My New Book Living More Than OK

My New Book Living More Than OK
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Friday, April 25, 2014

Reading As A Help In Reforming Prisoners

What is the level of change that can occur in lives encouraged to read? I have mentioned before that reading is an enjoyable flow activity and one of my natural highs. Reading is an important way to learn as well. The question I pose comes from reading an amazing book, Finding a Voice: The Practice of Changing Lives Through Literature. The book is co-authored by Jean Trounstine a humanities professor at Middlesex Community College and Robert Waxler, an English Professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. It tells the story of a program they started in Massachusetts to use literature reading with prison inmates in the reformation process. They networked with probation officers and judges to help inmates change their lives with reading in a program they call “Changing Lives Through Literature” (CLTL).

The core idea of the program is to harness the transformational power in reading literature by creating book clubs for inmates to attend. A unique aspect of it is that the inmate groups meet and a probation officer and judge are in the groups reading the same book as the inmates. Part of that power in reading is found in personal reflection. The authors point out that “Literature was empowering. Discussion enhanced that power. The process of reading let to reflection. Reflection often led to change.” (p.7). The stories the inmates read allow them to reflect on their own lives. I have spoken with students who had done prison time at colleges I have worked at over the years. One common thread that is sometimes shared especially after I have lectured on critical thinking is that they started having problems because of their impulsivity and lack of reflection in their lives. So the CLTL program awakens that inner reflection that can help the inmate think more critically about their lives.

One judge from Texas, (another state that in parts use the CLTL program), spoke of how reading a book may seem like a small thing for most of us; but for an inmate starting out on his own reading and finishing a book can be a major life tipping point. I liked what the judge had to say about reading: “When you read a book, it slides in to your soul. It gives you a glimmer, a dream of something a little higher. Sometimes the margin of difference is slight. But that small advance can actually be a huge gain. It can make all the difference.” (p.39). Those in prison have lost their voice, their dream. Granted their initial voice was off base getting them in trouble but through a literature program like CLTL they can find a positive voice to rebuild their lives with new dreams.

Of course since the book is about prison inmates it helps to see and to hear their stories of how reading literature was a change agent for them. I will just list two here of many from the book. Some that were touching for me being the Bookhead I am; were a few stories that stated how they had never really read a book before or they never took reading seriously when they were in school. Here are two voices to listen to:

“Manuel, a small time drug dealer, stated that ‘reading opened his mind.’ He felt that he could relate to the character Wolf Larsen in the Sea Wolf. Manuel soon became drug free and a college student.” (p.2)

“A female probationer said about herself while examining Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God -- Like Janie, I don’t want to be anyone’s slave or servant, nor do I want to be someone who’s just around for convenience. I want to be treated as an equal. I’ve had too many experiences where guys want you for your money, car, sex and only treat you nicely when you’re providing them with those things. As Janie did, there are two things everyone has to do for themselves, and that’s to go to God and find out about living on their own.” (p.57).

I see an opening of the mind as well in the female probationer’s voice. Through a character in a story she has come to understand she has to make choices for herself in living her life and going to God in her life. For me that connects with the previous Judge’s thought on how reading books “slide into our souls” as they can make internal changes if we are open minded as Manuel states.

The CLTL program is a program that should be encouraged in more criminal justice programs. It seems very cost effective as it is just correctional officials volunteering some time to join a group of interested inmates in a book group setting. At the same time reading about the program reminds me of the power of reading to change not only inmates lives but everyone who takes the time to pick up a book and read!

Reflection: Think over a book that helped change your life? Was it fiction or nonfiction? Is there a particular character in a book that has stood out to you?

Here is the link to Robert Waxler’s information at the CLTL website: From this link you can learn a little more about him. Take some time as well to click on the about CLTL tab and learn more about their program.

Here is the link to Jean Trounstine’s website. You can learn more about her passion for helping inmates there:

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