The Power of a Single Session

by Jenni Baker 

New Bedford / Fall River groupMuch has been said about the difference that Changing Lives Through Literature makes in the lives of criminal offenders who attend the program. Studies on individuals who successfully complete the program reveal that their chances of committing another crime are less than half than that of offenders sentenced to traditional probation.

What’s not so easily measurable, however, is the impact of CLTL on the lives of the facilitators, probation officers, judges, and other visitors who attend the sessions. In the absence of statistics, personal accounts of one’s experiences with the program are the only measure our organization has to analyze the powerful sway that extends beyond the probationers. In what I hope will be a trend among CLTL participants, I offer up as testimony my own preconceptions of and experience with the New Bedford/Fall River, Massachusetts CLTL program beginning in Spring 2008.


I initially became involved with Changing Lives Through Literature through a project in a grants writing course. I was curious about the meetings and decided to attend one session to get a better grasp of the organization. My enthusiasm towards attending the meeting slightly waned, however, as I watched the participants slowly file into the nearby conference room on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. Dressed in baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts, many of the participants were men and women I’d be afraid to pass alone on a dark street. They looked hardened and tough—certainly not the types to enjoy reading and discussing The Old Man and the Sea. I instantly questioned what I was getting myself into and doubted the quality and complexity of discussion that could arise amongst such a group.


Continue reading


Taylor Stoehr Wins UMass President’s Public Service Award

by Bert Stern 

taylorstoehrFrom the window where I write, I can see clearly to my neighbor’s house across the street and, on a good day, the tops of the Prudential and Hancock Buildings.  But this Wednesday, Tam Neville and I found ourselves at the University of Massachusetts Club, on the 33rd floor of 225 Franklin Street, looking out at 90% of the Boston Harbor.  That seemed just the right view for the occasion.  Tam and I, along with Lee Roy Sims and Ron Bradfield  (recent graduates who now serve masterfully as volunteer discussion- leaders for our on-going fall program) were there as guests of Taylor Stoehr.  Taylor was one of six recipients of the President’s Public Service Award, and it seemed that most of the upper echelon UMass administrators were there for the occasion

It was exactly ten years ago when Bob Waxler received the same honor.  Now, once again, CLTL was in the limelight.  There was much to enjoy on this occasion – for example, seeing Lee Roy and Ron, utterly at ease as they always are, chatting away with Winston Langley, Associate Provost and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs.

But beyond the view and the company stood the ceremony itself, which honored six remarkable people, all of them committed to giving back to the community some share of what had been given to them.  The recipients each had an opportunity to speak, and Taylor spent his share of the time giving a brief history of CLTL and providing a glimpse of the Dorchester Men’s Program.  He did so by briefly summarizing our class of the night before, in which we talked about hitting bottom, and about why some people get back up while others don’t.  That session is a turning point for many of our students, and Taylor let the audience get a taste of that significant point in our curriculum.

taylorstoehr2Taylor ended with some words about what the CORI system is, and how it hangs over the efforts of our graduates to find housing and jobs. Further, today many colleges and universities deny financial aid and even admission to students who have a CORI.  The response to Taylor’s urgent plea for CORI reforms hit a responsive cord with his audience, most of whom applauded his point.

As to us four in the audience who directly or indirectly worked with Taylor, the ceremony was an occasion of joy and pride.  It was good to see so worthy a man as Taylor honored, along with five peers, and it was a proud moment for the program.

Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

by Allan McDougall

missingsarah1This post is a review of an excellent Canadian memoir that probes themes of female agency and victimization in the face of poverty, drug addiction, and neglect. Missing Sarah (2005), by Maggie de Vries, is the author’s autobiographical memoir of her sister, Sarah de Vries, a sex worker living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Sarah was adopted as a baby, and grew into a bright, funny, artistic child. Yet, as Maggie reflects, Sarah’s mixed-race heritage—partially African-Canadian, Mexican, and Native—caused her to feel isolated from her white siblings. In the book, Maggie reflects that these feelings of segregation may have driven Sarah to seek solace on the streets of Downtown Vancouver, partying, and experiments with drugs in her teens.

