Reformative Literature: To What End?

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by Jenni Baker 
 

In his recent post, Lawrence Jablecki discussed the conflict between retribution and redemption in criminal sentencing. After recently reading Truman Capote’s nonfiction account of the 1959 Clutter family murders, In Cold Blood, I suggest that we have a similar choice to make in our selection of literature for Changing Lives Through Literature sessions.
 

In CLTL programs, we stress that everyone has a story. Murderer Perry Smith’s true story—woven on Capote’s sometimes-subjective loom—is as relevant to our discussions as the fictional characters we bring to the table each session (Richard Hickock’s story is also relevant, but I focus on Smith here). As I followed the story of Smith from early childhood to his death on the gallows, I found myself wondering, How important are redemptive or retributive endings in the lives of the literary characters about whom we ask criminal offenders to read?
 

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CLCM Monthly Reader: December

Click on the links in each piece to read more about the people, news, and events featured here. 

Ex-New York gang leader Louis Ferrante shares how literature changed his life

photo by jerry bauer

An article posted by the British news site Rochdale Online reviews New York gang leader-turned-author Louis Ferrante’s visit to a local literacy celebration event. Ferrante, a former member of the Gambino crime family and perpetrator of many high stakes robberies, served 8 1/2  years in maximum security prisons for refusing to cooperate with the family’s associates. He read his first book while in prison–a step that started Ferrante down the path of reading and writing frequently. Ferrante later went on to write a book himself, Unlocked: A Journey from Prison to Proust, published in March 2008. 
 

In the Rochdale article, Ferrante speaks about the transformation he underwent while reading literature in prison:

“I realised that I had a choice to make. I could choose to be different and lead a law abiding life if I truly wanted to. The day I decided to be different was the day my whole life changed. When I started to read, I realised that I could escape beyond the prison walls. I read about people who had made something of themselves and I started to believe that is was not too late for me. From reading a book I began to think I could write a book, and so that’s what I did.” 


 

Hamilton College’s English Department discusses its fall course in prison literature

hamilton college logoIn a press release issued on December 23, Hamilton College student Nora Grenfell discusses a recent English Department course on prisoner-authored literature entitled “Booked: Prison Writing.” The course’s instructor, Associate Professor Doran Larson, previously led a creative writing workshop for inmates at the infamous Attica Correctional Facility in New York. He proposed the Fall 2008 course as a means of introducing students to the human side of prison life, using both carefully selected readings and a mandatory visit to the Attica prison. The course description  reads as follows:
 

Prisons have been the settings for scenes of tragedy, comedy, romance and social protest. While aware of this use of the prison as a literary device, we will read writers who have actually suffered incarceration. We will read canonical texts (by Plato, Boethius, King), post-colonial prison writers (Abani, Thiong’o), and the work of men and women inside the American prison system. Among other requirements, students will read work by and visit men in a writing class taught inside Attica Correctional Facility. 
 

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Happy Holidays!

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We’re off for the holiday and will bring you a new post on Saturday, December 27th. 

In the meantime, why not take another look at the discussions happening on some of December’s posts?

 

Criminal Sentencing: Retribution or Redemption?

by Lawrence T. Jablecki
 

jablecki1Fourteen men, ages 30’s-60’s, clad in white, incarcerated behind steel bars for crimes of violence, from 10-30 years, seated in a classroom discussing crime and punishment. When asked if they were willing to discuss the impact of their crime and incarceration on their families, their collective reply was “sure, doing time has made us tough.” Almost immediately, the room was transformed into the silence of a chapel as the teacher asked them one by one to share their stories. Two hours passed in a flash during which most of those tough guys were choked with emotion, had tears in their eyes, and a few cried with no shame. The emotional intensity in the room was an indescribable experience.

 

The above event took place two weeks ago in a Texas prison and for this writer who has taught university classes to prison inmates for 20 years, it was a totally unique and unforgettable experience. And it is a real life confirmation of the reasons why Changing Lives Through Literature co-director Bob Waxler can feel genuine compassion for the fictional character of Cholly Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Waxler is an incorrigible idealist and I am proud to be one of his friends. The fact and depth of his idealism are eloquently stated in his recent post “Prisons are Built with Stones of Law. He tells us that a few of the judges who read Cholly’s story are compelled “… to see from a new perspective offenders appearing before their bench. Each offender has a richly complex story….It makes judgment difficult, raises questions about the perplexing relationship between mercy and justice, compassion and judgment.”
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The tragic reality, however, is that the vast majority of judges who preside over our Federal and State criminal justice systems lack the temperament and training to engage in this type of reflection. They administer systems with penal codes which give priority to retribution, i.e., offenders must receive their ‘just deserts.’ The belief that many offenders who are sentenced to prison, including many for violent crimes, could find redemption in local communities under the rubric of Restorative Justice, is still widely viewed like an alien from another planet.
 

