“Program Aids Inmates Who Want To Change”


Originally posted at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and written by Perla Trevizo.

Hays State Prison inmate Lewis Gravitt often makes art for 10 to 14 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.

With a group of inmates he makes 100-pound horses, greeting cards, sewing machines — pretty much anything asked of them — and all of it is made out of paper.

“It’s my sanity,” Gravitt said.

When he’s done, his projects are sent to nonprofit organizations and family members.

Hays is one of 12 prisons in Georgia with a Faith and Character-Based dormitory for inmates who want to change, according to officials, and art is a component of the program. Each dorm has about 50 inmates.

“You hear faith-based, but the faith part is to say they have hope, they have faith in something,” said LeThicia Davis, program counselor at Hays.

The program connects the offenders to the community, Davis said during an interview earlier this year at Hays.

“They want to let the community know that they’ve made bad choices, but they are about change and do want to give back,” she said.

The program is open to all offenders, regardless of their faith or lack of it, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections website.

The goal, Davis said, is to provide the tools necessary for them to be productive citizens once they get out.

During their participation in the program, inmates learn skills such as how to operate a computer, write a resume and obtain their high school general educational development certificate, she said.

They also have speakers, religious and nonreligious, to help them work on coping skills, to heal broken relationships and with career development, she said.

“We believe in taking care of each other,” said Davis. “Even in a level five institution, you can sleep at night.”

As such, Hays State Prison houses offenders who are escape risks, have assaultive histories and may have detainers for other serious crimes on file.

Read the rest of this article here.

“Should Criminals Be Sentenced To Read?”

The following essay was originally posted on The New Yorker’s blog, “The Book Bench,” and was written by Eileen Reynolds.

The idea of using reading as punishment seems at first incomprehensible, even for those of us who may have declared “Robinson Crusoe” cruel and unusual when it was assigned in the sixth grade. (Come to think of it, what reader hasn’t privately labeled at least one dreaded tome as “torturous?”) Still, all snark aside, it’s an interesting question: Can—or should—criminals be made to read certain books while they’re serving their time?

I’ve been struggling over what to make of the recent news that a Michigan teen-ager was ordered to read three books per month as a part of his sentence for his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident. Back in June, the fifteen-year-old boy fled the scene after he crashed his mother’s Mercedes into another car, killing its driver. He later pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter, driving without a license, and failing to stop at the scene of a crash. Apparently, the victim—fifty-nine-year-old Penny Przywara—had been an avid reader, and the judge got it in his head that it would be a good idea for the teen-age driver to read some of her favorite books. One of Przywara’s daughters said in court that her mother had loved “The Catcher in the Rye,” and the judge decided that the book could teach the boy a lesson. “You could be Holden Caulfield,” he said. “You’ve got a lot to learn about responsibility and about yourself.” The reading assignment will be carried out while the boy is held in a juvenile detention center, where he will remain until he turns nineteen.

Something about this situation calls to mind that part in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Mrs. Dubose orders Jem to read to her each week as a punishment for having destroyed her precious camellias. At first, Jem and Scout are terrified, and they dread the task. Scout recalls their first visit:

“So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?” was her greeting.

Jem said quietly, “My sister ain’t dirty and I ain’t scared of you,” although I noticed his knees shaking.

I was expecting a tirade, but all she said was, “You may commence reading, Jeremy.” Jem sat down in a cane-bottom chair and opened “Ivanhoe.” I pulled up another one and sat beside him.

“Come closer,” said Mrs. Dubose. “Come to the side of the bed.”

We moved our chairs forward. This was the nearest I had ever been to her, and the thing I wanted most to do was move my chair back again.

But soon, of course, Jem’s attitude begins to change. He learns to tolerate Mrs. Dubose. He matures before our eyes, gradually piecing together truths about the world:

Jem’s chin would come up, and he would gaze at Mrs. Dubose with a face devoid of resentment. Through the weeks he had cultivated an expression of polite and detached interest, which he would present to her in answer to her most blood-curdling inventions.

