CLCM Monthly Reader : February

photo by publik15 on Flickr

Tired of waiting until the end of the month to read the latest news about literature and criminal justice? Beginning in March, Changing Lives, Changing Minds will post these links as they hit the press. Keep up with the latest news in the field and read our biweekly essays by subscribing to our RSS feed or bookmarking our blog in your browser. 

February Reports on Criminal Justice and Alternative Sentencing

United States Sentencing Commission’s Alternative Sentencing in the Federal Criminal Justice System 

From the report:

This paper analyzes alternative sentences for federal offenders and, specifically, United States citizens sentenced under various types of alternatives. This analysis describes current federal sentencing policy governing alternative sentences and examines offenders with alternative sentences using the United States Sentencing Commission’s data. An analysis of factors associated with alternative sentences imposed for eligible offenders provides insight into considerations made by federal sentencing courts in determining whether to impose alternatives.


Pew Findings Provide First 50-State Comparison of Corrections Populations and Costs   

The Pew Center on the States announced the impending release of a follow-up report to last year’s One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. According to the Pew Center for the States website, the report will include the following: 

  • New data that ranks states by the proportion of their adult populations that are behind bars or under community supervision;
  • A breakdown of state corrections spending on prisons, probation and parole over the past 25 years, the first data of this kind available since 2002;
  • Fact sheets that provide corrections population and cost data for each state;
  • A series of policy recommendations with case studies that states can use to strengthen their corrections systems, cut costs and reduce crime.

The Sentencing Project’s The State of Sentencing 2008: Developments in Policy and Practice

From the Sentencing Project:

A new report by The Sentencing Project highlights 17 states that enacted sentencing and corrections reforms in 2008. [The report] finds that a nationwide budget crisis coupled with widespread prison overcrowding has led many states to address critical challenges in the areas of sentencing, drug policy, parole revocation, racial justice, felony disenfranchisement, juvenile justice, and higher education in prison….In the report, The Sentencing Project urges state policymakers and practitioners to reconsider sentencing policies that result in lengthy terms of incarceration; invest in strategies proven to reduce recidivism; and expand diversion and treatment programs beyond first-time and non-violent offenders.






Bibliotherapy: Reading to Heal
McNally Robinson has a new section in its stores: Bibliotherapy. And, for once, the section is comprised of quality literature instead of self-help books. 

Prison Rehab Programs Are Working. Prison Population Has Stopped Expanding

The Austin American Statesman reports: “Texas’ prison population has stopped growing for the time being, thanks in part to a controversial changes in corrections policy two years ago that ballooned funding for rehabilitation programs.”


Enjoy a Good Read for Good Health
The Jakarta Globe explains how reading classic literature can improve mental- and physical- well-being.

WBUR’s Project Dropout: Inmates Long for a Second Shot at School
Listen and watch an edition of radio station WBUR’s Project Dropout that explores the link between school dropouts and incarceration.

In Defense of Readers 
A List Apart’s Mandy Brown discusses the reading experience and guides web designers to change online text viewing from an act of “looking” to an act of “reading.”


Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Legal Landscapes, and Form Reform: The Case of Diversion
From the abstract: “[David B. Wexler’s paper] discusses several therapeutic and antitherapeutic legal landscapes operative in diversion, sentencing, and corrections, such as sentence credit for presentence confinement, the relevance of post-offense and post-sentence rehabilitation on sentence imposition, and the absence of motivational power in the federal mechanism of supervised release.”

Educators discuss integrating diversity, literacy, arts 
A workshop in New Bedford, MA examines how the arts can play a powerful role in helping students make the most of their education and individual potentials.


Preventing Crime 101: More College in Prison
In New York, the Correctional Association is encouraging the state to spend money on college courses for inmates, arguing that inmates with college degrees are less likely to reoffend.

Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind  
Published in September 2008 but new on our radar this month, Mark Bauerlein’s article explores how online reading differs–and affects–traditional print reading.’s Kindle Goes From Good to Better
The New York Times introduces the Kindle 2–the new e-book reader from Amazon–and explores how it’s changing the face of reading.


Juvenile Justice: A Case for Transparency and Research-Based Accountability

photo by rofanator on Flickr

by Jamie J. Fader 


Earlier this month, the nation was shocked to learn that two juvenile judges in Pennsylvania had been found guilty of taking $2.6 million in kickbacks from privately-run detention facilities in exchange for sending adolescent “customers” their way.  Hundreds of young people who went before these judges were remanded to facilities for minor offenses that would not typically result in incarceration as punishment (particularly where Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act requires that judges use the “least restrictive” setting to reform and treat delinquent youth). 


