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?



Les Miserables and the Criminal Justice System

By Joe Suhre

If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.

Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.



The modern courtroom

In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.

I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.

Verbal shorthand

I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.

Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”

Javert against drinking and driving

One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.

I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.

 “If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!”

The crucible of humanity

 I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.

The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.

If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.

Victor Hugo himself stated,

“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”


Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.

Clear the Cobwebs off the Classics: Popular Literature Reads

By Courtney Gordner

Courtney + Page

Dystopian societies overrun by vampires, androids and zombies have been infecting our brains with late-night, page-turning cliffhangers. Unforeseen heroes and “knights in shining armor” charm our daydreams and engage us as we hang on to every image and detail. In a world full of blockbuster book series–Twilight, The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter–people everywhere are buzzing about the rush you get from reading a book.

Why not go back then, and shed some light on those who started this whole science-fiction and fantasy craze? Believe it or not, classic authors have been toying with these same subjects long before ideas of new societies and worlds became mainstream. These “originals” were all at one point were considered “taboo” because their content was so avant-garde. If you like what’s hot today in literature, you should absolutely crack open some of these classics. They will not disappoint.

1. Fahrenheit 451– Ray Bradbury


(If you enjoy reading novels like Roth’s Divergent, Kacvinsky’s Awaken or Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.)

Banned Books Week is typically held the last week in September by the American Library Association, and this classic was banned due to its questionable themes and language. If you’re interested in reading about societal pressures and the fight for freedom of expression and intellect, this is the perfect book for you.

Guy Montag, a firefighter trained to burn books, comes across a young girl that changes his world forever. As she shows him a life full of free thought and beauty in words, he begins to see a world outside of government control; a world full of love, freedom and hope.

2. 1984– George Orwell

Colin Dunn

Colin Dunn

(If you enjoy reading novels like Collin’s The Hunger Games or Cline’s Ready Player One.)

Coincidentally enough, Orwell wrote this classic in 1948, prophesying the future and what he envisioned the world to be in 1984. He invented the idea of “Big Brother” and how the government can control a society and the ability to have free thought. This is a great read that paints a picture of concepts way ahead of his time.

The story follows a lower-class man, Winston, who works at the Ministry of Truth altering historical events to meet “The Party’s” needs. He receives a strange note from a young girl that says “I love you,” and he begins to question his place in the world. Writing his “crimes” or thoughts in his notebook, his oppression changes from subtle to oblivious. Another portrayal of human independence and freedom, Orwell captivates his audience at each page turn.

3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream– William Shakespeare

(If you enjoy reading novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight.)

Definitely not the typical romance novel, this classic play really captures the impulsive side of love and puts a satirical twist on “soul mates.” Shakespeare comments on how blindly and easily humans fall in love by showcasing a mash-up of love triangles that will confuse even the reader. However, with his fun quips, the characters extreme personalities will be sure to keep you in stitches.


4. Frankenstein– Mary Shelley

(If you enjoy reading novels such as Harry Potter, World War Z or Marion’s Warm Bodies.)

Contrary to the popular story of the horror movie giant, Shelley’s Frankenstein monster has a completely different outlook on life. Born into hatred and destruction, this novel commentates on society’s focus on appearances. Through the monster’s journey in understanding his place in the world, he is betrayed and cast-aside by society, allowing the reader to sympathize with him and see that he is truly a misunderstood creature. Shelley brings to life something we can constantly learn from today: humanity.

Even though our classics have a date that sets them back in time, they are timeless. The values and lessons that these books teach their readers are even relatable in the 21st century. Not only do they educate us on the value of life, independence, and the human spirit, they are some of the most entertaining reads ever written. So when the buzz for the newest series dies down, pick up one of these novels. You’ll be surprised how able they are to satisfy your reading cravings.

Courtney is a passionate blogger who loves sharing her views and thoughts with the world. You can read more from her on her blog,

Zeiterion’s Court Program Shows Power of Art to Change

By Bettina Borders and Estella Rebeiro

One day several years ago, Katherine Knowles, the director of the Zeiterion, approached the Juvenile Court to offer the possibility for court-involved youth to attend Zeiterion performances. Ms. Knowles envisioned the Z as a valuable community resource and wanted to extend it’s reach to include everyone. In her mind, this also meant the kids most folks want to forget.