Sarah ran away from home before completing high school and eventually became addicted to cocaine and heroine, working as a prostitute to pay for drugs. As Maggie grew to accept and deal with Sarah’s lifestyle, she implicitly learned about street life. Missing Sarah is as much a memoir as a social commentary on urban prostitution policies.

Though Canadians idealize Vancouver as Canada’s California, the city has a sordid history of prostitution laws. During the late 70s and early 80s, rezoning laws allowed police to harass prostitutes from all over Vancouver into the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, thus isolating them from safer, more well lit areas of the city. This process of ‘city beautification’ exacerbated violence against prostitutes, and between 1979 and 2003, 69 female sex trade workers disappeared from the Downtown Eastside and were never seen again. The fundamental goal of Missing Sarah is for readers to recognize that these weren’t just “sex trade workers,” these were women with families, often with children of their own.

Continue reading

CLCM Monthly Reader: November

Once a month, we feature relevant news, articles, and links about issues concerning criminal justice, incarceration alternatives, and the influence of literature on our lives. Click on the red text to open the site in a new window.

Check out our links below and give us your take on one or more of the issues they address. Have you read or watched something (a book, newspaper article, website, news clip, etc.) interesting lately? Tell us about it in the comments section!

Justice Transition CoalitionSmart on Crime: Recommendations for the Next Administration and Congress

On November 6, the 2009 Justice Transition Coalition released its recommendations for the Obama administration and members of Congress. From their site: 

After the 2008 elections, America’s policymakers will take a fresh look at the criminal justice system, which so desperately needs their attention. To assist with that review, leaders and experts from all aspects of the criminal justice community spent months collaboratively identifying key issues and gathering policy advice into one comprehensive set of recommendations for the new administration and Congress. This catalogue is the fruit of those labors.

The report calls for reform in fifteen key justice-related areas. Take a look at their recommendations for expanding alternatives to incarceration in federal sentencing guidelines and suggestions for juvenile justice reform.  




photo by David Levene for The GuardianShafts of Sunlight

In this article from the November 15th edition of The Guardian, Jeanne Winterson talks about the consoling power of poetry as a T.S. Eliot festival opens in London 

From her article: 

[When] people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is….Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain.

Continue reading

Prisons Are Built with Stones of Law

by Robert Waxler

courtesy of Library of Congress

I have been following Cholly Breedlove’s tormented journey from the day he was born (thrown in a garbage heap by his mother, abandoned for a dice game by his father). And now, about three-fourths of the way through Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I spot him “staggering home, reeling drunk” on a Saturday afternoon. He sees his daughter, Pecola, washing dishes in the kitchen. And he brutally attacks, rapes her.

There’s no excuse for Cholly’s behavior, no justification for what he has done, I begin to think. Yet Morrison has given me the long and tortured history of this man, the complex intricacies of his story. If he appears to be a monster, he is, nevertheless, human. He is not a stereotype, but a man. Through her poetic narrative, Morrison makes clear that Cholly Breedlove is a complicated mixture of hatred and tenderness, of lust and love, guilt and pity. Reading Morrison’s words with care, I realize the possibility that, if I walked in Cholly’s shoes, his rage could be mine. I cannot forgive him, but suddenly I feel compassion for Cholly.

Sometimes judges reading this book tell me that Cholly’s story compels them to see from a new perspective offenders appearing before their bench. Each offender has a richly complex story, the judges say. It makes judgment difficult, raises questions about the perplexing relationship between mercy and justice, compassion and judgment.


Continue reading

Youth Uprising’s Poetry and Prison Project

picture-1Youth Uprising‘s Poetry and Prison Project is a youth-led citizen journalism effort that uses poetry to speak about the effects of mass incarceration on young people in urban America. The project’s multimedia study, Poetry and Prison features videos of program participants reading their original poems and discussing how writing poetry impacts their lives. 