It’s a poignant scene: a crotchety old woman wants to teach a boy a lesson, and in the process she helps transform him into a patient and pleasant—if not entirely enthusiastic—companion. What happened in Michigan is much more grave, of course. Jem ruined some flowers; the Michigan boy took a woman’s life. I don’t mean to equate the two, or to suggest that we should let dangerous criminals roam free, so long as they’re armed with paperbacks instead of guns. The sentencing of minors is a particularly contentious issue, and there are those who will argue that a fatal hit-and-run crash warrants more than an invitation to the library at the juvenile detention center. But if one takes the view that a sentence—especially for someone so young—should include rehabilitation, assigning books might be a good idea. If we believe that literature really can transform lives and soothe troubled hearts, it can’t hurt to encourage prisoners to read.

There are numerous organizations devoted to this very principle, including Changing Lives Through Literature, a program founded in Massachusetts and later expanded to other courts throughout the United States. Some supporters of “alternative sentencing” believe so strongly in the redemptive power of literature that they argue that certain criminal offenders should be able to complete a reading course as a condition of probation, rather than going to jail at all. Combining traditional sentencing with alternative reading programs might be an innovative way to treat criminals compassionately while simultaneously cutting down the likelihood of repeat offenses.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2010/09/should-criminals-be-sentenced-to-read.html#ixzz17XOwIUTW



“Dear Dr. Thompson”


“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

Recently, while visiting a friend’s house, a book on his coffee table caught my eye: Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson, and the Last Gonzo Campaign.

It sat atop a pile of magazines; its red, black and white cover was glossy and pristine. Unread. Untouched. I opened it carefully – the binding had yet to be cracked and I wished to preserve that moment for the book’s owner. On the inside of the cover an inscription read Jamie – Keep living the dream. Matt Moseley.

I sat down and began to read, and it wasn’t long before I was lost in the telling of a story that felt more like a call to action; my fingertips tingled and my heart beat faster, and in a few short pages I was swept off into a recollection of actual events, all of which derived from a simple, seemingly insignificant moment in time – a girl behind bars reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I stopped reading after a few pages – it felt wrong to commandeer an unread book from its owner. I did, however, encourage Jamie to start reading it as quickly as possible – both because I knew he’d enjoy it, and, selfishly, because the sooner he read the book, the sooner I could borrow it. Since then, I haven’t been able to shake the story from my memory.

Because of Jamie’s geographical and emotional proximity to the events outlined in Dear Dr. Thompson, I’ve asked him to write a perspective on the story, and the events that compelled his acquaintance Mark Moseley to write the book.

It’s not often that you read a book about a place you’ve lived that discusses events that occurred while you lived there, and notes “characters,” albeit minor ones, who you are friends with.

This is where I found myself though while reading Dear Dr. Thompson, and for an ordinary guy it feels a little like a brush with fame or infamy.

The story – in the very broadest of strokes – is this: On a typically beautiful Denver day in 1997 Lisl Auman took a ride in a stolen red Trans Am with skinhead Matthaeus Jaehnig. The ride culminated with Ms. Auman handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser while Mattaeus shot it out with Denver police, tragically killing Denver Police Officer Bruce Vanerjagt. Jaehnig then turned the gun on himself. Lisl Auman was left to bear the brunt of all charges, and was sentenced to life without parole.

At some point during her thirteen-month stay in Denver County Jail a fellow inmate loaned Auman Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. During the darkest time in her life, in one of the darkest places in her life, this book inspired the simplest of human emotions – it made Auman laugh.

After the trial Auman was moved to the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility in Canon City where she sought out more of Thompson’s work. She was subsequently – and incorrectly – told that his books were banned from all correctional facility libraries.

What Auman did next set in motion the greatest and mightiest of forces – one that would change her life forever. She sat down and wrote Dr. Thompson a thank you letter. She thanked him for making her laugh. She didn’t ask anything of him, but noted that he could check out her website http://www.lisl.com if he was interested.

What ensued was an all-star campaign to free Lisl Auman, led by Hunter S. Thompson. His efforts, and those who supported his charge for justice, were rewarded when Auman’s conviction was reversed after seven years in prison.

We don’t have to be great writers to write something great. We don’t have to have great intentions or expectations, we just have to write and sometimes greatness will come.  Just ask Lisl Auman.

The Edmund Burke quote that I referenced at the beginning of this post became the call to action for the Free Lisl campaign, Moseley notes in the prologue. It is a powerful message, attached to a powerful campaign and an astounding story – a story that, with an air of surreality, combines the strength of the novel, the influence of the written word, and a call for justice that ends with just that.