There are many words used to describe these kids, trouble makers, delinquents, “druggies,” problem kids, misguided, etc. Ms. Knowles thought that perhaps some of them could find something at the Z to facilitate “turning them around.” It sounded good to the court. Why not try it. By and large these were kids with little opportunity to attend the Z on their own resources. Thus through the vision of Ms. Knowles and the generosity of her board, an ostensibly unlikely partnership began. Under the supervision of probation, young people from our court, and often their families, began to attend the varied theatrical performances offered by the Z.

There were several permutations to this partnership, which is part of two alternative sentencing initiatives supervised by probation and the court. At one point Ms. Knowles identified an anonymous donor who wanted to have the kids attend the theater in style. A limousine appeared at the courthouse, picked the kids up and drove them around various scenic areas of the city before dropping them, and their parents, at the Z. Later they were picked up and returned to the courthouse.

At another time, the youth participating in an alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and later attended the play, courtesy of the Z. There have been plays, musicals, storytelling, dance, theater and magic performances these youth have had the opportunity to see. But the question remains: What has it meant?

For most of these youth and their families, this is an extraordinary experience. First, they are having a wonderful experience together, one that most of us take for granted. The probation officers who accompany these youth have watched while the demeanor of these kids transforms as the evening unfolds. They are indistinguishable from the rest of the audience; polite, engaged, attentive, well behaved, well dressed, inquisitive, mesmerized by the magical extravaganzas they are watching. They are out of their “comfort zone” and yet “belong” in this new environment. It is wonderful to hear about as the probation officers report back to the court.

But the transformation does not end there. The youth are asked to write about their experiences or discuss them in groups. Each youth is excited, energized and articulate when dissecting the play or gushing over the virtuosity of dancers or musicians. Many “thank yous” by letter and by mouth are sent by the youths. Another lesson learned. These are experiences we want for all of the youth in our community and Ms. Knowles and the Board of the Z must be commended for making them accessible to those teens least likely to find their way to the beautiful Z.

Art, we know, can transform people, all people. Ms. Knowles and her board have set a high standard for accessibility to art. One that can be replicated in many other areas of our community, particularly for youth. Our youth have much to learn from its leaders and the places frequented by them. Our court certainly appreciates the efforts made by the Z to include these youth. As Ms. Knowles says at the beginning of a performance: “Let the magic begin.” Perhaps she is on to something.


Honorable Bettina Borders is first justice of Bristol County Juvenile Court in New Bedford. Estella Rebeiro is senior probation officer. This op-ed was originally posted in the South Coast Today.

A Guide to Prison Libraries

By Jeffrey Roe

Most people intending to become librarians often have strong memories associated with their school libraries and the people who worked in them. Those memories are likely what draws some librarians back to primary school, where they work to foster and promote literacy, learning, and, simply, a love of books. Others opt to go into research, working in high profile special collections with fragile documents full of unique information or of particular significance to history.

Few library students probably envision working in a prison library as their ideal place of employment. Contrary to what you might think, working as a prison librarian isn’t a maligned path so much as an overlooked one; it’s simply not a job on most people’s radar. This is unfortunate, as working in a prison library offers librarians a unique environment, one that is proactive in promoting education, literacy, and civic engagement, among other ideals closely related to the mission of libraries everywhere.

Becoming a prison librarian isn’t particularly difficult. As with all professional libraries, prison librarians must have a degree in library science, generally at the master’s level (MLS). Experience working in a civilian library (such as a school or public library) is also generally required. Some experience working in corrections is also ideal, but not required; it’s simply a good idea to understand the constraints that prison puts upon both the incarcerated and those who serve them. You could accomplish this by volunteering at a prison.

It’s important to understand what a library is to someone who’s been incarcerated: It is a place where inmates escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life, where they learn to improve their literacy, write letters, watch instructional videos and so much more. Prison libraries don’t differ much from public libraries in terms of content, though some do have dedicated legal sections. Prison libraries even sometimes host book clubs! Library services can be integrated with other services for the incarcerated, like visitation.

Prison libraries, like public libraries, suffer at the whims of state finances, but differ from their public counterparts in other significant ways. Internet is often unavailable to inmates or librarians; when it is available to librarians, it is only during hours when inmates are not present. Prison librarians also act as corrections officers, taking on the responsibility of supervising both the inmates working in the library and those using its services. Generally, inmates tend to treat librarians with a degree of respect since the services the library provides offer prisoners a respite from prison life and a way to better themselves and their situation. Prisoners who engage in educational programs, such as library services, tend to stay out of prison upon release at higher rate than those without access to such programs. Just another reason to consider becoming a prison librarian.