One of the program participants, poet and researcher Alberto Perez, is interested in exploring the interactions between poetry and prison. In this short clip (2:45) Perez discusses how writing poetry gives those impacted by incarceration a link with humanity and a positive vehicle for the emotions they experience.


Perez has also written about the intersections between prison and poetry. In his essay “Poetry: A Means for Prisoners to Maintain a Hold of their Humanity” (published in the Spring 2008 edition of The Berkeley McNair Research Journal), Perez explains that individuals who enter the prison system undergo a “hardening” process whereby they learn to withhold their emotions. Writing poetry gives these emotions a safe outlet. As Perez insists, “Convicts who write poetry find that it enables them to privately connect with feelings that they must openly negate.”

Continue reading

The Right Books at the Right Times

heartby Jenni Baker

When outsiders talk about Changing Lives Through Literature, they often emphasize the power of literature to change the lives of the criminal offenders who enter the program. Participating in the CLTL sessions as a graduate student constantly reminds me of how transformative the experience of reading and discussing literature can be for anyone who picks up a book.

This understanding of the power of literature remained on the back burner of my mind during my college years.  As an eighteen-year old, I trumpeted my belief in the importance of literature to the world by becoming an English major. I found, however, that the discussions of literature in my college classrooms revolved not around how we individually related to the text, but on our ability to identify themes, symbols, and rhetorical devices. I would arrive to class aglow with enthusiasm about an assigned reading, only to have the fire snuffed out by our distant, critical interpretations of the text. I quickly learned that one’s personal experience with the text was of little significance in the public forum of the classroom.

If we are not forced or encouraged to articulate our personal reactions and relations to the works we read, it is easy to forget what first sparked our connection with literature and what drives us to keep reading. And forget I did—until I started attending Changing Lives Through Literature sessions this past spring.

Continue reading

Welcome to Changing Lives, Changing Minds

Welcome to Changing Lives, Changing Minds, the official blog of Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL)!

Changing Lives, Changing Minds is a forum for anyone interested in CLTL, criminal justice reform, alternatives to incarceration, and the power of literature to transform our lives.

The Pew Center on the States reported earlier this year that approximately one out of every one hundred Americans are behind bars and that 50 percent of inmates released will find themselves incarcerated again within three years.

The road to change begins through awareness and discussion. Changing Lives, Changing Minds will discuss news and ongoing concerns surrounding CLTL, criminal justice reform, and the struggle for incarceration alternatives twice a week. We invite you to share your insight and opinions in the comment section of each entry.

Here are four ways you can get in on the action:


Bookmark our site

Adding Changing Lives, Changing Minds to your “Bookmarks” or “Favorites” means that you’ll be just one click away from our blog!


Subscribe to our RSS feed

Want to receive the latest Changing Lives, Changing Minds entries as we publish them? An RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed can deliver our blog posts to your email inbox. Click here to open the feed page, then locate the link for subscribing by email. (Note: not all email clients allow users to subscribe to RSS feeds.)


Comment, comment, comment!

Discussion and debate are central to Changing Lives, Changing Minds. Your comments are always welcomed and encouraged—no matter how short or long in length and whether you want to agree with us, share some insight, or voice a different opinion.


Write a guest blog

Changing Lives, Changing Minds will feature many guest bloggers from different disciplines. If you have an idea for a guest blog and would like to write a 500-750 word entry on our site, contact us at


Take a look around the blog and see what we have to offer. If you encounter any problems or bugs, or if you have any ideas for topics you’d like to see addressed here, please let us know by sending an email to the above address or by posting a comment below.

We are very excited about this new endeavor and we thank you for taking a look at our blog. We hope you’ll make Changing Lives, Changing Minds a regular destination and look forward to reading your opinions and comments on our posts!