The Ties that Bind

Book open on table, photo by kvelduf

Jenni Baker is the communications specialist for Goodwill Industries International in Washington, DC. This is her final post as marketing and media advisor for Changing Lives Through Literature. 


Anyone afforded the opportunity to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature will speak of the change it enacts within every person around the table.


Some talk of the affirmation they receive from knowing they are not alone in their thoughts and in their life struggles. Men and women who participate in this program as part of their probation sentence habitually note the affirmation they receive from voicing their insights on an equal playing field with individuals they never considered as equals.   


My time in the program taught me that this affirmation works both ways. As a student of English, I entered the program familiar with literature’s potential to change. I was inexperienced, however, with the power of reading and discussion to overcome obstacles of gender, race, and class.


Just as the participants who had spent time in the justice system thought they knew the judge and probation officers they now sat beside, I brought my own preconceptions to the table that first night. After spending years discussing literature with college peers and academics, I confess I entered the sessions with classist thoughts — I wasn’t sure what kind of valuable conversation I could have with individuals who in many cases did not finish high school.


The answer to that question kept me coming to session after session. Seeing literature change the lives of these criminal offenders week after week was certainly inspiring. On a personal level, however, I was more moved by the connections and conversations that strengthened with each meeting.


Voices from the Table: Ken

photo of a conference room table by fattytuna on Flickr


Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog: 


This essay is the first in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.


Built in Boston’s densely populated inner city, the Dorchester men’s CLTL program is by far the largest, graduating a cohort of 37 men last year and requiring a staff of eight, including two English professors (Taylor Stoehr and Bert Stern), three to four probation officers, a judge, and two former program participants. The class meets for ten weekly sessions of ninety minutes each and uses Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of an American Slave as a primary text.


Ken is a graduate from that large cohort who promptly arrived to meet me at the Dorchester District Courthouse to cover for a last minute interview cancellation.


When asked about his experience in CLTL, Ken particularly appreciated the feedback he received on written assignments:


[CLTL] opened up my way of thinking a whole lot differently. I found myself writing about stuff that I wasn’t even thinking about. And the more I wrote, once I started writing I couldn’t stop. . . Taylor, when he used to give us comments, he said I got a knack for [writing]. Now I want to write my own autobiography one day . . . [Taylor] gave me a lot of input and he gave me some places where I can go if I want to go to school, you know? Like, who to contact for loans or whatever . . . after you graduate you get this booklet, when they read it, they was like, wow man you got some talent . . . [Taylor and Bert] knew I had a real talent in writing, and Taylor he really made me feel good, his comments . . . I felt real good about myself after that.


When asked whether or not CLTL changed his opinions of other people, Ken recalled being struck by a story the presiding judge told during a group session:

The Uses of Writing in the Changing Lives Classroom

"Writing to reach you" courtesy of Wim Mulder on Flickr

Tam Lin Neville is the author of the full-length book of poems, Journey Cake (BkMk Press, l998).  Her second collection, Triage, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press (Somerville).  Her poems and reviews have appeared in Harvard Review, Mademoiselle, American Poetry Review, Ironwood, and Threepenny Review.  She is co-editor of Off The Grid Press and works for Changing Lives Through Literature, an organization that teaches individuals on probation.

Writing is used in a variety of ways in the Changing Lives Through Literature program.  Some facilitators use it to begin a class, and to help center a group and orient the students to the present and to the text at hand.  Others schedule a ten-minute writing period in the middle of class.  The writing from this then becomes ground for discussion. Still others ask students to write at the end of the class, giving each a private moment to reflect and gather his or her thoughts.

Some students write more easily than they speak.  A quiet student may shed her reserve when she takes up her pen.  One who speaks distractedly may become a different person on the page, composed and able to organize his thoughts.

The kind of feedback a student receives from a teacher has a lot to do with the student’s willingness and ability to write.  In discussion, words fly fast and it’s not always possible to respond.  But with writing, teachers enter into a one-to-one relationship with a student.  This is a place where a teacher can really listen and attend.

We all know there are other, more negative ways to get attention.  As one student wrote: “Why do people inflict pain on others? It’s their way of unspoken words.  To get attention.  They don’t know any other way to communicate.”

Professor Taylor Stoehr, in the Dorchester Court Program, has opened up more positive channels for his students.  They begin and end the class by writing for about ten minutes on a question raised by the text.  Stoehr collects the work, then returns a typed and printed version to the students with his comments.Each week one student’s work is “published.” Stoehr distributes copies and sometimes reads the piece aloud. In addition, at graduation each student receives a booklet of their own writing plus an anthology of “Class Writings.”

I adapted this model for use in my women’s class.  On the day I first returned typed copies, I saw a look of surprise, a spark in some faces.  The women felt their work had been taken seriously.  One of my students then showed the piece to her daughters in its “published” form.  Because her story was typed, readable, and at one remove, she was able to pass on her story to her children. Continue reading

Mickey B Makes History in Northern Ireland

Press photo for Mickey B

Ruth Fleming is a marketing intern at the Educational Shakespeare Company.


Belfast-based film charity, the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) have produced the first ever feature film to be made by and with prisoners in a maximum-security prison anywhere in the world.


Over the course of two years they worked alongside non-conforming life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maghaberry Prison to produce the film Mickey B, a ground-breaking and award-winning modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.


Prisoners and prison staff were involved at practically every level – from writing, staging and acting through to the production of the film. The sheer magnitude of this project is not to be underestimated, for as Sam, who played Duncan in the film, said “what was being proposed was to make a feature film with murderers playing murderers in a maximum security, category A jail.”


In Mickey B, the storyline of Macbeth has been cleverly reworked and adapted to resonate with contemporary society and with the culture of imprisonment in particular. The central themes of Shakespeare’s bleak tragedy – of greed and violence, betrayal and revenge, guilt and madness – have all been preserved and brought vividly to life in Burnam jail, a fictional private prison, where the prisoners control the wings and violence and drug-dealing are the order of the day.


The film has been controversial since the get go. People raised the issue of victims’ rights, believing that allowing these men to participate in a feature film was being unfair to their victims. A tabloid national paper ran the story under the heading “Cons Make Sicko Movie.” Even the prison authorities believed it would be impossible to make a film with the ‘baddest boys in the jail.’


However, taking part in the production of Mickey B has had a major positive impact on the participants. As well as gaining, for many, their first ever qualification in Active Citizenship , prisoners’ regime status improved for the better, their security classifications dropped, less prisoners committed chargeable offences (during filming) and the number of prisoners attending education for the first time increased.


Continue reading