What Happens at a CLTL Meeting

by Rachel Wicks

This past Wednesday, I got the exciting privilege of being able to sit in on one of the CLTL program’s meeting. Ever since I received this internship, I’ve been curious as to what actually happens at these biweekly events, so when I learned that one of the branches of the program met at UMass Dartmouth, I knew I had to check it out.

Arriving an hour late due to my evening class, I was quickly ushered in and allowed to sit between the two men running that night’s meeting: Chuck Zalewski, a defense attorney from Fall River who has been with the program for over twenty years, and Wayne St. Pierre, a recently retired probation officer who continues to volunteer with the CLTL because of how strongly he believes the program can, as the program’s title says, change lives.

Both men were running Wednesday’s meeting because the usual facilitator, Dr. Robert Waxler, was unfortunately in the hospital. We wish him a speedy recovery and our thoughts are with him always.

The first thing I noticed at the meeting, however, was that it was by no means a classroom setting. When I had first heard that the program was based off of literary discussions, I immediately imagined the experiences I had had in my own college career, in which the professor would verbally poke and prod a classroom of twenty tired students, hoping that not only would someone eventually raise their hand but that maybe they had actually read too.

This was not the case at the CLTL meeting.

Although not every attendee had finished the book completely, the meeting was positively bustling with discussion. People were contributing because they wanted to, to the point where different voices were overlapping each other and laughter rung out in the small conference room.

Never in my life had I imagined that a discussion about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea could be so riveting.

Interestingly enough, what also caught my attention about the meeting was that the questions posed by the moderators were not simply questions about the exact content of the book. Sure, parts of the discussion were based on the main character’s thoughts and actions, but often times Zalewski or St. Pierre would ask a question that extended beyond what was written on the page and depended entirely on reader interpretation.

For example, the attendees were asked:

  • Did the main character go too far?
  • Does his determination spell out a sort of death wish?
  • Could his mind have been changed at any point?
  • What will happen after the end of this book?

That last question stood out in particular to me because it reflects one of Dr. Waxler’s beliefs about literature. Waxler says that a good story is like an iceberg, with perhaps 10% above the water while the other 90% remains below the surface. Anyone can read through a book and see the easily visible 10%, but the CLTL meetings encourage people to dive deep into each story and explore the other 90%, asking themselves questions that have no right or wrong answers but that are still based off the characterization and symbolism in the story.

The attendees also seemed to have little problem with this more thorough and in-depth exploration of literature, since they had fascinating theories to contribute and would often pick up on topics to discuss that the facilitators hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning yet.

Imaginably, it is through this process of uncovering the hidden 90% of each novel that allows for the CLTL program to be so successful. Started in 1991, the program was built off of the very idea there was a certain power within literature that could positively affect the way people think, feel, and relate to the world. This small inkling of an idea began just with Dr. Waxler and St. Pierre, and after convincing a judge to give their plan a shot, the CLTL has now grown to be the multi-faceted program it is today, truly living up to its name by changing people’s lives through the power of stories.

As Zalewski stated near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, “We’re learning as much from you as you are from us.”

For the next meeting, the new reading assignment is Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley, in which the process of digging into that 90% continues.


CLTL Featured on “Writers Who Kill” Blog

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.
Seasonal Wanderer

Seasonal Wanderer

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?


Books that Change Lives

By Billy Mitchell

Ant Jackson

Ant Jackson

I’ve always been under the impression that literature has the power to change the way we think. We always seem to hear people toss around the idea that some piece of art can change lives, yet I’ve always been skeptical of this notion. My way that I understood it, was that while experiencing a piece of art can work to change our lives, it works in conjunction with other factors; almost as a vehicle for the change as opposed to the motivator for change.

But as I think more on this subject, where does the power to change lives exist, if not in our own minds? If a piece of art causes us to think differently, isn’t it, in a sense, changing our life?

Let’s be clear with something. I’m not talking a massive, move-into-the-forest-and-live-off-the-land or suddenly take up an Eastern religion, change. I am not stating that reading a life-changing book means that we have to alter our lives in some large way. I’m talking about smaller—but pronounced—changes that take place in our minds; changes in how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we think about a certain situation or about morality or mortality. These characters’ interactions or these settings or situations that we read about slowly begin to take shape and create meaning within us, if we let them. While it may be too romantic or grandiose to come out and say: “This book changed my life,” it really isn’t that off-base. In fact, I don’t feel it is at all. Because small changes lead to big ones.

