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.
As we approach the end of 2012, let’s take a moment to reflect on this year’s successes—big and small—of Changing Lives Through Literature and other alternative sentencing programs.
We are the official blog of Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL)—an alternative sentencing program “based on the power of literature to transform lives through reading and group discussion,” as well-stated on the official CLTL website.
The main purpose of the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog is to support CLTL. This blog provides a place to discuss:
- CLTL and other alternative sentencing programs that reduce criminal recidivism or change lives for the better—share news, concerns, successes, difficulties, and ideas
- Literature—recommend stories that inspire; talk about literary events that enlighten
- Criminal justice reform and other relevant criminal justice topics of today—discuss what works and what changes still need to take place
A milestone reached: 200 posts
We reached a milestone this year—we published our 200th post. Please continue to join us as we embark on our next 200. Also, while CLTL has been around since 1991, this blog turned four years old last month. Let’s look forward to the next four years and beyond.
Thank you for contributing your thoughts, experiences, and insights to this blog. Also, thank you for reading it! We hope you find its content meaningful and valuable.
A call to action: share your 2012 success stories
We invite you to share your CLTL (or similar program) successes of 2012. We encourage you to use this blog to share your answers to any of these questions:
- How did your CLTL group or similar program succeed in 2012?
- What breakthroughs were experienced?
- What piece of literature did you or someone in your program find most inspiring?
For shorter comments, please use the leave a comment link at the top of this post and enter your reply. For longer comments, or to include images, submit up to 700 words to firstname.lastname@example.org for publication on this blog.
We also welcome your thoughts on what you’d like to read on this blog for the upcoming year.
Again, thank you for helping to make this blog, CLTL, and similar programs a success.
Nancy E. Oliveira
Editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds—a Changing Lives Through Literature blog
Photo taken by JoAnne Breault.
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.
Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com.
This essay is the first in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.
Built in Boston’s densely populated inner city, the Dorchester men’s CLTL program is by far the largest, graduating a cohort of 37 men last year and requiring a staff of eight, including two English professors (Taylor Stoehr and Bert Stern), three to four probation officers, a judge, and two former program participants. The class meets for ten weekly sessions of ninety minutes each and uses Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave as a primary text.
Ken is a graduate from that large cohort who promptly arrived to meet me at the Dorchester District Courthouse to cover for a last minute interview cancellation.
When asked about his experience in CLTL, Ken particularly appreciated the feedback he received on written assignments:
[CLTL] opened up my way of thinking a whole lot differently. I found myself writing about stuff that I wasn’t even thinking about. And the more I wrote, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. . . Taylor, when he used to give us comments, he said I got a knack for [writing]. Now I want to write my own autobiography one day . . . [Taylor] gave me a lot of input and he gave me some places where I can go if I want to go to school, you know? Like, who to contact for loans or whatever . . . after you graduate you get this booklet, when they read it, they was like, wow man you got some talent . . . [Taylor and Bert] knew I had a real talent in writing, and Taylor he really made me feel good, his comments . . . I felt real good about myself after that.
When asked whether or not CLTL changed his opinions of other people, Ken recalled being struck by a story the presiding judge told during a group session:
Timothy Brezina is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University. He has published numerous studies on the causes and correlates of youth violence and delinquency. This post summarizes his latest research study, titled “Might Not Be a Tomorrow: Anticipated Early Death and Youth Crime”, co-authored with Volkan Topalli and Erdal Tekin, and forthcoming in the journal Criminology.
“I saw my first dead body when I was five, man. It was my uncle. Some crackhead stabbed him straight in the eye. Blood all over,” recalled a young offender of his earliest childhood memories.
Many people would have difficulty comprehending the pervasive violence that young people confront in our nation’s economically-deprived, inner-city communities. A survey of school children in inner-city Chicago revealed that nearly one-quarter had witnessed someone being killed. In a similar survey of public high school students in inner-city Cleveland, one-third reported that they had been shot or shot at.
How do these experiences with violence affect the social, emotional, and educational development of young people? What does it mean to witness killings at an early age and to attend the funerals of other young people? What impact does it have on their sense of a future, and on their willingness to engage in risky behavior, including crime?
To gain answers to these questions, I teamed up with key research colleagues at Georgia State University, including Drs. Volkan Topalli and Erdal Tekin. A portion of our research involved in-depth interviews with “hardcore” offenders from the streets of Atlanta. We wanted to learn, as best we could, how the world looks through their eyes, and how their perceptions and beliefs affect their decisions to pursue crime. For the purposes of our research, we regarded our offender interviewees—drug dealers, robbers, and carjackers—as the “experts” on criminal decision-making.
Our interviewees typically reported long and early histories of violence. Many had been shot or stabbed and bore visible scars of physical trauma. They also expressed what criminologists refer to as a “coercive” worldview; in their eyes, they occupy a dog-eat-dog world where it is acceptable if not necessary to use force to intimidate others and to prevent victimization.
