by Lawrence T. Jablecki
Fourteen 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.”
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.