I had difficulty coming up with a concise list of books that have changed my life. Because, as I’ve been saying, these changes are not immense. They are small, sometimes miniscule shifts in consciousness. Without reflection, they can go unnoticed.

Without bringing my whole Kindle library into the picture, I’ve included two books that I can confidently say have changed the way I think. I’m sure I’m not alone in these choices.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.

Some pretty important people have claimed Kerouac’s rambling, methamphetamine- driven scroll has changed their lives. I first read On the Road in high school and I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I knew what I was reading was good (whatever that means) but I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was being said.

Lyndsay Dee

Lyndsay Dee

In its most stripped-down sense, On the Road is a novel about a character in the 1950’s who travels across the country. The plot revolves around Sal Paradise, his group of friends and a number of different characters that he meets in his travels in the United States and then in his final journey to Mexico City. Holding the story together is Dean Moriarty, Sal’s delinquent friend, a representation of the Road itself.

What always catches me while reading this book is the definition of “The Road.” During my first read, I thought of it as exactly what it is: a literal representation of a road, a means in which you travel from point A to point B. But “The Road” that is so important to Sal—who, of course, is a fictional representation of Kerouac himself—is really a physical manifestation of a symbol. The Road, “The Holy Road,” is the ability for us to change our way. The Road gives us the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. The road is a means of living, as opposed to merely existing.

I’m not really in the business of recommending books, but if I was, you bet I’d be recommending this one. It may not get you to stand up and hitchhike across the country…but then again, it just might.  

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.

In the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a manic Bradley Cooper has this great scene where he has just finished reading A Farewell to Arms, and proceeds to throw the paperback out the window.

“I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys,” he screams at his parents, the father played by Robert Deniro. “Can’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive. Let’s have a good ending to the story?’”

His mother then tells him that he owes them an apology for waking them up at four o’clock in the morning to talk about the ending of a book.

“Mom, I can’t apologize. I’m not gonna apologize for this. You know what I will do? I’ll apologize on behalf of Earnest Hemingway. Because that’s who’s to blame here.”



I won’t lie. I had a relatively similar reaction to the ending of this novel. Although it has been described as Hemingway’s “bleakest” novel in its depictions of the horrors of war and the soldiers that partake in it, the moments of brightness that come through are what create something memorable. That, as Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This is the truly amazing sentiment.

I think this aspect of brightness in a novel that is mostly dark is best summed up in a dialogue between Frederic Henry, the protagonist and Catherine Barkley, his nurse and the woman he loves:

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”

Speakout! Journals as Adult Literacy Learning Tools

The following post is a followup to a 2010 blog found here, focusing on the efforts and success of the Speakout! adult literacy program.  

By Vani Kannan

Those of us who have facilitated with the Colorado State University Community Literacy Center have seen the excitement when the Speakout! journals are published. It’s gratifying to pass them out to the workshop participants so they can see the fruits of their labor in print. However, we may not see what happens to the journals after they’re published. We know that they circulate around Fort Collins, the state, country, and indeed, the globe (CLC Director Tobi Jacobi brought journals with her to a conference in Prague this past year). But how are they being pedagogically employed in community literacy work?


Before I came to CSU, I volunteered as an adult literacy tutor at a public library in Brooklyn, NY. The students I worked with gravitated towards community literacy publications, particularly those that showcased the voices of language-learning writers. Students checked out the books from the library after our Saturday classes and brought them home to read during the week. They often came to class on Saturday having finished an entire collection of writing, and looking for something new.

Unfortunately, we ran out of such books quickly. It’s hard to find publications specifically tailored to adult literacy students—particularly language-learners and first-time writers. Students at the library responded well to texts with content that was relevant to their lives (e.g., essays on work and family), but written at an accessible reading level. The small grassroots press that had put out the collections we used at the library had gone out of business years earlier. Because of this, the library literacy center coordinators had to look to South African and Canadian publishers. (Of course, this meant that students learning English in the U.S. were learning from texts with non-U.S. spelling conventions!)