In 1991, when Waxler and Kane created Changing Lives Through Literature, they certainly knew that it was an unconventional alternative to prison. I am persuaded, however, that they did not realize the extent to which it is a radical and frontal assault on the crime control policies which have been in the driver’s seat in this country for the last 30 years. They were insurgents who planted the seeds of a much needed revolution in American criminal justice. I am very proud of the fact that I joined the revolutionary forces in 1996.

 


 

 

Dr. Lawrence T. Jablecki is the former director of the Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Angleton, Texas and currently teaches in the Sociology Department at Rice University. He co-founded the Texas chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature in 1997 with Judge Robert E. May.

Lessons in the Real Cost of Prisons

by Jordan Beltran Gonzales

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.   Edited by Lois Ahrens, with comic art by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones, and Susan Willmarth.  Oakland: PM Press, 96pp, paperback, $12.95.
 

41This anthology combines three engaging and educational comics with dozens of letters and testimonials from readers. These 100 pages yield a thorough breakdown of how America’s economic and social addiction to imprisoning Black, Brown, and poor people for particular behaviors has spiraled into an epidemic of mass incarceration. Through vivid black-and-white images, well-researched background information, and case studies of women and men in context, readers gain vital knowledge and access to progressive networks that will transform this crisis.
 

The task of critical storytelling and teaching about life-and-death issues is a careful balance, which the writers and artists achieve well. In each comic, readers find alternative solutions to prisons as we currently know them, learn about organizing successes, and gain feedback of how to teach teachers and how to train trainers.
 

Editor Lois Ahrens is also the founder and director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which creates popular educational materials by justice policy researchers, artists, and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration. Potential readers span elementary schools through colleges, community-based organizations, medical and mental healthcare providers, legislators and voters, and people directly surviving inside.

 

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CLTL Juvenile Programs: What They’re Up Against

by Tam Lin Neville

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A few years ago I visited a Changing Lives Through Literature Juvenile class in New Bedford, Massachusetts.   The kids were only 14 – 16 years old but when PO Stella Rebiero asked how many in the class had lost someone to violence, every hand went up.  In other programs, I found a similar history of violence, with students wearing “R.I.P.” T-shirts bearing dates that told the story of a young person whose life was cut short prematurely.  In the women’s class that I teach, composed mainly of African-American single mothers, many talked of the necessity of keeping up funeral insurance for their sons.
 

With the help of Yale Magrass’ post on Dec.6th, “All Quiet on the Prison Front,” I want to look at the implications of the wounds these adolescents carry as they pertain to our program.  Magrass says that there is an inherent contradiction in rehab programs, especially where men and boys are concerned. Ostensibly, the purpose of rehab is to help a client adjust to our society and return to it as an active, productive member.  But Magrass asks a question that is seldom raised:  “Is this a society to which we should adjust?” 
 

He doesn’t think so:
 

A militarist state must raise boys, ready and able to commit violence, ideally enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies….Rulers, who need cannon fodder, do not want an education system that makes all students independent creative thinkers….The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools turn over their student rosters to military recruiters.  A school is deemed successful if it sends its products to the army as well as to college. 
 

In our classrooms and discussion groups, we, as CLTL judges, facilitators, and POs, work to build a society that counteracts this culture of violence.  Is such a world possible? 
 

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Chicken Soup for the CLTL Soul

by Wayne St. Pierre

Wayne St. PierreThose of us who change lives with literature operate on the premise that reading and sharing stories can open the gateways of self-reflection and healing. As a participant in Changing Lives Through Literature for 17 years and a facilitator of a spinoff program for the past 18 months, I have dozens of stories of my own.  I will offer two and invite others to grace us with their stories about telling stories.
 

