Changing Lives Through Literature



The Challenge of Radical Sentencing: 
Erasing the Chasm Between the Bench and the Dock
An Experience in Boston, USA 
Wendy Robertson & Avril Joy
March 2000

Note from Wendy R. I was talking to my friend H about the impact and function of reading groups and I thought of  the life-changing experience of visiting some reading groups  in Boston USA in 2000 when I was Writer in Residence at a women’s prison here in the UK. This radical experience confirmed my conviction that literature changes lives both in and out of prison.

I thought you might be interested in my report. Here it is:

‘You have the ability through your own imagination to create your future. Your destiny is not locked in.’

Robert Waxler
Professor of English
University of Massachusetts
Director: Changing Lives Through Literature

The Returning Offender, In our work at HMP Low Newton, Durham, which in the case of Avril Joy had at that point gone back fifteen years, we had shared with colleagues our concern for prisoners who re-offend and return again and again to prison. We had also noted prisoners who have benefited from appropriate educative, creative and reflective opportunities in prison, and somehow changed inside themselves, become more capable in dealing with the interior chaos which often led them to offend. We wondered if it were possible for offenders to experience such opportunities outside prison – in the probation situation, for instance – would they make such changes in themselves? In this way, they would avoid the family break-up, social stigma and pariah status endowed by a prison sentence. This in itself can encourage re-offending.

The House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report of 1998 addressed, amongst other factors, new disposals for adult offenders in relation to probation . Buried at the back of the report are two allusions that caught our interest. One was the reference to a practice in France where a suspended sentence with supervision can be given to offenders who have committed serious crimes. The prison sentence is suspended on condition that, among numerous restrictions, the offender follows an academic or vocational course of study.

The other allusion was to the experiment in Massachusetts called Changing Lives Through Literature. On further investigation, the sheer simplicity and practicality of this model of probation was very appealing and chimed with the values and practices which we had been using inside prison.

The Power and the Story
In the year 2000  we had the opportunity to visit Boston, USA and experience this ground-breaking approach to probation for ourselves. Within some County Court Districts of Massachusetts, the ‘Changing Lives Through Literature Programme’ was offered as an alternative to ordinary probation orders. Offenders wer sentenced to a period of twelve weeks when they had to  meet every fortnight and to discuss a prescribed piece of literature alongside a professor, a judge and one or more probation officers.

The programme was brainchild of Professor Bob Waxler, professor of literature at the University of Massachusetts and Judge Robert Kane, Court Judge in New Bedford’s Third District. It had been operating for nearly ten years and at that point had active programmes across the States. Texas has a programme which uses the writings of Plato as part of its required reading. There are other programmes in Arizona, Maine and New York.

The face-to-face interaction between the two groups – professionals and offenders, judges and judged – throughout the programme, was the key to its success. It centred on group discussions of literature chosen for its significance for the task at hand. All members of the group read the texts and participate on an equal, mutually respectful footing. The underlying proposition was that such discussion, under such circumstances, evokes such a level of participation, identification of motive and objectification of behaviour, that the lives of all the participants are changed. Change on the part of judges, professors and probation officers might  lead to a greater insight into their clients. On the part of the offenders, participation was said to lead into greater insight regarding their experiences and motivations, and enable them to change their lives and ultimately, it is hoped, not re-offend.

The principle of procedure was this: individuals coming before the courts may, by their own agreement and referral to probation officers, be sentenced to participate in a reading group for twelve weeks. The attendance and participation was obligatory. The incentive for them was reduction of probation for the successful graduate. (The programme needed a strong incentive as it is seen as very challenging: some of these people have never read a whole story, never mind a novel. Inadequate participation on the part of the offenders would lead them back to court for  further   sentencing. This process of incentive was mediated by the probation officers who attend the group
This is our report of the experience: We were inspired to find out more about this American project following our fruitful experience at HMP Low Newton in Britain, working with sentenced women inside prison on a project planned along similar lines. In our reading group, the authority figure was the prison governor, rather than a judge. In our work we used a combination of reading high-quality literature and the practice of creative writing to allow the women to objectify and contemplate their own experience and develop the self-esteem and self-worth. We had no incentives to offer except the positive experiences of the process. In our work, in a more modest and limited fashion, we felt that we also had changed lives.