Adult literacy publishing is not a lucrative field, which is why it hasn’t taken off in the U.S. This is part of why the CLC’s work in publishing a grassroots journal is so important. As a facilitator in Brooklyn, I saw firsthand how vital it is for adult literacy students to recognize themselves in their readings. The adult voices in community literacy publications resonated and thus excited students about the act of reading. This excitement led them to read consistently at home, which improved their literacy levels tremendously in between our weekly classes.

When a friend started volunteering at a local literacy program in Philadelphia earlier this year, she called me and described her student—a woman who reads at a fourth-grade level and wants to try writing poetry for the first time. Unfortunately, the community literacy space where the volunteers and students meet does not have any texts available at all—let alone adult-specific texts—due to the fact that they operate out of a shared space where they cannot store materials. I sent her a copy of a recent Speakout! journal. She reports that her student was excited by the publication and took it home to read on her own the very same day. No doubt her literacy skills will benefit from reading the work of CLC workshop participants.

Vani Kannan is working on her MA in Rhetoric and Composition at Colorado State University. She volunteers with CSU’s Speakout! program and has been involved in community literacy work since 2008.

Three Works of Fiction That Will Change Your Life

By Michaela Jorgensen
Literature and the human condition have a relationship that began with the genre’s founding. A single work’s ability to resonate in our thoughts, inform our actions, and shape our lives is a global phenomenon intrinsically developed through the evolution of storytelling, that has been honed into an exceptional tool in the novel. As fiction pertains to the human condition, many of its finest examples explore mankind’s darkest qualities, willing readers to step farther into a darkness that plagues the psyche. The greatest questions posed by the novel demand to be answered. And once we comprehend the work’s implications, we are subsequently altered for our efforts. If you have not read the works below, consider placing them on your reading list. While unrelenting, they may change your life.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Yale Law Library

Yale Law Library

Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.



Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Abhi Sharma

Abhi Sharma

On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.

The prevalence of the disturbed permeates in these novels, but their messages are important, and they grasp at the reasons for laws, normalcy, and the nature of the human condition. These are novels that ascend the passage of time and strike at the very notions of what it means to be human.
Michaela Jorgensen is an English teacher that writes all about the creative arts and education. Her recent work is on the Top 10 Online Colleges for aspiring teachers.

The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

By Wendy Robertson

Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.

Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.

Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.

In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street  when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side  swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’

When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.

My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.

We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.

These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with  teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.

Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.


My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.

In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.

The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.

On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.

The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.

After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” – both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here. 

Changing Lives through Literature in Action

The following post was written for the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries blog. The personal story that is included, I feel, exemplifies what is at the heart of the Changing Lives through Literature program. The original post can be found here.



An alternative sentencing program has been reducing recidivism in Massachusetts for over twenty years.  In 1991, UMASS-Dartmouth Literature Professor Robert Waxler, Judge Robert Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St. Pierre started the program called “Changing Lives Through Literature.”  For 12 to 14 weeks, probationers, Judges and probation officers read and discuss six or seven literary works. The program ends with a graduation ceremony in a full courtroom.
 At the twenty year anniversary, the Trial Court participated in a day-long symposium to assess the program’s  impact. Numerous testimonials and studies proving the success of the program have been listed on the CLTL website.
“I was walking through the streets of the city the other night,” a student in Robert Waxler’s class told him once. “It could have been any city, any street, any of us. ‘And I was thinking about Santiago [ in Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea ],’ he continued. ‘I came to a corner where all my old buddies hang out up the street. You know, I’ve been struggling to stay clean for a long time. But I was depressed. So I began to make the turn, to go down that street, back to the old neighborhood. Then I heard him, the old man. It was like listening to his voice. I remembered how he had gone out each day for almost three months without catching a fish. He hadn’t caught anything, but he still got up each morning, tried it again. He must have felt terrible, but he didn’t give up. So I didn’t make the turn that day. Stayed strong. Thanks to the old man. I heard him.’ “

                                                                               Photo by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

Last May, the Trial Court announced that it will be expanding the program to reach more Courts and more probationers. Herein is “What you need to know about Changing Lives Through Literature.”