About 18 months ago I used this notion to create a musical version of Changing Lives Through Literature, called Inspiring Stories. I go into drug/alcohol rehabilitation facilities and the local prison with my program, armed with my guitar and harmonica and copies of lyrics to my songs. After performing a song, we have a discussion, much like we do with a short story in CLTL.  Music is just a hook. 
 

In CLTL sessions, I participate alongside one or two probation officers, judges, attorneys, guests, a professor. In my Inspiring Stories program, I am alone with the class. Further, while the CLTL groups I attend have 8 to 12 students, my Inspiring Stories groups usually range from 25 to 40 people.  Another difference is that I am on their turf. Usually, at the University, it is the participants who are off balance. The first time I was in a room alone with 40 inmates at the prison, however, I recognized how they felt.  Teachers and performers both know an audience smells and reacts to fear. 
 

On that first night at the prison, I had passed out lyrics about a young man, who had been raised in dysfunction.  He had used commercial fishing to get away from the noise of his life on land.  While passing out copies of the lyric, I asked if there were any commercial fishermen in the room.  Several nodded or raised their hands to acknowledge spending time at sea. 
 

During the discussion part, I asked a man who had raised his hand, but had not yet spoken, if he could relate to the geographic cure being talked about.  He said, “Look, I was late from fishing and you were the PO who violated me on my probation.  I am now serving a two-year jail sentence, because I was late from fishing and didn’t report to you.  I don’t want to talk about fishing.”  The room was silent for about three seconds and then erupted in a thunder of deep belly laughs.  The date was December 20, 2007, just five days before Christmas. With all those men who were to spend the holidays in jail, I couldn’t bring myself to darken the moment.  Though the man was two years late and I had had a warrant for his arrest the whole time, I let the group laugh and took the brunt, as it were, myself.  It was magical to see all those men, dressed in their prison issued “tans,” having a good laugh right before the holidays
 

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All Quiet on the Prison Front

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by Yale Magrass

Changing Lives Through Literature may be one of the best rehabilitation programs ever conceived. However, the goal of rehabilitation is to help someone adjust to society, and indeed, once someone has engaged in violent crime they need to be brought to recognize how self-destructive that is. Implicitly, in rehabilitation, the question “is this a society to which you should adjust?” is seldom raised.  Society becomes the standard to which the individual must conform. Nevertheless, if someone is to turn away from violence, he (males in particular) must understand the forces which drew him to it.

The United States may present itself as peace-loving democracy, but it is actually a militaristic empire, conceived in slavery and genocide, with a long history of atrocities against many peoples, including Native Americans, Africans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Vietnamese and Iraqis. Whether violence is innate within human nature or contradictory to it, the people who orchestrate such a society need to produce cannon fodder, ready to kill and die at their command.

The military and prisons draw from similar populations.  Judges sometimes offered enlisting in the army as an alternative sentence to jail.  I propose including All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, often acclaimed as the greatest novel ever written about war, in the repertoire of Changing Lives Through Literature. 

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Letters About Literature

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Programs like Changing Lives Through Literature and bibliotherapy-based rehabilitation programs often use literature to rehabilitate individuals who have committed crimes or experienced traumatic life events. While these programs demonstrate that an introduction to literature later in life is often successful, many groups are getting a head start in dealing with these issues by encouraging students to apply literature to their lives from an early age.

Letters About Literature, sponsored by the Library of Congress Center for the Book, is a national reading and writing promotional program for children and young adults that encourages students in grades 4-12 to think about the way literature has impacted their life. The program asks students to write a letter to the author of their favorite nonfiction or fiction book, short story, essay, poem, or speech and reflect on the following questions:          

Did the content of the literature mirror your life in some way? What strengths or weaknesses do you share with the subject in your piece of literature? What did this literature show you about your world that you had never noticed before? What surprised you about yourself while you were reading the literature? Why was the literature meaningful to you? 

Letters About Literature awards yearly prizes to the best essays from students in grades 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12. Winners receive a $500 Target gift card and a $10,000 grant for their community library.

Guiding students to examine the relationship between literature and their lives paves the way for continued practice later in life. Teachers and parents who encourage them to find literature with which to connect give them a place towards which to turn in trying times and provide a safe venue to explore the negative and positive consequences of life choices. Children and young adults will continue to make connections between themselves and the characters about which they read long into adulthood. 

To read excerpts of two insightful student essays from the 2008 contest, click below to read more.  

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