Jeffrey Roe is the community manager for the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. USC Rossier Online provides current teachers and those working on becoming a teacher with the opportunity to earn a masters in education completely online. In his free time, Jeff enjoys attending concerts and developing his talents as a videomaker.

Changing Lives Through Literature: A Sentencing Option that Works (Part 2)

By Tam Neville

After lunch the group heard a presentation on “Research: Does it work?” led by Ron P. Corbett Jr. He began by saying that evidence-based practices are used in many settings.

Is there empirical support for what you do?

Is it having the effects you want on the people you work with?

All in Changing Lives Through Literature believe that it does change lives. A recidivism study has recently been done at UMass/Boston by retired professor Taylor Stoehr, Professor of Sociology, Russell Schutt, and Associate Professor, faculty member of the Criminal Justice Program, Xiaogang Deng. The study showed a reduction in offending for CLTL graduates.

Do we have the ability to help people reduce offending sometimes or altogether?

There was an experimental group and a control group. We looked at behavior 18 months before CLTL and 18 months after CLTL. There were 600 participants in the study. There was a 60 % drop for CLTL participants and 16% for others. Both the number and severity of incidents were reduced. Also the participants worked with a parole officer and took one other program (such as substance abuse, batterers, etc.).

What is it about Changing Lives that leads to a reduction in offending? What is the link between graduates of the program and those who offend less? Stoehr reports on this study:

“This group was larger than the Jarjoura/Rogers study and ran for a longer time. We had five jurisdictions: New Bedford, Lynn/Lowell, Dorchester, and two smaller courts. We had a larger range of information.

For the probationers, someone was paying attention to them. This is what was missing from their lives. In the Dorchester men’s class we have big groups so we break them up into smaller groups. Once in a class discussion, we had five guys who were great talkers, all talking at once. Then one held up his hand and said, “This is what our problem is, we don’t listen, we just talk.” Moments like this begin to happen in the third class. The process is unpredictable. You let go of controls. In Dorchester we don’t stick so hard to the text. The main thing is what happens in the classroom.

In the Dorchester program, we have a set of questions that we work with that go in a sequence. For example: What does it take to grow up? Does anybody ever learn things in school? And towards the end of the semester – What does it take to hit bottom? The questions get bigger and bigger.

In mid-semester we ask, “What is your evaluation of street smarts?” By this time there is trust. On street smarts – almost all are proud of their street smarts. The staff has a different view: street smarts prevent you from learning anything new. Many students cling to street smarts. The most important thing about Changing Lives is that people belong to a community that has the same concerns that they have. We have so little of that in America – where does that happen in your life? That makes a huge difference in what you do with your life.”

Books bring universality. A student realized, “I’m not the only one with this problem.” Through books students learn how to fight with words, not fists. They build a community together.

Reading is a cognitive behavior intervention – it makes thinking more flexible and more expansive, more empathetic.

The program boosts self-esteem too. To have a conversation with a judge can boost a student’s confidence. A student completes an assignment, voices an opinion, and is listened to.

Judge Kane said, “We’ve had the program for 20 years and there has never been a scary incident in these years. We get gratitude from our students.”

Judge Dever said, “People come into the program looking at life subjectively. In this program, through literature, they start looking at life objectively. This changes their ability to communicate. This then may help them with job interviews, things they thought were unattainable.

Reading slows you down – you have to find a quiet place and be by yourself. This is new for them – it leads to self-reflection.”

Stoehr talked about juveniles saying, “They don’t’ have a place to go with no noise and they’re full of hormones. Think of something you can do at the meeting, very short things (maybe rap), something that gives them a little challenge at the moment.”

Teresa Owens (PO, Taunton Division) said, “CLTL gives them a safe setting. One thing that always came out of the Dorchester women’s class was the question of choices. Were there other choices I could have made? Or, you can go to someone else to ask and say ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Also, people in class were accountable to each other in terms of doing the reading, homework, etc.”

CLTL is a team experience. When people have a chance to reflect on choices, this is their time, a time they can actually think. They don’t have that luxury in their lives. In CLTL they learn that there are more options, more choices.

Professor Waxler said, “We collectively make a community. The activity is primarily verbal. Reading brings engagement with narrative – you see that you are connected to other people. The story that I just read is my story too. Then discussion with everyone sitting around a table, there’s an open relationship between our experience and narrative. Story gives us meaning and helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.”