In the words of one offender: “In my neighborhood, it’s rob or be robbed. I prefer to be on the robbing end.” He explained to us how he had learned to rob people effectively (e.g., how to immobilize victims and catch them off guard) from the experience of being robbed himself.
Imagine President Obama holding a news conference to announce a federal buyout that would actually save taxpayers billions instead of costing taxpayers billions. And this buyout would not only save taxpayers money, he would say, but improve the quality of millions of American lives as well.
Wouldn’t that be something?
Well he could do that if the states—we, the voters and taxpayers—adopted the recommendations of the Pew Center for the States and redesigned the criminal justice system, which costs taxpayers $68 billion annually. We need to put more emphasis and financial support into “inexpensive” community-based intervention and remediation, and less into building more “expensive” prisons, and legislating stiffer penalties for non-violent offenders.
So why haven’t we done this already—don’t we see this as just common sense? Apparently not, explains the Pew Center, which points to dramatic increases over the last twenty years in prison population and construction, and in widely divergent judicial and corrections policies. State-by-state analyses show our corrections systems are our second largest expense after Medicaid.
Changing Lives through Literature is one of those “inexpensive,” community-based programs that should be part of the President’s plan, but more on that later.
While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.
Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.
They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.
It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?
Kelly DeSouza is an English teacher and mentor at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School. She is the mother of two beautiful children and lives in Lakeville, MA.
I have had many positive experiences with facilitating Changing Lives Through Literature groups in the juvenile drug court. These experiences are all the direct result of listening and connecting with the adolescents in the group; in doing this, I have not only listened but heard the students express what is important to them.
Enter sixteen-year-old Amelia. This past CLTL group was her third time participating and it was completely voluntary. She was an active participant and missed only one class, because she was moving back home. Amelia said, on more than one occasion, “We need more programs like this. It really helps.” Her sincerity is reflected in her not being required to attend the class; nevertheless she was a faithful participant.
Erin is another sixteen-year-old girl who also thought we needed more programs. She enjoyed the book we read, The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. The book was about an unfit mother and her three children. As part of our writing assignment, the class wrote letters to their moms expressing everything that they are thankful for. Erin is fluent in American Sign Language and had always been uncomfortable publicly signing to her mother. At our CLTL graduation ceremony, Erin signed the thank you letter she had written to her mom as it was being read.
Yolanda is a thirteen-year-old who absolutely loved our class. She was always getting into trouble at school, but always shined in our classes. Yolanda often said she wished English at school was like this. Unfortunately, Yolanda was locked up before our graduation; the first thing she did was call a lawyer to ask if she could be placed in the next class when she is released. Stella Ribeiro (probation officer) and I are looking forward to her return.
The teens that we work with have multi-faceted problems: drug and alcohol abuse, truancy, poor home lives, gang involvement, peer pressure, and many other issues present in today’s society. For three hours, every week, the students are able to liberate themselves from the challenges of their world; how do they escape? Many would not believe the answer–literature.
I don’t think the students like the class because of the books we read, but rather what the books provide. We read, journal, and discuss; this is the key to getting through to the participants. The characters from the pages suddenly become real people that we can analyze and learn from. We have had many healthy debates, learned from the students, and they from us. The classes offer a safe environment because we are all there for the same reason. Students aren’t graded, judged, or tested but are appreciated. The focus is on them, their insight into the literature, and how situations are applicable in today’s world. It is a safe way to discuss options and choices with only hypothetical consequences.
I had a wise professor who used to speak of “the journey” as being more important than the end. The Changing Lives Through Literature class is an important journey for our youth; it is the catalyst that will transport them from where they have been to somewhere they didn’t think was possible, or know exists.
Start watching the first episode of San Quentin Film School above and visit here to continue it in its entirety.
Matt Kelley, Online Communications Manager at the Innocence Project and Change.org blogger, recently told his readers about the new Discovery Channel series, San Quentin Film School.
He writes :
The series, on the Discovery Channel, is an immensely watchable and moving portrait of life behind bars and a window on the potential for inmates to change through creative expression.
The full series can be seen here on YouTube. It’s cable TV so there’s some sensationalizing of prison life, but compared to COPS and CSI this show is a ray of light. The producers of “Paradise Lost” shopped the idea to two dozen prisons before San Quentin officials expressed interest. If only programs like this were replicated in prisons and jails across the country, we could reduce recidivism by showing prisoners that we care about their success and that there are countless paths to creative expression and productive work.
San Quentin is a leader in innovative programs like this – partnerships with nonprofits that improve the lives of prisoners and help in their successful reintegration into society. The Prison University Project has provided university education at the prison for 13 years and has inspired countless similar programs around the country.
Check out “San Quentin Film School.” If you like it, write to your state’s Department of Corrections and ask them if they do anything like it. Pressure from the outside can make things happen behind bars.