The Transformative Power of Urban Literature

By Becca Sorgert

As we move beyond Restorative Justice to explore Transformative Justice in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) with programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature, it is great that works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness have been published where colorblindness and the racial caste are exposed. When readers are engaged through Urban Fiction in the PIC, transformative benefits such as solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are achievable. Through the lens of Transformative Justice, we can reframe current views of Urban Fiction to validate this genre that is deemed inappropriate by gatekeepers in our current carceral state.

Contemporary Urban Fiction plots focus on life in neighborhoods of major cities, such as Chicago or Philadelphia, where, as Vanessa Irvin Morris states, “specific cultural groups live and thrive;” specifically African American or Latino neighborhoods. The main theme of Urban Fiction is of survival, especially “[h]ow to survive on the streets by circumventing pitfalls.” Scholar Megan Sweeney states “Perhaps the most popular genre in the women’s prison is African American urban fiction.” By understanding themes of Urban Fiction, one can see similar values comparable in prisoners’ lives, such as survival.

Vanessa Morris, scholar and librarian, eloquently proves that there are more themes than what is traditionally critiqued with Urban Fiction (crime, drugs, sex). The most critiqued aspects of Urban Fiction are themes in literature that are not isolated to Urban Fiction and contemporary writings. Morris shows that Urban Fiction functions in many different ways beyond the criticized violence and criminal behavior. Instead, what makes Urban Fiction unique are the following literary themes: a fast moving story with background stories, descriptions of living life from living situations to income, the nature of street life and how it operates, how personal relationships work through tough situations involving abuse and disloyalty, style featuring specific products, and how to endure street life and escape from it.

Solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are common benefits that run through the published research of why reading Urban Fiction in prison is beneficial to prisoners; Urban Fiction highlights these benefits because the genre is primarily written by, and for, people of color, some whom have experience in the PIC. Morris suggests that Urban Fiction “appeals to readers because it offers an opportunity to investigate, validate, and/or make sense of city life.” It is necessary to be able to do this when Alfred Tatum, scholar on black youth reading, brings to light that “[m]any poor black males are too preoccupied with thoughts of their own mortality and the day-to-day energy required to survive.” The inclusion of Urban Fiction for PIC readers provides counter-narratives to literature that is considered the norm and creates, as Amy Bintliff points out, “the freedom to incorporate stories and themes that reflect who they are and what they want to investigate.”

While imprisoned in the white power structure of the PIC, readers find solidarity through text. Sweeney suggests, “Imprisoned fans of urban fiction occasionally emphasize their identification with this spirit of resistance to dominant white power structures.” The novels of Urban Fiction provide a shared experience of living in a white supremacy, being imprisoned under white law, and being kept under white surveillance. Sweeney’s work suggests that Urban Fiction is a counter-narrative that shows how colorblindness and the racial caste system affect non-white people.

When Urban Fiction is not included in collections, it is an attempt to silence and control the transformation of readers who experience a further understanding of their situation in relation to others’ similar situations. This transformation challenges the current operating system, whether it is the PIC or society in general. This solidarity expands to resistance which then spirals to further reform or transformation of power structures at play. Sweeney proposes that the “penal institutions’ fear of urban books seems to stem from the conception of power and agency that many of the books espouse in depicting characters’ efforts to attain and maintain power.”

An essential part of Sweeney’s work is her highlight of readers becoming authors. Some women prisoners expressed that Urban Fiction “inspire[s] a lot of us to write our own books, and tell our own stories.” When the reading of Urban Fiction is combined with creatively sharing one’s own thoughts through writing, these acts further challenge the PIC structure. Anne Fowell Stanford, professor and author on imprisoned women’s experiences, who explored prisoners’ writing offers: “With dehumanizing social practices in jail, writing becomes an act of resistance, sometimes obvious, sometimes masked. […] This writing is dangerous because it proclaims a making and remaking of selves despite state attempts to confine, fix, and stabilize identities as ‘inmates’.”.

The significance of the cyclical culture of Urban Fiction, one that creates writers from readers, is that it breaks the culture of silence and creates power, resistance, and a means of survival through expression. Creating more writers shows powerful and transformative actions, which is why there is such a threat from multiple and uncontrollable dialogues between the author and their own work, characters within their novel, and between the reader and the author. As a reader, these options for inner dialogue or with other readers allow for self-criticism and positioning oneself in various roles such as the reader, author, main character, as the perpetrator, and / or the victim, etc.