To begin the final session, a probation officer new to the program spoke using herself as an example. She said, “Say I want to start a program. How do I get a judge involved, a facilitator, and probation officers?”

Judge Kane answered her on the matter of judicial involvement. “At least have someone who will let you run the program. You will need a judge’s support to get POs behind it. Having a judge is very important.”

Jean Trounstine added, “Get a judge talking to a judge. This will increase the chance of their going to class. You then have to go out and find facilitators.”

Someone else commented, “You have to get the judge to commit to an incentive if CLTL is not a condition of probation.”

The question of incentive: Outcomes are more positive where a court can create incentives such as six months off probation period, discount on supervision fees, etc. This information is in the literature and on the website. Dee Kennedy pointed out that, “Many students start off by saying, ‘I never would have taken this without the time off’ but by graduation, their attitude has changed.”

To find a facilitator ask Jean Flanagan. Jean Trounstine added, “Try to find a facilitator who has a connection with a school. It’s good to have a school as a place to meet. Call an English department. We can help you – you don’t need to do this in a vacuum.”

Ideally, a university campus is the best place to hold a class. The students get a taste of college life and it makes them proud to go to a college campus. This is especially important with juveniles.

To start a class, ask probation officers to recruit students from among their probationers. Myrna Thornquist (PO, Waltham District Court) advised, “I check a person out – do they like to read? What is their education? In the beginning I don’t tell them what I’m thinking – that they would be a good candidate. I do a little research on a person. Then, are they interested? Sometimes it takes 6-12 months to be sure of someone as a candidate.”

On books, Jean Trounstine said, “We give the students the books, they don’t buy them and the facilitator is reimbursed for these. We also encourage every student to get a library card.”

How many students should be in a class? We have had classes with 5 or with 13. Taylor Stoehr said, “One day we had 50. We split into two groups, then used small groups of 4 to 5.”

Any staff has to be regular. It’s important that all the staff agrees on the class ground rules. If we have an issue sometimes we talk about it afterwards. For the most part we tell the students, be sober and straight, do your homework and be on time.”

For the graduation ceremony, the Lynn/Lowell programs hold graduation in the court house during the first session. Those in the dock witness graduation. The graduates receive books and a certificate. It’s a day for celebration.

This meeting was a very successful one and we now have several courts who are interested in starting a program. We need facilitators. If you, or anyone you know, would like to facilitate a Changing Lives Program please get in touch with Jean Trounstiine at:

Changing Lives Through Literature: A Sentencing Option that Works (Part 1)

By Tam Neville

This program is a great experiment about what democracy can mean. All masks, roles, hierarchies, fall away. There is a moment of beauty. In a class we have the voice, the breath of human beings, the flow of the human heart.

Dr. Robert P. Waxler


CLTL Program


On May 10, 2012, Judges, probation officers, and facilitators of the Changing Lives Through Literature program met at the Worcester Law Library. The purpose of the meeting was to assist potential participants in starting new programs. There were many new faces in the room and familiar faces too. Despite losing our funding in 2008, we are still going strong with ten programs running in Massachusetts and hopefully, with gatherings like this one, more will follow.

The day began with a presentation of the history of the Changing Lives Through Literature Program led by Hon. Robert J. Kane and Dr. Robert P. Waxler. Judge Kane talked briefly about the first CLTL class that took place in New Bedford with a group of men, all of whom had serious convictions. The idea was to try the new program on the toughest candidates. If it worked on them, that meant the program was sound.

Judge Kane said the program works because “the act of reading and writing allows people to learn, to learn to listen instead of just reacting.”

All programs have autonomy. Dorchester may use just one text, supplemented with stories, Roxbury may use poems, and another program may use film.

Classes democratically respond to works of literature and this dialogue leaves a deposit in everyone. Judge Kane said, “This was dramatically illustrated by a man with a rough history that we had as a student. He was scared and wanted to stir something up. We gave this turbulent student a different point of view that gave him the chance to reflect. I saw him the other day – he gave me a smile and handshake. This student got a different view of a judge. We, in turn, learn to drop any facile notion of what brings an offender into court. Changing Lives brings me energy and a sense of curiosity. CLTL is a vocation. I’d like to thank Ron Corbett whose great support gives us renewed spirit for the future of the program.”

Next Prof. Waxler spoke about the programs history and its implications.