Our visit has been fruitful. In our time in Boston we met and talked with five judges, three professors, one teacher and seven probation officers who were involved in the operation of four programmes across the state of Massachusetts. We met twenty-one offenders who had committed a broad range of offences and we participated in two groups in action. We sat with Professor Jean Trounstine and watched videos of her working with her group and listened also to her accounts of teaching Shakespeare behind bars in Boston’s Framingham women’s prison.

This report attempts to put impressions of all this together and to propose the value of the use of such approaches in the British system, in the probation setting as well as in prison. By definition this report is illuminative. It is a snapshot of practice which may be inspirational for others.

 The Powerhouse In his office at the university Professor Waxler talked enthusiastically of his firm belief that literature, encountered in an appropriate setting could indeed change the lives of offenders. The layers and subtlety of language, the complexity of character and motivation – Waxler asserts that the analysis of these allows an individual to view her or his own life more objectively. This objectification leads to the growth of intellectual and emotional control in lives which are often chaotic. It follows, then, that such experience, if it is sufficiently profound, will help the individuals to organise their lives so that the option of re-offending is less compelling. This is his belief.

The context of sharing the stories is a crucial aspect of Waxler’s model. The discussions are at the University and are based on equal discourse, respect, and the presence in the group of a professor, judges, and probation officers, all of whom must have read the prescribed texts.

A Group of Men. The men’s group which we join is in the fine premises of the University of Massachusetts, South Dartmouth, and is the final meeting of the men’s group. It is led by Professor Waxler and attended by Judge Kane and Probation Officer Wayne St Pierre. The girlfriend of one member sits beside him.

Here we sit around the table where it all began, where the idea originated with the first group set up by Waxler and Judge Kane. Waxler considers the round table, with its built-in democracy, essential to the process.

Tonight’s texts, two Raymond Carver short stories, have been read by Professor Waxler, Judge Kane, Wayne St Pierre, and all the male participants. The contents of these stories, illuminating as they do uncompromising images of men in extremis, reflect the rest of Waxler’s list which includes Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and Elie Wiesel. In these tough discussions, there is nowhere for any man to hide.

The participants, who reflect the broad ethnic mix of the whole Boston community, instantly embark on a vigorous discussion of the various strands of the Carver stories, weaving their own life stories into their elaborations and explanations. Their interpretations have subtlety, a sensitivity to ambiguity.

With the Carver story What do We Talk About When We Talk About Love? the topic that emerges is what is love? For more than an hour, we sit and listen as this group of men, operating on various sides of the law, talk expansively about love.

The judge sits back listening intently; he says his piece only when a point strikes him in the flow of the discussion. He has obviously appreciated Carver’s story. The probation officer challenges Waxler politely on a point of interpretation. Some of the guys nod. Alternative views are obviously normally accepted. There is no ‘party line’ on fiction. One man in his thirties eloquently pursues the notion of what might constitute bullying of men by women. Another tells the story of his bewilderment when, returning from a fishing trip, he rang his partner for a lift, only to find another man’s voice relaying the message on his answer-phone. Two of the men say they would never lay a hand on a woman. Not ever. The youngest member, aged nineteen, pursues his own theme that there are various kinds of love, not just one. Another describes a couple he knows who were devoted through sixty years of marriage. How do you stay, not just together, but loving people after sixty years of marriage? There was bewilderment all round the table. That was a hard question for all of us.

The discussion ranged through dilemmas in relationships, aspects of domestic power, problems with communication leading to expression through violence, verbal and physical. They ranged between significance of aspects of the stories we have read, and elements in their own lives.