The time has come to engage with the readers and writers in the PIC through authentic dialogues to shape the collection development policies on Urban Fiction. Building relationships with readers through a dialogue technique that embraces feelings and expressiveness will build an effective and inclusive reading collection (such as in a PIC library) that functions, like Urban Fiction, on multiple levels for imprisoned patrons. The transformation from an arrogant to loving perception of Urban Fiction allows readers access to desired literacy and solidarity from their community. Access to this community and genre creates an authentic dialogue between readers and writers to formbonds of support, resistance, and exploration that are essential to survival in the PIC and the white supremacy we live in.

Becca Sorgert is completing her masters of Library and Information Science and is a volunteer jail librarian. You can follow her at her blog (and find more Urban Fiction resources) at Exploring Prison Librarianship. She can be reached by email at beccasorgert@gmail.com.

Further Reading:

Bintliff, Amy. Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education

Morris, Vanessa Irvin. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature

Standford, Anne Fowell. “Lit by Each Other’s Light: Women’s Writing at Cook Country Jail.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States

Sweeney, Megan. “‘I lived that book!’: Reading Behind bars.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States

Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons.

Tatum, Alfred. Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap.

Tara Knoll’s Insights on Affliction (CLTL)

by: Tara Knoll

When I participated in the last session of Professor Waxler’s fall-cycle ’11 Changing Lives Through Literature program, held at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth campus, the participants discussed Russell Banks’ Affliction before their graduation from the program.

Though I had observed Waxler’s program before, I was still surprised by the participants’ emphatic reactions to the text. One participant pointed to a moment in which a child suffers from his parent’s mistakes, explaining that the scene, “burns a hole in me.”  Another expressed his frustration with one of the characters, for, “he had all the time in the world to help his brother, but he didn’t.”  I was also still surprised to find my own reactions to the text both enforced and called into question by the discussion, as various participants introduced perspectives and questions that hadn’t occurred to me in my reading of the novel.

Affliction is a story about storytelling. Ostensibly the story of Wade Whitehouse, a troubled, middle-aged, part-time cop who lives in a small New Hampshire town who struggles with alcoholism, depression, and the loss of his family, Affliction is told from the perspective of Wade’s younger brother, Rolfe. Rolfe has long-since escaped the small town of Lawford and his dysfunctional family, while Wade remains. Rolfe tells the story of how Wade tries to reassemble his life one November; “all he really wanted” was “to be a good father,” and to be a “good man.”

Despite his good intentions, however, Wade gets caught up in an obsessive search for the truth regarding a hunting accident; a search that propels his internal and external dissolution and ends with his committing several tragic crimes and, subsequently, disappearing. Banks subverts our expectations when the pseudo-detective figure degenerates into the criminal whom he seeks. But this story isn’t all about Wade, and Rolfe concedes: “Oh, I know that in telling Wade’s story here I am telling my own as well….”

Though I found myself identifying with Rolfe as the narratorial voice and the more distant character from the action taking place, many participants strongly identified with Wade and disliked Rolfe. “Wade’s just trying to be a good parent. I can feel for what that’s like,” one participant explained. Another elaborated, “Wade is a better person than Rolfe. At least he stayed to battle his problems, at least he tried to make things better.” Others admired Wade, in a sense, as “from the beginning he never wants to be part of someone else’s story,” while still others “feel bad for him” because “he wants so bad to be a good dad but doesn’t know how because of how he’s raised.”  My initial view of Rolfe as a character was intensely complicated by our discussion. Did he break free from, or abandon his family? Was his leaving courageous, or cowardly? Now I’m not so sure.

The identification with, and sympathy for, Wade that marked the discussion provoked questions of inevitability. Professor Waxler asked, “Is Wade destined for a kind of victimage?” One participant pointed out that his impulsiveness predisposed him to certain problems: “Wade doesn’t think, he just reacts.”

What is the root of Wade’s dilemma? As Waxler observed, our discussion mimicked Wade’s obsession: the more we think about it, the more difficult it is to grasp the truth. Since the book is written from Rolfe’s hindsight perspective, it was tempting for me to view Wade’s downfall as unavoidable. Waxler’s prompts and the participants’ observations both took this issue up and caused me to question it.