“The center of the program is literature. Literature is one tool we have that can keep people human. Every time we walk into a class we have that possibility. Our program has a different effect than an anger management or a job-hunting class. The program began in l991 with those who had a major offence. We saw how the men in this first class changed. Watching them walk on campus – after 6-7 weeks they looked different, they looked much more like the other students.”

An independent study (the Jarjoura/Rogers study) was done and was helpful in the beginning of the program. It demonstrated that CLTL graduates had a lower rate of recidivism. 45% re-offended in the control group and of the CLTL group only 18% re-offended.

Not only do the students change but probation officers and judges change as well. Judge Dever said, ‘It has been the joy of my judgeship.’”

Waxler continued, “CLTL is a movement, not an organization or institution. We have 12 states that are involved: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kansas, Texas, Arizona, California, and one program in great Britain. The goal is to have a program in every state, every court. We have three books written about the program, a website, and a blog.

I think the program works because people get excited about reading. Thinking and self-reflection (through the process of reading) can be more exciting than dealing drugs. After the third session one of our roughest students said ‘I never thought I would find anything as exciting as being out on the street selling drugs – but I have.’ Reading and being able to come in and engage in discussion with PO’s, other students, and a judge, was inspirational for him.

This program is a great experiment about what democracy can mean. All masks, roles, hierarchies, fall away. There is a moment of beauty. In a class we have the voice, the breath of human beings, the flow of the human heart. People find their own voice and also participate in a communal voice. Many people are stuck in a perpetual present, repeating the same behavior. As Franz Kafka said, literature can break through that frozen sea within us. When that happens through narrative you feel a stirring of desire. You see the future and remember parts of the past and break out of the prison of present moment.

I will tell you about one night in class, we were reading Sea Wolf by Jack London. The hero is a tough guy, but with some narcissist elements. He believes that might makes right and is stuck in this, can’t move off his own center. In the midst of discussion – one student said, ‘I used to be just like Wolf Larsen.’ He recognized himself but was also saying ‘I am now free of that personality.’ Stories can open things up. People are always more extraordinary than the stereotypes. People in the program feel they are not good people. They are down-and-out and believe others see them this way. As we read we see something different – complex human beings – and the students realize that they have that complexity.”

The second session of the day, led by Jean Trounstine, was on program modeling, or how to teach a particular book or story. The discussion was based on Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson.”

Trounstine began by asking, “What’s the lesson and who learns it?”

One participant said that Miss Moore exposed kids from a poor neighborhood to the outside world. She took them to F.A.O. Schwartz and here they began to learn about a larger world. Here there were new toys with high prices. The children learned that such things existed and about the inequality in the world.

Sylvia was one of the strongest characters of the story. She learns what she didn’t want to see and she says – “Why am I feeling ashamed when I walk into this store?” She didn’t fit in – she felt, “They are better than I am.” In her own world she ruled the roost. The story shows the limitations of poverty and how it’s difficult for people to see beyond it. Sugar expresses the inequality, “You know Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here eat as much in one year as that sailboat costs.” Miss Moore is a radical in her own way. She was trying to show children that these inequalities exist and that you can work with them.

What was Sylvia’s world view before she goes to F.A.O. Shwartz? Sylvia’s view is, “My world’s ok, don’t rock the boat,” a predicable response. Now she has to look at a bigger picture and this “rocks Sylvia’s boat.”

Sylvia is angry because of her background. This is connected to our own classes and the question of how to draw students out of anger.

When they first go into the store, the children feel, “White people, crazy, wearing fur coats in the summer. But if everything you see glorifies a certain standard of living . . .” The children are frustrated by Miss Moore who says “Where we are is who we are.” She challenges them with the question of how to change this.

Do you like or dislike Miss Moore? She challenges them not with words or morals but by letting them have their own experience. Miss Moore doesn’t care if the children like her. The kids have a grudging respect for her. She is confrontational and persistent.

Taylor Stoehr asked, “What do you do with that anger? You have to learn this yourself. The lesson for us in this story is that the best you can do is open up the world. There is an analogy between Miss Moore and what we do in this program. In CLTL students are self-obsessed but without any self-esteem.”

Jean Trounstine said, “Let’s focus on what I would do with this in a CLTL class. You’re in a room with chairs in a circle. This is a good story to use at the beginning of semester. No one knows anyone. I have everyone read the story together. The students get over any fear of not understanding. Then I ask, ‘What did you get out of the story?’ Then we would start a discussion. It’s important not to instruct, but to choose a story good enough to make them think.”

