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?



Convicted Reading: a relationship between literature and jail

Listen to Dr. David Sherman of Brandeis University interview Changing Lives Through Literature co-founder Dr. Robert Waxler. They talk about the relationship between literature and jail in this “Convicted Reading” Literature Lab podcast.

 Brandeis University, Department of English, Literature Lab

Illness in the System

photo by Valery Titievsky on Flickr
Benjamin Fleury-Steiner is Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware.  His most recent book is Dying Inside: The HIV/AIDS Ward at Limestone Prison.


The overwhelming majority of two-million plus offenders locked away in the nation’s jails and prisons are poor, non-violent drug offenders.  Indeed, only a fraction represents America’s so called “worst of the worst” violent offenders. This observation is not controversial and has been well documented in an imposing empirical literature.

Another observation, however, of what exactly locking up so many  human beings means is rarely addressed by academics and the public alike:  Most of the people swept up in the prison boom of the last three-plus decades lack health insurance and disproportionately suffer from a host of serious-if-untreated illnesses such as Diabetes, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C.  

When we consider gross carceral overcrowding and dwindling budgets for medical resources, it is not surprising that the federal government and the states have been forced to contract out health services with a focus on cost-cutting.   In this way, even the most well intentioned health care workers and wardens simply cannot address and therefore must learn to live with increasing numbers of sick prisoners that needlessly die in their midst.

It is very easy place blame on politicians, prison officials, or doctors for this disturbing state of affairs.  But playing such a blame game is counter-productive. The bottom line is this:  Nearly four decades of locking up an unprecedented number of the chronically ill uninsured poor is institutionally unsustainable and, most importantly, inhumane and immoral.  


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Lost Souls Gaining the World

photo by f-l-e-x

While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools and have been teaching since. He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.


Last December, the high school writing class I teach read the CLTL post on “The Real Cost of Prisons.” One of these graphic stories was about a 15 year-old busted on a drug charge. It moved the students; however, they were anything but shocked. “Oh, yeah,” said Jermania, “That is just like my sister’s friend who got caught just talking to a friend who turned out to be a lookout. She’s in a juvenile home.” Delphine remarked, “Kids on my block are always offering me stuff.” Others replied with stories of crack houses, dealers, and runners they know from their exurban Long Island towns, most of them middle class communities.


They see some of their acquaintances getting sent up but can’t know what life behind bars is like. How much can those behind bars relate to prison life when they are back on the outside? The writing class can tap into the CLTL site and read and relate to the stories posted. Reading and discussing one of CLTL’s stories, Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” offers Delphine and her writing classmates an impression of what it’s like to fail to resist tempters. CLTL blogs provide a glimpse of writers who work with those who walk the line between the streets and prisons.


It’s all but impossible, it seems, for the bars to disappear for prisoners. One of our role models, the photojournalist Taryn Simon, documented lives of exonerated prisoners in her book The Innocents. Simon’s eye into the lives of former prisoners, many from maximum security prisons, piqued the interest of my writing class. How can those returned to society after years of time served for crimes they did not commit know what to do in life on the outside?


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Juvenile vs. Adult Corrections: How Do They Stack Up?



Radek M. Gadek is a graduate of the Boston University’s Master in Criminal Justice program. He is the founder of Criminal Justice Online, an interactive blog dedicated to criminal justice academia and law enforcement careers.

Since its inception, the correctional system in the U.S. aimed to keep crime out of the streets. There are notable differences, however, when it comes to the way juveniles and adults are ultimately being helped while within the “system.”  One must consider the age of an adult person in the United States is eighteen, and often, this is where the line gets drawn between being convicted of a crime as a juvenile and as an adult. 


As long as a juvenile is being tried in a juvenile court and is convicted of a crime there, they will not enter the adult facilities until they turn the legal age of adulthood (exceptions apply). This makes a huge difference when it comes to rehabilitation, suppression of future crimes, and length of sentence.


It’s widely known that each correction system uses incarceration to punish offenders. However, rehabilitation is often the key concept of juvenile corrections, and not adult corrections.  There are more incentive programs offered for adolescent criminals.  For example, American Youth Prevention Forum states that


Services found to be effective in juvenile justice include: smaller, 15-25 bed, programs that reduce violent incidents; low staff/student ratios that lead to higher academic achievement; five hours of academic instruction per day (usually required by law); cognitive restructuring programs that, among other things, help young people understand thinking errors which get them into trouble; and gradual returns to the community from secure facilities through day treatment which reduces recidivism, results in higher levels of academic achievement and provides more connections to employers.