A strikingly inescapable extension of the question of the origin of Wade falling apart connects Wade with his violent and alcoholic father. Several participants emphasized that Wade “is trying to be a good son to his father” even after he has become an adult, yet, he’s frighteningly, “becoming like his father.” In a powerful scene, Wade erupts in anger against his daughter. When the heat subsides and his daughter has left, Wade notices his father standing alongside the decrepit house—observing, grinning. Rolfe imagines his father’s thoughts: “the son finally had turned out to be a man just like the father.”

Waxler notes that this scene illustrates a disconcerting reformulation, even distortion, of the parental blessing. Is Banks suggesting that at some level a child still wants the acknowledgment and blessing of the parent, even if at the same time he hates everything that the parent represents? The question is a troubling one. While I found myself reflecting on my role as a daughter, many participants connected their roles as son or daughter with their roles as a parent.

Judge Kane argued against this suggestion of inevitability vis–à–vis generational inheritance. “A blood tie can be broken,” the judge asserted. “You can find your own place, be your own person—it wasn’t inevitable.” As we all struggled to pinpoint what caused Wade’s life to fall apart and whether or not his ultimate downfall could have been avoided, many participants called attention to the way language works in the novel to achieve this sense of spiraling out of control in tandem with Wade.

There is a pointed madness in Banks’ deliberateness, and several participants wondered if Wade was really losing his mind. I hadn’t considered this interpretation before, and the hints of it in the text underscore the richness of Banks’ language. One participant highlighted the effectiveness of the language: “I felt crazy after reading it.”  Several others felt uneasy with “how long it took [Banks] to get to the point.” The lengthy paragraphs of description and the incisively illustrative quality of Banks’ writing frustrated some, pleased others, and seemed to engender in all of us a building sense that “things are going to be okay…but then something collapses.” Banks’ postmodern exploration of time and chaotic transitions between geographical and temporal locales added to the sense of confusion, inviting us to identify with Wade. “It can be difficult to follow,” one participant noted. “You’re always jumping to someplace else.”

At the heart of this jumping is Rolfe’s control as narrator. Throughout the discussion, each one of us either reflected on or voiced aloud the recurrent question—how do we really know any of this? Slightly defensive and earnest in his explanation as to his seeming omniscience, Rolfe responds to the hypothetical question of the reader by asserting, “I do not, in the conventional sense, know many of these things. I am not making them up, however. I am imagining them.” Rolfe establishes a new dimension of story telling, yet his narration implicitly wrests control away from Wade.

Wade is pushing through and trying to make his own story, but he doesn’t have the power, and no one will let him,” one participant contended. I stopped writing as this observation was made. I was struck by how it really gets to the heart of the struggle faced by each participant who is working their way through the court system and trying to reassert and reformulate their place outside of their docket number designation or charges faced. As we all explored our relationship as readers to the story, it became clear that Rolfe used the narration of another’s story as a means to better understand his own.

Narration’s ability to channel self-awareness extends past the realm of writing, in Rolfe’s case, and applies to readers, too. Just as Rolfe narrates Wade’s story in order to comprehend his own, so too did everyone present at the Changing Lives discussion appropriate the stories in the novel as a means to approach broader issues of society and all of our roles within it. Whether the participants identified with aspects the story—the difficulties of the court system, of being a parent, of starting over—or recognized their distance from it, the power of narrative was universal. As one participant observed, “You can be rich, have a good life, whatever, and one thing could make it spiral out of control.” Both the novel and the discussion produced a humanizing, universalizing effect.

While some saw the conclusion of Affliction as hopeful, perhaps an indication of Rolfe’s ability to “exorcise” Wade’s story (which is his own “ghost life”) and move on, the language itself is unclear. Rolfe tells us that, unless Wade is caught, “The story will be over. Except that I continue.” We don’t know whether Rolfe continues in a brave sense, reasserting his agency and control over his own life, or in a despondently cyclical sense, obsessing over Wade’s past and his own culpability. In taking up the story of Affliction, we as readers ascribe our own meaning to Rolfe’s ambiguous declaration. In so doing, we realize Wade’s unfulfilled desire to assert, as stated by one participant, “It’s my story. I’ve got control.”