The intense and developed level of discussion reflects the fact that this is the last meeting of the group. They are used to the process. They all have experience of each other. They have learned to be members of this community round the table. The judge – who might have intimidated the settling-in process – did not join till the third week. By that time the group had welded into a team that respected the text and respected each other, who were keen to get their views out there as well as listen to others. Since then, the comradeship has built up and the group round the table truly is a community.

Professor Waxler runs the group with intent, forceful concentration. His attention to the text is close, but his demeanour is something like a football coach enabling his team to participate at their highest, allowing them to play to their strengths. All the stories – Carver’s fine text and the more immediate oral tales of the participants – are woven by the group into a larger meaning. There are no own-goals.

The sense of fellowship and community is manifest in this group. Because this was the very last meeting there were some reflections on this. One member said he would miss the group because ‘At first it was just a commitment you had to make, but then I started to enjoy it. I’ve bought all the books myself. I just like talking to you guys about these things. I liked the books but I liked talking to you guys, listening to your experience. I like the books but I liked the talking best. Now when I’m bored, now I know I can just pick up a book and read again.’

At the end, because this is the last meeting, there is a ‘Graduation’ ,complete with certificates emblazoned with the university’s imprimatur and seal. There is a presentation of a fine edition of John Steinbeck’s novels for each member, donated by the National Library of America. The room is filled with a sense of celebration and pride. The members of the group linger after the end. They don’t want to leave. They shake hands with each other, with the professor, the judge, the probation officer, with us. They are sorry there is nothing more, nothing further, no more meetings.

A Group of Women
This meeting is at the University of Massachusetts’ Boston campus, in a room normally used by the university students. The fourteen women, in the main African-American and Hispanic, arrive quietly. They greet each other, open their folders, peer again at their texts. They hand sheets of writing to Gretchen Hunt their teacher. (Gretchen is a law student who first majored in English literature.) It could be any university group. The two probation officers, Dee Kennedy and Teresa Owens, come in, greeting various women on the way to their seats. Judge Sydney Hanlon (a woman) hurries in. It is her first visit to the group as this is only its third week. The circle here consists of moveable study chairs; a round table (which was used with the men’s group)  is unavailable.

The texts are Grace Paley’s short story, An Interest in Life, and an abstract from Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors. (Note: Apart from this text, the bias in the lists for the women’s groups is towards literature from women writers. Apart from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the list for the men’s groups are all novels and stories by male writers.)

Through astute and enabling questioning, Gretchen sets the ball rolling in the discussion. The women begin to unravel the first story and its implications for them. In the process, they begin to put forward questions and their own ideas about Virginia and her life. They ask questions of the tutor and each other. They are appropriately tentative. ‘It seemed like …’, ‘It felt like …’. Respect for each other’s views and opinions is always there, along with a quest for answers and explanations and a lively exploration of motive. There is some exasperation regarding Virginia’s action and the motivations of her ambiguous visitor. There is frustration regarding the ending of the story which may or may not have been A Dream.

The Roddy Doyle extract, with its central, brilliantly-written focus on domestic abuse, raises many more powerful reactions as it evidently cuts close to the bone with some of these women. All the women are eventually involved with the discussion, listening to and responding to each other. The level of articulation is always impressive. The women are very able to unpick the complex, deeper levels of meaning in the story. They offer remarkable insight into the process. Of Paula’s story, one woman says, ‘The way she says it and the context she says it in lets the reader know that she knows it is not her fault, but like you said, she is in denial.’

The women start to tell their own stories, to link the narrative to their own lives and histories. Themes of serial- and cycles of abuse are explored. A woman with tight plaits volunteers, ‘This story kicked up a whole bunch of feeling for me. I watched violence. My mom getting beat down, so I was really angry when I read that story. She would say to me don’t ever let a man do this to you. Wait till he’s lay down and asleep, then kill him.’