This kind of care is not fully available in the adult correctional system-it focuses stringently on punishment and offers only a handful of rehabilitation initiatives when compared to its juvenile counterpart.  It’s a shame. Even though many first time offenders commit crimes before their 21st birthday, society contends such services would not work well with adult prisoners and would be a waste of taxpayer money at the benefit of “hardened” criminals.


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Facts About Prisons and Prisoners

sentencing project logoThe Sentencing Project–a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration–released a new fact sheet this month entitled “Facts About Prisons and Prisoners.”  Check out the statistics below.



• The number of inmates in state and federal prisons has increased nearly seven-fold from less than 200,000 in 1970 to 1,540,805 by midyear 2008. An additional 785,556 are held in local jails, for a total of 2.3 million.

• Between 2000 and 2007, the state prison population increased by an average annual rate of 1.6%, the federal population by 5.0 %, and jail population by 3.3%

• As of 2008, 1 of every 131 Americans was incarcerated in prison or jail.

• The number of persons on probation and parole has been growing dramatically along with institutional populations. There are now more than 7.3 million Americans incarcerated or on probation or parole, an increase of more than 290 percent since 1980.

• One in ten (10.4%) black males aged 25-29 was in prison or jail in 2008 as were 1 in 26 (3.8%) Hispanic males and 1 in 63 (1.6%) white males in the same age group.

• Nationally, 69 females per 100,000 women are serving a sentence in prison; 957 males per 100,000 men are in prison.

• The 2008 United States’ rate of incarceration of 762 inmates per 100,000 population is the highest in the world.



• 93% of prison inmates are male, 7% female.

• As of 2008, there were 207,700 women in state and federal prison or local jail.

• 40% of persons in prison or jail in 2008 were black and 20% were Hispanic.

• 63% of jail inmates in 2008 were unconvicted and awaiting trial, compared to 51% in 1990.

• 82% of those sentenced to state prisons in 2004 were convicted of non-violent crimes, including 34% for drug offenses, and 29% for property offenses.

• 1 in 4 jail inmates in 2002 was in jail for a drug offense, compared to 1 in 10 in 1983; drug offenders constituted 20% of state prison inmates and 55% of federal prison inmates in 2001.

• Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17% chance; white males have a 6% chance.


(numbers verified by the Bureau of Justice Statistics)

San Quentin Film School

Start watching the first episode of San Quentin Film School above and visit here to continue it in its entirety.


Matt Kelley, Online Communications Manager at the Innocence Project and blogger, recently told his readers about the new Discovery Channel series, San Quentin Film School.


He writes : 


The series, on the Discovery Channel, is an immensely watchable and moving portrait of life behind bars and a window on the potential for inmates to change through creative expression.

The full series can be seen here on YouTube. It’s cable TV so there’s some sensationalizing of prison life, but compared to COPS and CSI this show is a ray of light. The producers of “Paradise Lost” shopped the idea to two dozen prisons before San Quentin officials expressed interest. If only programs like this were replicated in prisons and jails across the country, we could reduce recidivism by showing prisoners that we care about their success and that there are countless paths to creative expression and productive work.

San Quentin is a leader in innovative programs like this – partnerships with nonprofits that improve the lives of prisoners and help in their successful reintegration into society. The Prison University Project has provided university education at the prison for 13 years and has inspired countless similar programs around the country.

Check out “San Quentin Film School.” If you like it, write to your state’s Department of Corrections and ask them if they do anything like it. Pressure from the outside can make things happen behind bars.

No Exit?



Anthony Farley is Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School.  Anthony Paul Farley is an expert on Constitutional Law, Criminal Procedure, and Legal Theory.  Farley is also an affiliated professor with the Graduate Department of Sociology and African & African Diaspora Studies at Boston College.


Over two million people are imprisoned in the United States. Most of them are black. This is slavery in a new form, as is the scandalous quality of the educational resources meted out to the heirs of Brown v. Board of Education. The attack on freedom and the attack on literacy are, of course, related. Among the many thousands gone the way of incarceration are few, very few, who ever had the experience of a decent school.

Many, far too many, of our urban schools resemble prisons. Visit one of these schools and you will see how dreams are killed at an early age. Dreams are killed by educators who do not love the children they have promised to educate. Dreams are killed by an educational-industrial complex that creates conditions that make such love impossible to imagine. Dreams are killed as an ever-greater color-lined nation abandons the twin dreams of education and emancipation altogether.