Waxler added, “I’ve used this in a regular college classroom. Why does Miss Moore have to put it right in their faces – that they are poor? We are left with questions. Unlike other disciplines, literature doesn’t work for solutions.”

Ron Corbett asked, “Is it important that the characters have some characteristics that students have?” Trounstine answered, “I always pick things I think students will relate to. We used Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Once they come to class, they see the book differently.”

Gender Matters

By Tara Knoll


Alternative sentencing works to treat offenders as individuals. A crucial part of this function is the acknowledgment that female offenders are different in significant ways from their male counterparts. By observing both the predominantly male New Bedford CLTL program and the all-female Lynn-Lowell CLTL program, I found that, rather then equate male and female offenders, CLTL calls upon their different pathways to crime and gender-specific needs to structure programs that address the different issues they face. That isn’t to say that CLTL’s division of gender in these programs makes essentialist claims, but rather CLTL acknowledges that, realistically, male and female offenders often face different issues in prison and in reentry in terms of life circumstances and risk factors.

A recent report on programming needs for women offenders by the National Institute of Justice emphasizes, “Women offenders have needs different from those of men, stemming in part from their disproportionate victimization from sexual or physical abuse and their responsibility for children.” Further, according to the Center for Effective Public Policy’s 2010 “Reentry Considerations for Women,” it is critical to consider that “women [offenders] have different communication styles than men….” Robert Waxler and Jean Trounstine prefer to have all-male and all-female participants, respectively, in the classroom. While there are several co-ed CLTL groups, Waxler explained to me, “There are single gender groups primarily. For me, I find that it’s helpful to have an all male group in terms of picking which stories to use and anticipating lines of inquiry.”

When I observed the New Bedford session in which the participants discussed Russell Banks’ Affliction, I found that the session reflected the New Bedford program’s focus on male-centered issues. Affliction is in many ways a text about what it means to be male. Its time frame is deer-hunting season, “an ancient male right,” its male characters are rugged and violent, and most importantly, the protagonist, Wade, is “very good at being male in this world.” During the discussion, the participants considered what it means to be a father and a man, a discussion prompted in part by the protagonist’s own earnest question, “What do men do?” As the narrator reaches the conclusion of the story, he reflects, “[O]ur stories, Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years, boys who were beaten byt heir fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth….” The participants identified with the narrative in part because the narrator solicited their identification, encouraging them to realize that the issues they face—a troubled relationship with violence or a broken childhood—have been faced by men just like them throughout history. The narrator’s “I” because “we” as he observes the difficult nature of “how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence.”

But in order for the narrator’s “we” to include “boys and men for thousands of years,” he must exclude the girls and women who have been afflicted by the same violence, whose “capacity for love and trust” was also “crippled almost at birth.” In a male-dominated criminal justice system, female offenders are often overlooked in studies and in policy development. Although women represent a smaller proportion of the offending population than men, the increase in the female offender population in prisons is alarming. According to a report commissioned by the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, female imprisonment increased 757 percent between 1977 and 2004, surpassing that of men in all 50 states. One-fifth of men are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to one-third of women. According to the National Institute of Corrections, incarcerated women, on average, are survivors of physical and/or sexual abuse, have multiple physical and mental health problems, and are the single parents of children, accounting for nearly 250,000 children whose mothers are in prison.

When people talk about offenders and even about this program, so many times it’s not discussed in terms of women,” Trounstine told me. “People imagine it’s more serious if we discuss these things in terms of men. Men are the ‘real’ offenders, the ‘serious’ ones. If a [female offender] is reading a book it’s just a way to appease her.” According to Trounstine, incorporating men into the all-female Lynn-Lowell sessions would certainly add diverse perspectives, but the women feel most comfortable communicating in a room of only women. That is, apart from Judge Dever, whose presence in the room seems to help the women gain confidence. I observed the sixth and penultimate session of the Lynn-Lowell program, and it was clear that the classroom at Middlesex Community College was a comfortable space. The women conversed playfully with Trounstine, whom they called Jean, and Judge Dever, or “Judge D.” “I want them to feel relaxed and safe in this room,” Trounstine explained to me. “At the same time, I want them to see me as a role model.”