Although I shared in the outrage over the story, I was hardly surprised that it happened. The juvenile justice system is shrouded in secrecy, purportedly to protect the confidentiality of its young charges. This is only becoming truer as juvenile corrections – like its adult counterpart – undergoes increased privatization. However, this hidden nature of juvenile justice limits due process for young people and prevents the public from being aware of what happens inside juvenile correctional facilities.  Worse, it prevents us from demanding accountability from these institutions, particularly where solid research and evaluation is available to serve as a guide.


One of the more disheartening aspects of many (if not most) juvenile treatment facilities is the disconnect between the causes of crime and attempts to rehabilitate young offenders.  Delinquency is viewed as the failure of the individual to adapt to his/her surroundings, despite the volumes of research connecting juvenile crime to larger forces such as lack of opportunity, deteriorating neighborhoods, and failing schools.  Where any sort of programmatic theory exists inside juvenile treatment, it is often outdated and/or has received no empirical support.


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Reading Beyond the Page

photo by haumont on Flickr

by Kyessa L. Moore

I have been reading in one way or another my entire life.  In my first semester of graduate school, after a class on literary theory, I felt called upon by a deep sense of injustice to explain the reasons for a female Indian professor’s choice of a sari attire when she teaches her university classes – she chooses to wear a sari rather than “regular clothes.”  Regardless of what I said – spinning together feminist and race theory into a pot that I hoped would hold water – or what her conception of the truth is regarding her clothes, the fact is that she makes a conscious choice to carry herself in a specific way. Her brilliance, as well as her humanity, demands a hesitation in hasty judgments.  We all calculate our behavior, even those of us who do not appear to. 

What, you probably demand, does this have to do with reading?

After loving reading for so long, I find I cannot think about it as a static activity of book in hand, in two dimensions, anymore.  Ideas take flight and swirl around me, affecting the shape of all I knew before and how I will think about things in the future. The more I read, the less stable the world around me appears, because the very act of reading changes the nature of reality, and once I began with books I could not stop myself from reading everything–including other people.  Its what it felt like to put on glasses for the first time at ten years old, when I hadn’t been able to see well for years.

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The Reading Habit

by Frankie Y. Bailey


bookshelfWe humans are creatures of habit. Change, real change, does not come easily for most of us. We prefer to get into our comfortable groove and stay there. Change often requires an epiphany, a life-altering insight, that most of us rarely, if ever, experience. Perhaps this is why the more cynical among us would doubt that simply picking up a book could change a life.


Like many avid readers, I have had the experience of falling in love with a book. But, I confess here, I have not been faithful to my loves. After the first delight of discovery, I have strayed in search of other books that would engage, challenge, tantalize, take my breath away and leave me wanting more. My affairs with books have been passionate and many. And I am the better for my unfaithfulness to a singe book or any one author.

This is why when I am asked to name my favorite book I find myself embarrassed by my inability to name the one book that I would take with me to a desert island or even the five books or ten. I know that my favorite writer (now deceased) was a man named Richard Martin Stern. Mr. Stern was my favorite author because when I wrote to him as a teenager to tell him how much I loved his mystery series (featuring an African American, or actually biracial, female anthropologist), he wrote back to thank me for my letter. By doing so, he helped to set me on my own path toward becoming a writer. But this does not mean Mr. Stern’s Johnny Ortiz mysteries would be among my five books for a desert island. I think I would be more likely to take along books about how to stay alive.

But I’m rambling. . .the point I wanted to make about books and how they change lives is that it is more likely I think to be a cumulative effect. Change occurs in the process of developing the reading habit, learning to sit down with a book and open one’s mind to its contents.


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From the Mouths of Participants: CLTL in Action

Though Changing Lives Through Literature is an organization founded on the power of reading and discussion, we’d like to take a break from the great discussions we’ve been having around here and offer you a little less talk and a lot more action.

The videos below offer a great introduction to the faces and founding principles that propel CLTL programs. These individuals–offenders, instructors, judges, probation officers, and community volunteers–keep CLTL alive throughout the country. Will you be the next to join them?

Click on the images to see CLTL in action. 

(Videos open in a new window and require Quicktime, available to both PC and Mac users by following this link.)    



Changing Lives Through Literature : An Introduction
Changing Lives Through Literature
Co-Directors Jean Trounstine and Robert Waxler 
talk about how and why the program works.



