DARTMOUTH — Changing Lives Through Literature has gained acclaim as an alternative sentencing program and now it has expanded to include a new blog: “Changing Lives, Changing Minds.”
The blog — which features biweekly posts on topics at the intersections of literature and criminal justice — counts among its authors and readers a score of judges, probation officers, professors, graduate students and many others from the United States and abroad.
Jenni Baker, marketing and media adviser of the program and a second-year graduate student at UMass Dartmouth, initiated the blog late last year and has seen it spark insightful posts on literature and criminal justice.
Massachusetts professionals have been some of many who have posted and commented on the blog, including UMass Dartmouth Education Professor Maureen Hall and Executive Director of the Massachusetts Supreme Court Ronald P. Corbett Jr.
While Hall’s posting, “The Benefits of Deep Reading: Neuroplasticity in Action,” investigates how deep reading can alter the structure of the brain, Corbett’s “Buber in Brookline” uses the insight of philosopher Martin Buber to advocate for mutually receptive and respectful relationships between judges and criminal offenders.
Dr. Robert Waxler, a UMass Dartmouth professor of English and one of the founders of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program, said he is pleased with the blog’s success thus far.
“We have had an excellent response to the … blog from people interested in criminal justice and from those who enjoy thinking about literature,” he said. “The power of a blog is that it can be read by people around the world, and so this blog is particularly helpful for the ongoing expansion of the CLTL program.”
Waxler said Baker is “doing a great job. We’re really lucky to have her talent and ability.”
Baker admitted she was a bit skeptical of Changing Lives Through Literature at first, but said it has truly been effective. After attending the first few sessions, she said she saw a real difference in the offenders.
“The characters and stories mirror what happens in their lives, and they see how these characters are affected for better or worse,” she said. “It shows them that they’re not destined to be in a dark pit, and that they can make changes in their lives and go back to school — as some have. It’s really a new start for them.”
Changing Lives Through Literature is a nationally recognized alternative sentencing program that offers felons and offenders the opportunity to forgo time in prison in exchange for reading and discussing literature through a six-class, twice-monthly seminar.
Disturbed by the lack of real success by prisons to reform offenders and affect their patterns of behavior, Waxler and now state Supreme Court Judge Robert Kane discussed using literature as a way of reaching hardened criminals.
Along with Wayne St. Pierre, a New Bedford District Court probation officer, Waxler and Kane founded the program in the fall of 1991 at UMass Dartmouth. Since then, the program has expanded to 12 other states and England.
“When people read a good story — once they’re engaged — they begin to see the curve of their own story in relation to that story,” said Waxler. “Engagement with the text has this value for them. They don’t feel as alone, and they realize other people share the same story, and this builds a sense of community.”
While the program has shown positive effects on the community, Waxler also noted the economic benefits. “It costs $30,000 to send someone to jail for one year. At most, it costs $500 for a person to go through this program. At this point, we’ve saved the commonwealth millions,” he said.
Said Baker: “It’s inspiring. It gives you a lot of faith to see that literature and writing do make a difference in people’s lives. You definitely see that books really do have a place in society and they do change people.”
“It gets to a point when the criminal offenders have lost their voice and nobody listens to them anymore. Through reading literature, they realize they have something important to say and this helps them to find a voice,” said Waxler.
He said follow-up studies have shown that graduates of the program are less than half as likely to reoffend than their counterparts in the criminal justice system.
“It brings us closer to the human heart, as great literature always does,” said Waxler. “You can’t help but realize there is a depth, a multi-layered complexity of human life that releases people of stereotypes.”
Along with “Greasy Lake,” Waxler has found works such as “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” and “Deliverence” to have been a success with his students. He has also assigned short stories by authors like Raymond Carver and James Baldwin.
To view the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog, visit http://cltl.umassd.edu/blog.