Tag Archives: prison

CLTL Featured on “Writers Who Kill” Blog

The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.

By Shari Randall

Can a paperback copy of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter do what jail cannot – change an offender’s life for the better?
Readers know that books can take us to other worlds, provide entertainment, information, insight, solace. Now there is evidence that literature can also transform the lives of people in the justice system.
Seasonal Wanderer

Seasonal Wanderer

The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.

The original CLTL program included eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felony convictions. Waxler wanted to test his program with “tough guys” who would prove that he hadn’t stacked the deck with more highly educated, less dangerous participants. At the end of the program, the tough guys’ recidivism rate was only 19 percent, compared to 45 percent for the general prison population. The results were impressive, but Waxler said that the statistics were not what interested him. He knew the program was working when one young drug dealer told him of his excitement at reading Jack London’sSea Wolf, and how his newfound love of books led him to start reading to his three-year-old daughter.
How does CLTL work? Offenders serve part of their sentence by meeting in small groups to discuss books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. These and the other books chosen for the program have characters that face serious choices and issues. The most unique part of CLTL is the participation of members of the legal and law enforcement communities. Participants could find themselves talking about Langston Hughes’ poems with a judge or a probation officer, and a college professor facilitator. By sitting around a table, listening to each other, participants feel valued for their ideas, not judged for their crimes. Participants see each other as human beings, not as statistics or faceless uniforms.
CLTL programs are in place in 14 states and have been adopted in the UK. One longitudinal study of 600 CLTL participants in Massachusetts showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism for those who completed the program and a 16 percent drop for those who did not. In cases where participants reoffended, there was a significant drop in the number and severity of the type of crime committed. These are better results than many more expensive programs, and the program has been particularly effective for juvenile offenders.
With U. S. Bureau of Justice statistics stating that prisoners cost U. S. taxpayers more than $70 billion  and the New York Times reporting that 1 in 100 Americans are currently or have been in the criminal justice system, we need ideas and programs like CLTL.
Compare $70 billion to the cost of a box of paperback books, a facilitator, and an hour a week around a table in a library.
As the CLTL webpage states, literature has the power to transform. Yet, one article I read stated that CLTL has been a “hard sell” to government officials, who doubt the effectiveness of a literature based program.
You have to wonder. Why would states prefer to spend billions on jails instead of buying a few boxes of books?
Is there a book that changed your life?

 

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. 

Salvation Through a Pad and a Pen

By Eve Pearce
row of prison cells

It is amazing how much writing can help somebody to unlock their potential and turn their life around. All some people need is an outlet for their creativity in order to get onto the right track. One of the best examples of this is a friend who I shall refer to as “Stevie.” When we were growing up, Stevie was a pleasant, happy kid. He was nice and polite to everyone and never put a foot out of place. Nobody would ever have expected that he would become a criminal in later life.

Stevie continued to be personable and affable into his late teens. When he was eighteen, he learned to drive and we would cruise about together, enjoying the excitement that was to be gained from having a set of wheels at our disposal. He was a typical adolescent driver, honking at girls and turning his speaker system up to full volume.

However, as is the case with many younger drivers, Stevie’s lack of experience soon led to an accident. He hit the back of a truck one day and went straight through the front windscreen, leaving him with significant scarring on his face.

Scarred for life

The injuries that Stevie sustained were not life threatening but damaged his self-confidence. He developed a condition known as social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by fear of social situations.

The Stevie that I once knew was now a thing of the past. He spent most of his time indoors and struggled even to talk to his closest friends, stuttering and stammering his words and obviously struggling. The accident had stripped him of his ability to socialize.

Descent into crime

Stevie’s condition left him feeling useless. He completed a university degree but felt that inability to muster up the courage to speak during job interviews would prevent him from ever finding meaningful employment—so he embarked upon a life of crime instead. He started off selling marijuana and soon progressed to cocaine, using his newfound edginess as a mask for his anxiety. Stevie was still just as scared of meeting people as ever but covered it up with fake aggression and attempted to be somebody that he was not. When he was twenty-three, Stevie sold drugs to an undercover police officer and received a prison sentence.individual prison cell

Discovering his talent

Stevie expected his time inside prison to be a living hell, but it was in there that he discovered that he had a talent. In order to pass the time behind his cell door, he would write about his experiences and soon realized that he had a gift.

Everybody he showed his writing to remarked upon how well he captured the details of prison. He soon had prisoners approaching him to help them put their lives into words.

A new beginning

Stevie left prison knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He was still very socially phobic despite having been locked up with other people 24/7, but decided that it was not going to hold him back from making something of himself. He set out to become a writer. He sent articles to magazines and newspapers and soon had regular slots in several publications. Nowadays he makes a living from his work. Although he is yet to cure himself of his condition, he no longer needs to rely upon crime for his income. He is now a full-time freelance writer.

Although he committed immoral acts in the past, Stevie is by no means a bad person. He is somebody who made mistakes and allowed the trials and tribulations that cropped up in his life to drive him to partake in illegal activity.

Writing was his savior. It not only provided him with a living but also gave him an outlet to express his feelings so that he did not keep them bottled up and grow depressed about them. His story is a testament to the rehabilitative powers of putting pen to paper. By tapping into people’s talent for the written word, we can unleash their true potential and help then to become valuable members of society.

Eve Pearce is a full-time feature writer as well as an art and photography aficionado. She has written for numerous sites on various topics over the past few years.

Images provided by Eve Pearce.