Failing schools produce illiteracy just as surely as failing prisons produce recidivism. The failure of these two institutions seems always to escape serious examination. In the Antebellum South, the dream of the literate slave was always emancipation, just as the dream of the emancipated slave was always literacy. Reading and freedom have always been connected in the minds of former slaves and former slave masters in the United States. Witness the trials and tribulations of Frederick Douglass in his struggle for both mental and physical liberation, for freedom from both illiteracy and the plantation.


Our schools fail. Our prisons fail. The former produce illiteracy, while the latter produce recidivism, and both kill dreams of an emancipated future in the United States. When institutions fail year after year, we must re-examine what we mean by failure. When the reformers respond to this year’s failure with last year’s failed solutions, we must examine what we mean by reform. These failed prisons, these failed schools, and all these failed and endlessly recycled reforms actually succeed in continuing the color line’s division of the United States into two nations: black and white, separate and unequal. And there seems to be no exit from this cycle of failure.

What is to be done?

We should turn the prisons into schools.


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Lessons in the Real Cost of Prisons

by Jordan Beltran Gonzales

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.   Edited by Lois Ahrens, with comic art by Kevin Pyle, Sabrina Jones, and Susan Willmarth.  Oakland: PM Press, 96pp, paperback, $12.95.

41This anthology combines three engaging and educational comics with dozens of letters and testimonials from readers. These 100 pages yield a thorough breakdown of how America’s economic and social addiction to imprisoning Black, Brown, and poor people for particular behaviors has spiraled into an epidemic of mass incarceration. Through vivid black-and-white images, well-researched background information, and case studies of women and men in context, readers gain vital knowledge and access to progressive networks that will transform this crisis.

The task of critical storytelling and teaching about life-and-death issues is a careful balance, which the writers and artists achieve well. In each comic, readers find alternative solutions to prisons as we currently know them, learn about organizing successes, and gain feedback of how to teach teachers and how to train trainers.

Editor Lois Ahrens is also the founder and director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which creates popular educational materials by justice policy researchers, artists, and people directly experiencing the impact of mass incarceration. Potential readers span elementary schools through colleges, community-based organizations, medical and mental healthcare providers, legislators and voters, and people directly surviving inside.


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Chicken Soup for the CLTL Soul

by Wayne St. Pierre

Wayne St. PierreThose of us who change lives with literature operate on the premise that reading and sharing stories can open the gateways of self-reflection and healing. As a participant in Changing Lives Through Literature for 17 years and a facilitator of a spinoff program for the past 18 months, I have dozens of stories of my own.  I will offer two and invite others to grace us with their stories about telling stories.

About 18 months ago I used this notion to create a musical version of Changing Lives Through Literature, called Inspiring Stories. I go into drug/alcohol rehabilitation facilities and the local prison with my program, armed with my guitar and harmonica and copies of lyrics to my songs. After performing a song, we have a discussion, much like we do with a short story in CLTL.  Music is just a hook. 

In CLTL sessions, I participate alongside one or two probation officers, judges, attorneys, guests, a professor. In my Inspiring Stories program, I am alone with the class. Further, while the CLTL groups I attend have 8 to 12 students, my Inspiring Stories groups usually range from 25 to 40 people.  Another difference is that I am on their turf. Usually, at the University, it is the participants who are off balance. The first time I was in a room alone with 40 inmates at the prison, however, I recognized how they felt.  Teachers and performers both know an audience smells and reacts to fear. 

On that first night at the prison, I had passed out lyrics about a young man, who had been raised in dysfunction.  He had used commercial fishing to get away from the noise of his life on land.  While passing out copies of the lyric, I asked if there were any commercial fishermen in the room.  Several nodded or raised their hands to acknowledge spending time at sea. 

During the discussion part, I asked a man who had raised his hand, but had not yet spoken, if he could relate to the geographic cure being talked about.  He said, “Look, I was late from fishing and you were the PO who violated me on my probation.  I am now serving a two-year jail sentence, because I was late from fishing and didn’t report to you.  I don’t want to talk about fishing.”  The room was silent for about three seconds and then erupted in a thunder of deep belly laughs.  The date was December 20, 2007, just five days before Christmas. With all those men who were to spend the holidays in jail, I couldn’t bring myself to darken the moment.  Though the man was two years late and I had had a warrant for his arrest the whole time, I let the group laugh and took the brunt, as it were, myself.  It was magical to see all those men, dressed in their prison issued “tans,” having a good laugh right before the holidays

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