Why is the Only Option a Lack of Options?

by Annie Bolthrunis, editor


I have always been aware that there aren’t many options for people suffering from mental health disorders and addiction problems. Insurance will cover a few days in a hospital or detox and send you home with a slew of prescriptions, appointments, and recommendations, still reeling from the experience of being in-patient in a hospital.

If a patient is able to maintain a medication and appointment schedule, they may be able to successfully navigate the world of recovery. However, more often than not, these inpatient hospitalizations merely physically stabilize a patient without taking into account the emotional problems which are the underlying cause of the hospitalization.

I have a close relative who has long suffered from alcoholism. She has been inpatient in detox units more times than I can remember, with the most recent hospitalization occurring shortly after the start of break in mid-December. In October, she had been in a detox center for five days. When she relapsed, my family tried to find a long-term treatment center that would take her and accept our insurance. There were many options, but we kept hitting the same roadblock:

Her insurance would only cover five to ten days of an inpatient hospitalization that should have lasted thirty to ninety days. The cost of treatment, per day, can be thousands of dollars. Who can afford that? But the larger question is; why are insurance companies willing to pay for several short hospitalizations a year, but not for one long-term treatment session that may lead to a much longer period of sobriety?

It’s impossible to know the answer to this question, but it’s worth thinking about in an age when health insurance coverage is such a big political issue and addiction is at the forefront of our minds, thanks to shows like A&E’s “Intervention” and “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” on VH1. Is it really cost effective to treat the same person several times as opposed to paying for one extended stay in a treatment center? Is it morally acceptable to keep bouncing a patient between home and detox without a clear set of tools to use as they eke out their recovery? Detox centers can be great places that offer a good deal of support for their patients, but when those patients are only there for three to five days, how much recovery can you really offer them?

AA and NA are options for a lot of people, but these programs can be overwhelming, especially for a new addict, or for someone who repeatedly relapses. It’s difficult for a person who one week appeared to be doing very well to go back to his or her familiar meeting and tell the group of people they’ve learned to trust that they’ve been lying; they fell off the wagon. Of course, all addicts know that addictions makes liars of everyone, and they will welcome the newly-sober-again member back with open arms, but it’s still emotionally difficult for someone just out of detox to face these emotions head on. This can lead to drinking or drugging. It’s a vicious cycle.

Along with the emotional problems associated with frequent relapse and ineffective treatment, patients may begin to experience negative effects on their health as they become more and more entrenched in the cycle of addiction. Problems such as alcoholic or drug induced dementia, vitamin deficiency, organ failure, malnutrition, and dehydration must all be treated by physicians, which costs the insurance companies yet again.

Overall, this is a very frustrating experience for patients and their families. Watching someone you love suffer repeatedly, and the cycle of repeated relapse and the effects it has on the family can cause enough stress to tear a family apart. I don’t know if there are easy solutions to these problems, but I know that the options available are NOT options. They pigeon-hole people into an ever-increasingly frustrating cycle which doesn’t seem to end – the proverbial snake eating its tail.

This is part of the reason why programs like CLTL are so important. Although CLTL is geared towards prisoners and not specifically addicts, a program that empowers people in a way that detox (and prison, of course) don’t is incredibly beneficial to society as a whole. Instead of breaking people down, a program like CLTL builds people up, giving them self esteem through showing them they have abilities they may not have recognized in themselves. Perhaps, using CLTL as a model, a program for addicts with relapse problems can be created, in conjunction with a hospital, where participants are treated on an outpatient basis (insurance companies may be more likely to cover this kind of program) and not only given tools to deal with their addictions, like so many partial hospital programs, but are given other tools, like self esteem. I think a book club component could be extremely beneficial in this context – as in CLTL, patients could be given a weekly reading assignment, and then have to come in the following week and discuss the text. Patients would get a feeling of accomplishment through starting and completing a task (reading the book or story) and a completely different feeling of accomplishment from participating in a meaningful discussion. Hopefully these discussions would relate to the addict’s experiences as an addict, and give them tools they may not receive in a short term inpatient setting.


It seems like this could be a perfect marriage between a long-term in patient hospitalization (which can be financially devastating or even impossible to afford at all) and a series of short term detoxes (which can physically orient a person again but only barely skims the surface of the emotional problems the patient is experiencing).