What Does CLTL Mean to You? 
A host of Changing Lives Through Literature participants
from around the country talk about how the program
changes the lives of everyone involved.


cuckoo's nest class    bluest eye

CLTL In Action
Want to see how CLTL sessions work? 
Click on the left image to watch a discussion of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Click on the right image to see a group discuss The Bluest Eye. 

A New Role for Judges

photo by spunter on Flickr

by Taylor Stoehr

Probationers come into the Changing Lives Through Literature program brooding on their personal experiences in court or jailhouse. Whatever their awareness of their own innocence or guilt, there are always some students who view the entire social order as rigged against them, though they rarely have more than newspaper headlines for arguments or their own lives as evidence. For these angry men – and perhaps even more for those who passively accept their fate – it can be a salutary shock to realize that the criminal justice system is not a cruel and unrelenting instrument of retribution, but an evolving institution open to criticism and change.

If we want to encourage a more balanced and reflective view of their situation as criminal offenders, one tactic is to try to demystify the system itself by presenting ourselves as its personal embodiment – a little group of real people who serve as teachers, probation officers, and judges in society’s impersonal institutions. For many of our students, this may be the first time in their lives that a teacher or other authority figure has entered into open-ended dialogue with them, outside the rules of role and format. I do not mean that authority relations have vanished in our classroom – a teacher is still a teacher, a judge still a judge – but these are not the faces we wear as we sit with the men in small groups, exchanging thoughts and feelings, sharing our own experiences of growing up, being schooled, dealing with what life demands.

In the Changing Lives classroom, teachers and probation officers inevitably remind students of all the admonishers out of their past, but it’s much more emphatic when we add a judge to the row of authorities. By virtue of his or her title and office, the judge certainly does represent the court, and some of the probationers in our group may have been tried and sentenced before this very judge! But in the CLTL classroom, a judge’s authority usually sits so lightly that students are not intimidated. In the Dorchester Men’s program, we were fortunate for many years to have the Honorable Thomas May sitting with us every class. His bearing was confident and respectful, and his role in our class was simply to be who he is.

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Does reading really make us better people? Some questions on ethics and literature

by Patrick Fessenbecker 

photo by chalocuaz on Flickr.

In recent posts, both Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall have laid out some of the explanatory work behind what I take to be one of the central claims of the CLTL project: namely, that reading books – especially good books – helps one to be a better person. 

“Deep” reading, according to Waxler, allows us to “break free from our single lives…from the linear and local perspective of ordinary existence.”  For Hall, it is essential that this reading take place within a community: “Deep reading and discussion of a common text allows for opportunities where people can get to know themselves better and get better acquainted with the world in which they live. In turn, this participation holds the opportunity for increasing emotional intelligence which helps us to better live in this world.”

Hall and Waxler are in some good company here. Both in thinking of art as enabling individuals to break some of the limiting bounds of their egoism, and in thinking of the community of artistic reception as contributing to ethical life and personal happiness, they reiterate positions recognizable in the history of literary and aesthetic theory. George Eliot, for instance, in The Natural History of German Life, offers a view of reading that bears a close resemblance to Waxler’s view: as she puts it, “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with out fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” 

And – just in case we were missing the ethical implications – she tells us “a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.”   In other words, by enabling to see past ourselves, to see outside of our “linear and local perspectives,” literature enables to live a different and better kind of life: one that is in closer contact or “sympathy” with others, to use Eliot’s terms, than the life which our natural egoism would lead us to live otherwise. 


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Shakespeare’s Words Resonate with Juvenile Offenders

by Ron Jenkins

shakespeare“He’s a thug,” said the boy’s teacher, nodding toward a lanky teenager who had just finished performing a 17th-century monologue from The Tempest. “I never thought he would take this Shakespeare stuff so seriously.” She marveled at the improvement in the young man’s speaking skills since he had begun wrestling with Elizabethan prose.

The teacher cared deeply for him and the other students in the Walter G. Cady School at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, but she put their progress in perspective when he and his classmates left the room. “We have to be honest and admit that a lot of these kids will spend the rest of their lives in jail, and some of them will die young.”

That stark prognosis silenced the 12 other young people who remained in the room when the Cady school students were gone. This more fortunate group consisted of students from Wesleyan University who had signed up to spend a semester with me teaching Shakespeare to incarcerated teenagers at the state correctional facility near the campus in Middletown.

They were prepared to explain the meaning of the Bard’s words to the Cady School students, and they did that job admirably, but they didn’t expect their incarcerated students to teach them more about the inner lives of Shakespeare’s characters than could ever be learned in a university classroom.


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