Unbound: Books Behind Bars

Boston Book Festival panel discussion covers remorse, redemption, and resiliency

By JoAnne Breault

JoAnne Breault, author

“When you are in prison, you don’t get to make a lot of choices and you have a lot of time to think about why you are there. You lose your sense of time,” explained former inmate William Gaul to a crowd at the Boston Public Library.

Many prisoners have little or no access to education, mental health treatment, or rehabilitation opportunities. “The Prison Book Program was a godsend to me,” said Gaul. “I began reading in prison and books had a profound meaning.”

Gaul was one of four panelists at Unbound: Books Behind Bars, a panel discussion at this year’s Boston Book Festival, New England’s largest annual literary event.  Gaul served his eight-year sentence and graduated from college with a BA in Biblical Theology. He then worked as a coordinator for a criminal justice program and advocated for criminal offenders at American Friends Service Committee. He has been both a client and a volunteer with the Prison Book Program, a Quincy, MA non-profit organization. “While in prison, I traveled the world through reading. I want to give that back,” said Gaul.

Boston Book Festival panel discussion; Unbound: Books Behind Bars moderator and panelists

Far left: Moderator Dr. Robert P. Waxler; L to R: Panelists William Gaul, Judge Robert Kane, Michael Krupa, and Edson Monteiro

Stories of remorse, redemption, and resiliency resonated throughout the panel discussion as representatives of literacy organizations and former criminal offenders interacted with each other. Independent studies show that criminal offenders who participate in literacy programs are less likely to re-offend.

In addition to former inmate Gaul, the panelists included Judge Robert Kane, Edson Monteiro, and Michael Krupa.

Dr. Robert P. Waxler, author and Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, moderated the panel. “Books create an opportunity,” said Waxler. “They can liberate beyond the steel of a rigid prison.”

Dr. Waxler and Judge Kane co-founded Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL), an alternative sentencing program. CLTL gives criminal offenders opportunities to participate in reading discussion groups—a probation requirement for some.

Panelist Edson Monteiro, an urbane young man, told his compelling story of being diagnosed with Leukemia as a college varsity soccer player. Plagued with surmounting medical bills, Monteiro quit school. “I made some bad decisions,” admitted Monteiro.

Boston Book Festival panel discussion--Unbound: Books Behind Bars panelists Michael Krupa and Edson Monteiro shake hands

Panelists Michael Krupa (l) and Edson Monteiro (r) shake hands.

Monteiro was convicted of a crime. While serving his time, he began reading books about managing finances, business, buying stocks, and religion. “I sought books that would help me excel in life and expand my knowledge,” he said.

Today Monteiro represents a prison success story. He graduated from college in 2010 with a Bachelor of Science degree and has started his own IT company. Books remain an important part of his life.

Panelist Michael Krupa serves as the board chair of Concord (MA) Prison Outreach and leads weekly book discussion groups at MCI Concord and the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, MA. “As volunteers we come into the prison system and try and humanize their experience,” said Krupa.

During the panel’s question and answer period, Katelyn, a young blonde woman in a tight ponytail, bravely made her way to the podium. She labeled herself as a byproduct of Boston’s inner city. She confided that she had gotten into trouble and ended up in a juvenile detention center. “It was not until after I was incarcerated that I developed an interest in reading books.” Today she attends community college and aspires to become a journalist.

2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States today. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, it costs taxpayers $43,000 per year to incarcerate a prisoner. Programs like the Prison Book Program and Changing Lives Through Literature only cost approximately $500.00 per participant. The end result is a reduction in recidivism.

JoAnne Breault is seeking her Master’s Degree in Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She hopes to pursue a career in public relations writing.

Photos by JoAnne Breault.

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Three great pieces of non-fiction for college-bound students

By Maria Rainier

Now is that time of year when high school seniors make their final decisions about where to apply to college.

Reading an extensive amount of literature can help cultivate a young student’s mind so that he or she can have the “smarts” to get accepted into the college of his or her choice, but literature can also help prepare college-bound students for what their new life will be like once they step on campus. While non-fiction books are fun to read, they are also typically an exaggerated and embellished representation of what “real” college life is like. Thus the non-fiction selections listed below can be some great reads for high school seniors who will be starting college next fall. They may also be able to take off some of the edge—college can be a very daunting experience.

That Book about Harvard: Surviving the World’s Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time
This light-hearted and funny autobiography tells the (mis)adventures of author Eric Kester during his first year at the prestigious Harvard University. Like most incoming freshmen, Kester struggled finding his identity, learned that he actually needed to study to pass college exams, and experienced his first heartbreak. While it may just sound like run-of-the mill college stuff, the book is actually filled with oh-so-many funny and embarrassing moments. It’s definitely a page turner. Kester is also a resident writer at the popular site CollegeHumor.com.

My Freshman Year: What a Professor Learned by Becoming a Student
If you can’t beat them, join them—that’s what anthropology professor Rebekah Nathan decided to do when she just couldn’t understand why her students acted the way that they did: they refused to participate in classroom discussions, ate breakfast at their desks, and rarely finished reading assignments. So to get in the mind-set of her students, Nathan decided to “become” a student for several weeks. She enrolled in classes, lived in a dorm, and even ate in the dorm dining halls. Soon she discovered that being a student isn’t all that easy in this new day and age.

College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be
Last but certainly not least is College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be–a historical narrative that explains how the idea of “college” first manifested and how it has changed throughout the years. It’ll make college readers appreciative of the opportunities they are given as well as open their eyes to a few flaws of the higher education system. The book’s author, Andrew Delbanco, is a humanities professor at Columbia University.

Maria Rainier is a contributor to www.onlinedegrees.org, a website that helps alternative learners evaluate their different schooling options. She encourages your comments and questions.