Positive Social Implications of Reading

By Joshua John

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Brazil’s prison system has come up with an innovative program to shorten the sentences of selected prisoners: Redemption Through Reading. The basic premise is that prisoners can take four days off their sentences for every book that they read, at a maximum of 12 books a year. They can choose from classic works of literature, philosophy and science, and must write a grammatically correct essay on each book. Lawyer Andre Kehdi praises the benefits of the program, as prisoners leave “more enlightened” and with an “enlarged vision of the world.” While prisons have long had libraries and educational programs, more prisons are recognizing the specific positive social effects that reading can have on inmates.

Breaking the Cycle
A major dilemma with prisons is recidivism. Once acclimated to a life of crime, many prisoners become repeat offenders. For example: Over 50 percent of Colorado inmates return to prison within only five years, according to the Colorado Department of Education. One way to break this cycle is to reduce the levels of low literacy among prisoners, giving them access to educational materials, current news, topics of interest and a more constructive way to “manage their leisure time.” Fast Facts – Recent Statistics from the Library Research Service indicates that 83 percent of released prisoners claim that the prison library helped them to acquire life skills needed in order to be successful in their communities.

The Need to Fund Literacy Programs
ProLiteracy America offers some sad statistics: Almost half of prisoners enter prison without a high school diploma, and the average reading level of prisoners is below the fifth grade level. Prisoners lack the reading skills needed to be successful members of society prior to entering the system. Quality literacy programs in prisons may be their last opportunities at leading normal lives upon their release.

Program Suggestions
ERIC Digests offers several suggestions for reading programs that will help prisoners build their literacy skills and, in turn, their ability to be successful in the community. As with all students, prisoners have different strengths and learning styles, so meaningful materials should be selected. Materials written by former prisoners can be very powerful. Special incentives and awards can also be motivating, and the low funding can sometimes be overcome with local volunteer tutors, who additionally provide inmates with connections to the outside world. Literacy building should not be dropped after a prisoner is released. Prisoners need transition plans, with skill-building programs that continue to follow and support them.

Some Final Thoughts
Stanford University conducted studies that show a strong connection between reading and social skills in children. Poor readers tend to show increased aggression that they carry with them through the end of their formal schooling, necessitating interventions that focus on closing the gaps early on. The good news is that it is never too late to gain literacy skills and develop a love for reading. An example of this is Jim Henry, a fisherman who learned to read at 92 and went on to become an author at 98. People can turn their lives around with enough will power; books may just unlock that hidden potential.

Joshua John works in community relations for the University of Southern California’s Virtual Master of Social Work program, which provides social workers the opportunity to earn online social work degrees and apply for social work licenses.

Image: Robert Couse-Baker, flickr.com

Illness in the System

photo by Valery Titievsky on Flickr
Benjamin Fleury-Steiner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware.  His most recent book is Dying Inside: The HIV/AIDS Ward at Limestone Prison.

 

The overwhelming majority of two-million plus offenders locked away in the nation’s jails and prisons are poor, non-violent drug offenders.  Indeed, only a fraction represents America’s so called “worst of the worst” violent offenders. This observation is not controversial and has been well documented in an imposing empirical literature.
 

Another observation, however, of what exactly locking up so many  human beings means is rarely addressed by academics and the public alike:  Most of the people swept up in the prison boom of the last three-plus decades lack health insurance and disproportionately suffer from a host of serious-if-untreated illnesses such as Diabetes, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.  
 

When we consider gross carceral overcrowding and dwindling budgets for medical resources, it is not surprising that the federal government and the states have been forced to contract out health services with a focus on cost-cutting.   In this way, even the most well intentioned health care workers and wardens simply cannot address and therefore must learn to live with increasing numbers of sick prisoners that needlessly die in their midst.
 

It is very easy place blame on politicians, prison officials, or doctors for this disturbing state of affairs.  But playing such a blame game is counter-productive. The bottom line is this:  Nearly four decades of locking up an unprecedented number of the chronically ill uninsured poor is institutionally unsustainable and, most importantly, inhumane and immoral.  

 

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Lost Souls Gaining the World

photo by f-l-e-x

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?

 

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Juvenile vs. Adult Corrections: How Do They Stack Up?

zlatkarp

 

Radek M. Gadek is a graduate of the Boston University’s Master in Criminal Justice program. He is the founder of Criminal Justice Online, an interactive blog dedicated to criminal justice academia and law enforcement careers.

 
Since its inception, the correctional system in the U.S. aimed to keep crime out of the streets. There are notable differences, however, when it comes to the way juveniles and adults are ultimately being helped while within the “system.”  One must consider the age of an adult person in the United States is eighteen, and often, this is where the line gets drawn between being convicted of a crime as a juvenile and as an adult. 

 

As long as a juvenile is being tried in a juvenile court and is convicted of a crime there, they will not enter the adult facilities until they turn the legal age of adulthood (exceptions apply). This makes a huge difference when it comes to rehabilitation, suppression of future crimes, and length of sentence.

 

It’s widely known that each correction system uses incarceration to punish offenders. However, rehabilitation is often the key concept of juvenile corrections, and not adult corrections.  There are more incentive programs offered for adolescent criminals.  For example, American Youth Prevention Forum states that

 

Services found to be effective in juvenile justice include: smaller, 15-25 bed, programs that reduce violent incidents; low staff/student ratios that lead to higher academic achievement; five hours of academic instruction per day (usually required by law); cognitive restructuring programs that, among other things, help young people understand thinking errors which get them into trouble; and gradual returns to the community from secure facilities through day treatment which reduces recidivism, results in higher levels of academic achievement and provides more connections to employers.

 

This kind of care is not fully available in the adult correctional system-it focuses stringently on punishment and offers only a handful of rehabilitation initiatives when compared to its juvenile counterpart.  It’s a shame. Even though many first time offenders commit crimes before their 21st birthday, society contends such services would not work well with adult prisoners and would be a waste of taxpayer money at the benefit of “hardened” criminals.

 

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