The women are sitting forward now. There are mutters of agreement, referring back to Grace Paley’s story. ‘She’s gunna be hurt all over again,’ ‘She was happy but for how long?’, ‘She blamed everything on herself, I can relate to that.’ The woman with plaits offers, ‘The first time you are a victim, the second time you’re a volunteer.’

A large woman, who has been silent almost to the end, responds to talk about the character, Charlo, by launching into her own story. ‘What do you do with a man who all the time plots to get you into jail? A man who does things to you, makes you think you’re losing your mind? Moves things in the house and swears they were there before?’

Another woman nods. ‘Yes this happens to me.’

The large woman goes on. ‘He beats up on you and phones the police and tells them some other guy beat you up. He threatens your children and you have to take your children to City Hall and leave them there for protection. This man he gets you into jail for things you ain’t done and the police, they believe him. One day the police they knock on the door and say ‘Are you the woman?’ You say, ‘What woman?’ They say ‘The woman who beats up on the old man?’ That old man, he is my husband. He is old when I marry him when I am a young woman. I say ‘No I beat up on no old man.’ But still they arrest me. Still I go to jail cause he plays his little tricks. He ain’t never been to prison. He black my eyes and break my bones then locks me in and don’t let me get no policeman. He plays tricks so I think I’m losing my mind.’ She responds to further murmurs of sympathy and recognition, and changes gear. ‘But now I got this counsellor. My counsellor I bless the day I met her. I seen her now once a week for two years. Every week I go there and talk. Three weeks, four weeks, all I do is cry. Then after that all I do is talk. So much to say.’

There is a respectful, listening silence in the room. The another woman speaks up.  ‘You know me? I seen my sister shot before my eyes. Shot and I was right beside her, right by her. I throw my body right over her. Blood running out of her. And I see my other sister stabbed twenty times. I come and find her, stabbed twenty times.. She pauses. @I gotta counsellor. And I never tell these things before I talk to this counsellor. Shut down, shut down, see? Then I cry to her and this floods outta me. Before it was shut down, see? But this counsellor she’s some woman. I can give you her name. She can help any woman in this room. Any woman whose story I hear in this room.’

’She make a difference. Otherwise I couldn’t tell you this here in this room with no tear in my eye. I can tell you this story. I can tell you this story without a tear in my eye. She make a difference. I see my daughter now and she’s helping me get my children together. I can give you this woman’s name. She can help you.’

This is a delicate moment. (As there  was with the point in the men’s group where the man told the tale of returning from the fishing trip.) It is an explicit part of the rules of engagement in this project that the groups are not ‘encounter’ or ‘therapy’ groups, that the discussion of the characters and the action in the fiction must remain at the centre of the discussion. The judge in the women’s group said later she was concerned at this moment.

However we, as outsiders, felt that this story earned its place in the discussion. Every one of us, when we read literature, transcribe it through our own story onto our own mental map, whether we tell our story out loud or not. The trust within the group has allowed the woman to voice her story. She is not asking for help. Her story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is self limiting. The stories we have read have enriched and validated her own, even more dramatic, story. There is dignity and self-knowledge in this.

There is no emotional panic. This woman’s story does not lead to a degeneration of the discussion. Teacher Gretchen guides the meeting to a useful conclusion with calls for writing and plans for the next meeting. There is a discussion about the logistics of writing one’s own story. There is a bustle in the room. The probation officers change role and enquire closely about some individuals who have missed a meeting.

There is a sense of society here. As with the men’s group, the members linger to talk, unwilling to stop the experience. Professor Taylor Stoehr, who leads the parallel Dorchester men’s group, later says that helping men arrive at a new sense of their own society through the group and their interaction with each other is central to his philosophy.

