honest
Everyone has witnessed a bad TV episode, movie, or theatrical play. While it’s true that sometimes the acting may be terrible, the lines that they read originate from someone who wrote them. If you have a creative idea but it’s a bad one, be honest with yourself and simply reject it and move on. Over time you’ll learn the difference between good and bad creative ideas and then be able to work with the good ideas to produce writing you’ll enjoy.

Watch a show you love and think about the writing. Find what lines you enjoy the most and listen for striking stories you may have missed otherwise. Creative writing is one piece art and another formal structure. Structure can be taught, but creativity must be allowed to grow in order to see the results you wish. Both creativity and structure need to be developed through experience. It’s unlikely that your first story will be your greatest achievement, so be patient with yourself and let the creativity flow.

Selena Marimba is a journalist who writes about all aspect of education. Her recent work is on her plans to earn an MAT degree.


Changing Lives through Literature in Action

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.

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An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “
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                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”

Reading is Like Fishing…or Something Like That: An Introductory Blog

I’ve never been one to state how others should live or choose to enjoy their lives. I’ve never found anyone who does this to truly understand anything, to be perfectly honest. My thought on the subject, and on life for that matter, is relatively simple.

Step one: Seek out what you truly enjoy doing.
Step two: Do it.

Easy, right? Now I am going to complicate things here a bit. Stay with me.

I enjoy watching TV. When I’m in a lazy mood (which is more often than I’d like to admit) I don’t believe there is anything better than sitting on my couch or lying in bed watching bad TV. I can’t fault anyone for enjoying this, either. It is easy entertainment at its most discounted price. What is missing, however, is the sense of satisfaction. After sitting and watching TV for six hours, I receive no personal satisfaction because I put in absolutely no work and received the bare minimum amount of pleasure. This is where I’ll segue to fishing, I think.

This may make sense. Again, stay with me.

Some nights, I’ll lie in bed and set my alarm for four-thirty in the morning, promising myself that I will wake up and attempt to start the old engine on the back of my boat to putter out a mile or so into the pre-dawn Atlantic and drop a few lines into the water. “It’s worth it,” I’ll tell myself. “Just wake up and make yourself do it. It’s that easy.”

But it’s not easy. It takes effort.

In my half-asleep state, I feel that fateful time on my iPhone alarm clock ticking nearer and nearer until it’s ringing loudly into my ears. I open my eyes and squint into the darkness and stillness of the morning.  “I could just go back to sleep. I don’t have to get up. I don’t want to get up,” I tell myself. And sometimes, I don’t. But on some mornings, I work up enough strength to kick the covers off my feet and stand up out of bed. In a sleep-deprived haze, I walk across the wet grass in the moonless darkness and start my car.

When I get to the harbor, I still don’t see the moon or anyone on the street or even hear anyone on the radio. I get out of my car and re-stretch my legs. I take two, sometimes three trips to the dock and load all of my gear into the little leaky dingy and row feebly out to my 18-foot center console at the far edge of the harbor next to the white water lapping on the mossy breakwater boulders in the flood tide.

I start my engine once, putters, blows a plume of smoke, stalls out. I start it again; same thing but a bigger plume of smoke. On the third attempt, the engine shakes and rumbles and decides to stay running long enough for me to shift into gear. Finally, I’m off.

A few meandering gulls sleepwalk awkwardly out of the way of the fiberglass hull of my boat, parting the water, just barely showing the first glimpses of sunlight from the false dawn rising atop the dunes of the beach and the roofs of the beach houses.

As I near my supposed destination, I slow my little boat to a saunter just as the first glimpse of the sun shows its face. Then, I cut the engine; silence, but for a noisy tern circling, watching me, wondering what I’m doing. I prepare my rods and wait, either five minutes, an hour, three hours, all day…

For that moment, as I lean on the gunnels, rocking softly against the direction-less waves, hearing the water gurgle as it rises and falls through the scuppers, I’m happy that I woke up and dragged myself out of bed and trusted my old engine to get me to where I wanted to go. “I can’t believe I almost didn’t do this,” I think to myself. “I can’t believe I almost traded in this satisfaction of actually accomplishing something for a warm bed and a few cheap television shows.” The satisfaction of working hard to truly accomplish or understand something is more fulfilling than any creature comfort. I may even catch a fish.

When I find myself in the last few pages of a book, truly caring, understanding, feeling for characters that are completely fictionalized by some man or woman I don’t and will never know, I am granted this same, deep sense of satisfaction and self-awareness. I am grateful that I can feel this way, that if I invest enough work—be it physical or emotional—into what I’m doing, I can feel this way. For this reason, I am excited to become more involved in the Changing Lives through Literature program and blog. I feel that everyone should be able to experience this sense of satisfaction. I know that literature has the power to change and better even the most beat-down and hardened lives and I am ecstatic that I will be given the opportunity to witness and experience this first-hand.

I apologize for the lengthy preface to this introductory blog. So, let’s see. Let me start with some facts in no particular order.

My name is Billy Mitchell and I have never run a blog before.
I have a list of books I mean to read turning over in my mind that spans the number of books I have ever read and will probably ever read in my lifetime.
I enjoy beer and I enjoy a good book and a combination of the two could keep me satisfied forever.
My favorite author is very cliché, as is my favorite book, so I won’t get into that.
I read The Sun Also Rises in high school and thought to myself, “Wow what a happy book, I would love to be one of these characters.” I read it again a few years later and was shocked at how I could have been so naïve.
I was once assigned Tolstoy’s War and Peace to read for a class. I read and enjoyed the whole massive thing up until the last chapter where I stopped, and haven’t picked it up since. I’m not sure why I did that.
When I finish a book, I find myself dreaming about the characters more so than I do about real-life people. Sometimes I like to believe that the characters are real-life people, and convince myself so.
I still haven’t met Dean, or anyone who is mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.
I’m still beating on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly.
I tend to write like Hemingway when I’m drinking scotch, which is almost never, but I can wish, can’t I?
I’m not quite sure if this is the best of times or the worst of times, but I feel it’s somewhere in the middle and I can’t hate that prospect.
I’m no Ishmael and you can’t call me that.
I’m still not sure where my white whale is; I can’t remember the last time I saw him.
I hope to never go 84 days without a fish.
I enjoy fishing and the metaphorical symbolism that comes with it, and I feel it is the closest resemblance that anyone can experience to reading and understanding a truly great book.
Hemingway said “there is no friend as loyal as a good book.” I would tend to agree, unless you have a really great dog. But I hear Hemingway was a cat guy.

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So, readers of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog, I’ll leave you with this. Reading is like fishing, or something like that. In my heart, I recognize the ability of a good piece of literature to change the way that a person thinks about and perceives the world around them. And I think this is important for everyone to realize. No, I know it’s important. So never stop waking up early and putting in the work. Never let the temptation of what is easy or accessible or cheap overcome your need for your own personal satisfaction. I guess what I am trying to say, is this: Never stop fishing.


Keep Reading Fun: Summer Reading Flowchart

Can’t decide what to read this summer? Don’t know how to get the whole family reading?
Not sure what to suggest for your Changing Lives Through Literature group—or other book group?

This fun Summer Reading Flowchart will guide you to the right book! We thank Sarah Fudin for sharing this fantastic Teach.com visual.

The Summer Reading Flowchart

Brought to you by Teach.com

Sarah Fudin

Sarah Fudin

Read Sarah Fudin’s accompanying article—Keep Reading Fun—also published on this blog.

Sarah Fudin works at an education company where she manages the community relations for the George Washington University’s online MPH degree, an innovative program that allows students to take public health courses online.


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