During the session, the participants discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a mainstay of Trounstine’s syllabus. Trounstine launched the discussion with a question many participants had asked or hinted at during “the Go-Round,” a pre-discussion exercise in which each participant expresses her thoughts on a provided question: does Tea Cake, a young and charming suitor, really love the novel’s protagonist, Janie? The participants used this question as a lens to discuss romance, courtship, hardship, and physical abuse. One participant introduced a significant complication to Tea Cake’s alleged love for Janie. “If he loves her, why does he beat her?” she asked. Trounstine later explained to me, “The male-female relationship is huge for them, and they often talk about the men in their lives through the characters.” According to the Center for Effective Public Policy, “the criminal experiences of women are often best understood in the context of unhealthy relationships (e.g., a male partner who encourages substance abuse or prostitution).” The participants turned to a passage in which Tea Cake beats Janie and engaged in a difficult discussion that exposed the complexity of the relation between love and abuse. They struggled to reconcile Tea Cake’s charming behavior with his violence.

After the discussion had progressed, one participant expressed a striking claim: “Janie moves from object so subject of her own life.” Her transition is a remarkable one. The participants recognized that a love story can be a tool to talk about something else; at the same time, however, they explored the human qualities of this narrative device. One participant pointed out, “Janie shapes herself around Tea Cake.” By discussing Janie’s voice and her silence during her three marriages, the participants investigated what it means to shape oneself around a significant other, or a family member, or a source of addiction.

Toward the end of the discussion, one participant asserted, “I admired Janie in the end. For not settling, and standing up and being a strong person.” The desire for a transition from object to subject that the participants observed in the texts reflects the participants’ own positions in reentering society after their experience in prison or with the criminal justice system in general. Like Janie, CLTL participants struggle to be perceived as a person instead of as a project to be shaped or a failure to be scorned. Deep engagement with and discussion of literature provides a forum for former offenders to express and question this struggle. In CLTL, the text selection and discussion is structured in a way that recognizes the similarities inherent in offenders’ experiences with the criminal justice system while simultaneously acknowledging that gender matters.


Tara Knoll, a student at Princeton, is a regular contributor to the Changing Lives Through Literature blog and is currently working on her senior thesis. She can be reached for contact here.

When Justice Isn’t Just

By Annie Bolthrunis, editor

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, largely due to misguided drug laws and mandatory sentencing requirements.” –

As the “leader of the free world,” the United States is grossly behind many other developed countries in terms of imprisonment and sentencing laws. For instance, of the 194 countries that are part of the UN, 50% have abolished the death penalty entirely, 4% employ it in extraordinary circumstances, and 25% have it on the books for ordinary crimes, but have not used it in ten or more years. The United States falls into the 22% of UN members or countries with UN Observer status who maintain the death penalty both in theory and practice. We are one of only a few countries who are willing to sentence both teenagers and the mentally retarded to death.

Capital punishment is a contentious issue in the United States today, but the death penalty is not the most dangerous law on the books in the US. The recent Trayvon Martin case illustrates other problems with our justice system as it’s brought Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use “necessary force” in self defense outside of the home, to the public eye and has sparked debate about the constitutionality of such self-defense laws. Perhaps the most unfair of our laws are mandatory sentencing laws.

While some crimes obviously warrant a harsh sentence (murder, child abuse), harsh mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders do nothing but hurt not only the offender, but also society as a whole. Taking people out of society and imprisoning them for long periods of time doesn’t do much except prevent people who could be rehabilitated from being rehabilitated, and in some cases, may even turn these people into violent offenders, as life in prison is vastly different from life on the outside – prisoners may learn “tricks” or develop habits that could turn them into violent offenders once they are released.

Imprisoning a single person can cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the state and the length of the sentence. While drug rehabilitation isn’t cheap, it’s a much shorter-term option which, in the long run, would cost less than many sentences, such as California’s “Three Strikes” laws, which enable to court to imprison someone for life once they have three offenses on their record, regardless of the crimes committed.

One of the major problems with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is they seem to unfairly target minority offenders. According to Executive Summary: Report to Congress: Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System, “Hispanic offenders accounted for the largest group (38.3%) of offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, followed by Black offenders at 31.5 percent, White offenders at 27.4 percent and Other Race offenders at 2.7 percent.”

Clearly, the United States has moved leaps and bounds in terms of racial disparity since the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, but these statistics show that we have no come far enough. I might be more likely to believe in these mandatory minimum sentencing laws if they affected all races equally, but they do not. The majority of US citizens are not hispanic (although in many states they make up a larger portion than in the past), and the rates of drug use among races is roughly the same. Another startling statistic that shows the disparity of the application of sentencing between races: according to The Sentencing Project, in 2003, with 34/50 states responding, it was found that per million people, 2562 people who were imprisoned for drug offenses were black, while 253 were white.