The Judges
According to Judge Kane, who founded the project with Professor Waxler, the judges who had become involved were self-selecting in that they all loved literature themselves and welcomed the opportunity to participate in such a project. Judge Joe Dever. Presiding Justice of Lynn District Court, who joined Professor Jean Trounstine’s women’s group at Middlesex Community College, said the group was the joy of his judging, that it erased the chasm between the distance between the bench and the dock. Judge Dever travels to the meeting in the same van as the women. ‘At first there was dead silence in the van. But after a couple of meetings, it buzzed with talk. Now sometimes they talk all the way there and sing all the way back, he says.’

Judge Kane relishes the interplay between men of privilege and men of little power. ‘We become human to each other. We are transformed by the context as are they. In the end we see the man who comes before us as a whole human being. By participating in the process ourselves we see the transformation before our eyes.’

The Dorchester judge, Tom May, says that defendants never speak in court. Their defence lawyer speaks for them. In the traditional situation they are voiceless. ‘It refreshes my soul to hear these men articulate their ideas. I know this is humanity.‘

Judge Hanlon, who already knew about this programme, introduced it in the Dorchester Court District as soon a she became Presiding Justice of this court. With her support there are, in this District, a men’s and a women’s group with numbers of up to twenty. She says, ‘In this business it seems we never get any good news. This programme brings good news.’

Judge Tom May mentions that even if members of the group do come up before him they are more likely to take responsibility for their offence. They are more inclined to say ‘I screwed up’.

Professor Stoehr, who runs the Dorchester men’s group, says ‘You need two things to run this programme: someone in power who gives permission, this is the judges, and you need someone who will be there every time, these are the probation officers.’

Probation Officers
The probation officers, like the judges, volunteer for the programme. Like the judges, they love literature. The officers at the Dorchester court have their own staff reading group. They have a mixed role in the programme. It is their task to negotiate suitable referrals. Apart from sex offenders, anyone can be referred to the programme as long as they have an appropriate reading level and are clean of all substances during the programme. One of the policy documents of the programme states: ‘Repeat offenders with prior incarcerations and the distinct possibility of re-incarceration are preferred.’

The probation officers read the texts and participate in the discussions. Dee Kennedy, at Dorchester, saw the need sometimes to guide the discussion. As well as this, the probation officers are obliged to change hats and monitor the level of attendance and discussion, and apply the sanction of exclusion for backsliders. If a member does not meet her obligations, in the first place they warn her. If it continues, they return her to the court for further sentencing.

Bobby Spencer, an officer attached to the men’s group at Dorchester, does not find his position in the group ambiguous. ‘In that group I am a just member. I am one of the guys.’  Another officer, John Christopher, joined the group because he heard that a white professor was going to follow Huckleberry Finn with Richard Wright’s Black Boy. ‘I wanted to see what he did with that. I saw, and I stayed along with the group. I’m still there.’

Bobby Spencer told the tale of the graduate from one group who started up his own reading group with a few of the guys from the neighbourhood which lasted a year. Professor Stoehr told of the member who joined the group, but hid under his baseball cap and turned off Walkman for the first two weeks. Then Judge May joined the group and was in a small group discussion with this man. After that, Bobby Spencer said the man came out from under his baseball cap and started to participate. It’s not so much what the judge said or did. Just that he survived that session at close quarters with any judge.

The probation officers argue that referral to the programme is not a soft option. Dee Kennedy has worked out that although a number of weeks attached to the programme is shorter than the alternative, the actual contact time with probation officers in the series of two-and-a-half hour meetings is longer. On the other hand, because the officer is in contact with several clients at once at the meeting, it can reduce the officer workload.

Probation Officer, Bobby Hasset, who works with Professor Trounstine at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, enjoys the optimistic nature of the programme. He has carried out research among their clients which shows a statistical measure of success regarding recidivism. Researcher Roger Jarjoura’s external study seems to support this. (See Waxler & Trounstine 1999). Teresa Owens on the Dorchester project is also embarking on an evaluation and tracking study which may express more graphically the success of their project. John Owens of Dorchester is more laid back about the technicalities of what counts as success: ‘A judge asked me “What if this doesn’t work?” I said, “Judge, I do things every day which don’t work. Don’t you? Aren’t they still worth trying?”’

