The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.
By Shari Randall
Can a paperback copy of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter do what jail cannot – change an offender’s life for the better?
Readers know that books can take us to other worlds, provide entertainment, information, insight, solace. Now there is evidence that literature can also transform the lives of people in the justice system.
The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.
The original CLTL program
included eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felony convictions. Waxler wanted to test his program with “tough guys” who would prove that he hadn’t stacked the deck with more highly educated, less dangerous participants. At the end of the program, the tough guys’ recidivism rate was only 19 percent, compared to 45 percent for the general prison population. The results were impressive, but Waxler said that the statistics were not what interested him. He knew the program was working when one young drug dealer told him of his excitement at reading Jack London’sSea Wolf
, and how his newfound love of books led him to start reading to his three-year-old daughter.
How does CLTL work? Offenders serve part of their sentence by meeting in small groups to discuss books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. These and the other books chosen for the program have characters that face serious choices and issues. The most unique part of CLTL is the participation of members of the legal and law enforcement communities. Participants could find themselves talking about Langston Hughes’ poems with a judge or a probation officer, and a college professor facilitator. By sitting around a table, listening to each other, participants feel valued for their ideas, not judged for their crimes. Participants see each other as human beings, not as statistics or faceless uniforms.
CLTL programs are in place in 14 states and have been adopted in the UK. One longitudinal study
of 600 CLTL participants in Massachusetts showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism for those who completed the program and a 16 percent drop for those who did not. In cases where participants reoffended, there was a significant drop in the number and severity of the type of crime committed. These are better results than many more expensive programs, and the program has been particularly effective for juvenile offenders.
With U. S. Bureau of Justice statistics stating that prisoners cost U. S. taxpayers more than $70 billion
and the New York Times reporting that 1 in 100 Americans are currently or have been in the criminal justice system, we need ideas and programs like CLTL.
Compare $70 billion to the cost of a box of paperback books, a facilitator, and an hour a week around a table in a library.
As the CLTL webpage states, literature has the power to transform. Yet, one article I read stated that CLTL has been a “hard sell”
to government officials, who doubt the effectiveness of a literature based program.
You have to wonder. Why would states prefer to spend billions on jails instead of buying a few boxes of books?
Is there a book that changed your life?