It will be impossible to make all laws fair to all people all the time, but there is plenty of room for improvement. As a country, we are sending a message to minorities that they do not have equal opportunities within our justice system – they are clearly at a distinct disadvantage. They have less access to premium defenders; they frequently have to rely on public defenders who are notoriously unreliable (many are very good and some are very bad, many fall in between.)

It is up to to population as a whole to promote programs like Changing Lives, which aim to alleviate the strain on the prison and criminal justice system by promoting rehabilitation rather than punishment. While promoting and supporting alternative sentencing programs will not solve all of the countries problems with our criminal justice system, acting in support of these programs will raise awareness to their existence. If people are vocal about their support for the elimination of such injustices as mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses and “Three Strikes” laws, perhaps the people who are getting the laws on books and ballots will be moved. It’s an election year, everyone – the perfect time to make our voices heard. Of the people, by the people, for the people: let this be our mantra when it comes to injustice in our justice system.

The High Cost of Low-Level Offenders

By: Annie Bolthrunis, editor

After my last post regarding CLTL-type programs from people in treatment for addiction, I had a conversation with my father. He was curious about the number of people who are incarcerated for drug charges alone. The numbers are somewhat unclear, and after looking at various sources, the latest numbers indicate that about 55% of people sentenced to serve time are sentenced because of drug-related offenses. The percentage of people incarcerated is much lower, but still staggering – according to, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses was about 24% of the prison population in 2004, with every indication that that number will rise, rather than fall.

According to, “Of the nearly 2.2 million people behind bars last year, 50.5% were serving time for violent crime. That means that more than 1.1 million people were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, mainly property and drug crimes.”

When I see statistics like this, what immediately comes to mind is, how much is this costing America? Most prisoners are Federally-run (although I’ve heard about privately-owned prisons being erected in states like Texas), and are therefore funded by tax-payers. It seems to me that more people should be upset about this, what with all the talk about tax rates circulating during this election cycle. Why do candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum support the drug war, when it’s costing the American people money? Couldn’t we cut taxes by eliminating mandatory prison terms and “three-strikes” laws in the cases of non-violent offenses?

It is strikingly clear that this is one of the purposes of Changing Lives. Of course, the main purpose is to empower people who have had their power taken away, to educate people who may not have had opportunities due to economic or social problems, and to provide support for people who need it most. However; the average cost of housing and feeding a single prisoner in the United States per year is about $25,000. Multiply that by 1.1 million prisoners serving time for non-violent offenses – $27,500,000,000 – and that doesn’t include paying guards, maintaining and up keeping facilities, and lawyers’ fees. Tw-Seven Billion Dollars, just to feed and house people who never hurt another person or animal.

The cost per day in Massachusetts to keep a person on parole or on probation is $3 to $8. The average cost per day in MA to keep an inmate in prison is $603 – far above the national average. It seems that courts would be tripping over themselves to initiate more programs like Changing Lives Through Literature in order to quell prison overcrowding and to alleviate some of the enormous cost of keeping inmates in prison.

Obviously, there are people who commit crimes who should be locked up – people who assault others, who traffic drugs, who rape and murder – those people should be locked up, and some of them should never be let out. But there are nonviolent crimes, such as prostitution and minor drug possession, that are directly related to lower education and lower socio economic status. These people don’t hurt anyone, and in many cases they may feel like they have no other choice. It seems like they’d be better served – and we’d be better served – educating these people, enlightening them, raising their self esteem, and getting them to a place where they can be contributing members of society. In locking them up we may lose them forever, either to their own despondency or to a life of more heinous crimes using tricks they may pick up while locked up with more violent offenders.

Although Changing Lives Through Literature cannot solve all of the country’s problems with prisons and offenders, it can certainly help. By empowering people who are downtrodden, Changing Lives is helping to shape citizens out of criminals. By giving courts an option besides jail, Changing Lives is helping the struggle with prison overcrowding, which helps not only taxpayers but the people who are in prison – or may end up there. By reaching out to offenders, Changing Lives is showing there are people out there who are willing to take the time to help people who are used to having to do everything themselves.

It’s become clear that our criminal justice system is flawed in many ways. I’m not a criminal justice major, nor do I have much experience with the court and court system, and I’ve never been to prison. I cannot describe these problems from first hand knowledge. I can, however, look at the facts and the figures and see that a program like Changing Lives Through Literature is aptly named – and should be similarly supported and promoted.