Bobby Hasset also described for us their post-programme work which builds on the success of the project with work which involved life-skills and job-search skills. The emphasis here is planning for a non-offending future.

The Professors
The personality and approach of each discussion-group leader – Professors Waxler, Trounstine, and Stoehr, and teacher Gretchen Hunt – inevitably informs both the similarities and differences between programmes. There is individuality in their choice of texts and their understanding of the needs of different groups. Trounstine tends to use a list of women writers whose intense, powerful stories reflect distinctive women’s issues. Hunt uses an adapted version of this list. The Roddy Doyle text, which was particularly successful at the meeting we saw, was a departure from the list. Waxler’s list reflects his concern with male identity and the function of violence in their lives. Stoehr adapts his list according to his perception of the needs of a particular group.

The main role of the professors is to facilitate the voicing of members’ responses and stories and mediate the meaning – literary or otherwise – which is made of a particular text. Most importantly, it is they who build the sense of community round the table. They distil the invisible code of listening, reflecting and speaking. This may be the key to changing the interior view of the individual, preparing him or her to take the power to develop themselves, perhaps even to change their own lives.

Above all, the professors on this programme do what all good teachers do, in all educational settings, with all categories of student. This is what we try to do in our teaching in prison. It is salutary to think that this might be the first time these offenders have worked intensively with a good teacher. Some might argue that the very compulsion implicit in the programme is the only thing which would impel this encounter.

One does respect attempts, within and outside the programme, to gain quantitative data on the success of these programmes. Restrained studies seem to indicate a lessening of recidivism. However, by their very dynamism, programmes such as these resist quantification. Not only do situations and personnel change from programme to programme, they change within cohorts of the same programme. The variables are like chimera. Numbers, however comforting or discomforting to the people concerned, may only, in such situations, be illusory.

It is necessary to have faith in more qualitative, illuminative material to judge such projects. Some of the material in this report would count as this. So would self-reporting by participants, be they offenders, judges, professors or probation officers. Biographies of alumni and anecdotal material of their lives should be treated with respect.

This is, after all, how we have judged the success, and the partial success, of educational processes through the millennia. The great universities, the great teachers, did not in the past have to tailor their mystery to the leaden chastity belt of the input-output model.

In the light of this view, the Changing Lives Programme seems to us to have clarified a very successful process which brings distinctive benefits to the people who share the experience. These benefits are much greater than those they would experience in prison or in a more perfunctory probationary experience. Common sense tells you that some of these people will re-offend. From the round-table community and the fine university buildings, they return to the challenge of disadvantaged social settings, and social groupings where crime is the norm.

Where the offence is linked, however, to lack of self-knowledge or self-esteem, or where a criminal act is to do with the anger at having ‘no say in society’, one might propose that these people go on from the programme better prepared to meet the challenge, with some tools to make order out of chaos. In this it is to the benefit of the whole society.

Of course, one cannot translate processes directly from one judicial system to an other. US District Court judges, for instance, are somewhere between UK judges and senior magistrates. In the US, probation officers are officers of the court working directly with judges. Would the very dignified English judges or magistrates greet the notion of bridging the chasm between the bench and the dock with a shudder?

It would be interesting to see such a humane and creative approach tried out here in the English system. Sentencing people to literature might be a good alternative to the ubiquitous ‘community service’, or to suspended sentences where no real change is made in the offender. Our experience of the Massachusetts experiment convinces us that some of the women we have met in prison could have been very much helped by such a project and even perhaps have drawn back from re-offending without further experience of prison.

We have created new connections. We have connected them with a world from which they were formerly cut off.  We have given them their voices back. 
Professor Robert Waxler

© Wendy Robertson, Avril Joy. March 2000



2 Replies to “Changing Lives Through Literature”

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