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Reading With Felons, Part II: A Blog is Worth a Thousand Words

The people over at “Changing Lives Through Literature” in Boston want you to read their blog.  They feel it will offer insight into the significance of running book clubs for people who commit crimes and have had their prison sentences deferred or reduced by participating in a book club or other taxpayer-funded, higher-education initiatives.

I think it’s a great idea to take a hard look at their blog.  After all, your federal Education Department dollars and Justice Department dollars doubtlessly support this reading experiment, either directly or indirectly (never believe anybody who says that their prisoner outreach is “funded exclusively by private resources”: the Justice Department and the states pony up tax dollars to support every prisoner initiative in some way.  Many of these programs would not exist without funding from the Justice Department’s Weed and Seed grants — federal tax dollars that are spread among the states.  All of these programs require oversight from corrections departments.  And public universities are public entities, as are the courts — it’s all on your dime, one way or another).  

The blog is very informative: in fact, it’s a roadmap of romanticized ideas about “rescuing” prisoners while having meaningful personal experiences along the way.  It also makes my point, better than I could, about the denial of crime victimization practiced lockstep by such activists.  In post after post (and article after article on the organization’s main page), convicts are “citizens” and victims are nonexistent, untouchable, unmentionable — surgically excised.  If you step back from the professionally-designed pages and contemplate the absence of any mention of crime, there is a sort of horror in this systematic erasure of the victim’s experience.

The blog’s first entry neatly encapsulates both the doublespeak of prisoner “outreach” and the shameless fixation on “enriching” volunteers’ lives, while pretending crime itself is not part of the equation:

Much has been said about the difference that Changing Lives Through Literature makes in the lives of criminal offenders who attend the program. . . . What’s not so easily measurable, however, is the impact of CLTL on the lives of the facilitators, probation officers, judges, and other visitors who attend the sessions. In the absence of statistics, personal accounts of one’s experiences with the program are the only measure our organization has to analyze the powerful sway that extends beyond the probationers. . . . In one session, I could see the magic of the program at work through the insights and realizations offered by the participants. I was most astonished, however, to notice the two-hour discussion had changed me as well. I became more engaged in this discussion than in any of my past literature classes. . .

Jennie

And so on.  Comments continue in the breathless voice of personal discovery and ritualistic self-deprecation, spiced with a bit of braggadocio at the thought of close contact with convicts:    

Univ. of Illinois English Department has a program that sends books to prisons, but this sounds much more powerful. It puts us academics in our place!

Libbie

 

We had chosen 10 men with really long records. We had a room full of violent thiefs, with substance abuse problems. Unlike the characters in “Greasy Lake”, they were “bad guys”. . . . I had a lagitimate fear for my own safety. It was a roller coaster of emotion, as by the end, we left shaking hands, and we all knew we had stumbled on something special. 

Wayne

The blog is all about the outreach worker, or rather the quasi-religious (magic) expectations such people bring to the experience of interacting with convicts.  It takes an impressive degree of hubris to imagine that a program that arises from someone’s else’s experience of crime is actually about your own personal growth (even the prisoners slip away beneath the urgent prose of self-awareness).  

But this is hubris with a high social return: this is Boston environs, where prisoner chic never went out of style.

17 Responses to Reading With Felons, Part II: A Blog is Worth a Thousand Words

  1. Chris Murphy says:

    Boston has an over-abundance of colleges and universities, and I would figure that has something to do with it: too many academics with too little to do. Tough getting a part-time job whare you can keep your hands clean, when you need extra money.

    I was no fan of William F. Buckley, but he remarked once, “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Point being, of course, that common sense and no obvious vested interest would be worthy of trust. These (white) folks at CLTL in MA are no different than the (black) hucksters that haunt our halls of justice and governance here in GA, in effect: they make a living, and the rest of us make do with the leavings.

    ” In the absence of statistics, personal accounts of one’s experiences with the program are the only measure our organization has to analyze the powerful sway that extends beyond the probationers. . . . ” And you can bet that personal accounts will stay as the only measure, because if they did keep track of money vs. effectiveness, the gravy train would run outta fuel, quick.

  2. Jenni says:

    To fault Changing Lives Through Literature for not targeting or including victims in its program and rhetoric (blog included) is a straw man argument.

    There are programs designed to aid victims of crimes. CLTL, while not denying the importance and need for such action, is not one of those programs. It is a fallacy to criticize a program for not attending to a matter to which it does not purport to attend.

    Ironically, these victim assistance programs have much more in common with CLTL than might be initially evident. Psychologists and therapists have long used bibliotherapy to help victims of bullying, abuse, and other crimes (a quick Google search exposes a wealth of material on the subject).

    If reading and discussing literature can help one subset of the population, is it that much of a stretch to believe that it can help another subset–offenders? We should not be so jaded as to believe that offenders cannot also learn to be self-reflective and make positive changes in their lives.

  3. Chris Murphy says:

    It’s not that the program doesn’t “target or include” victims, it’s that it doesn’t consider the effects crime has on them that is grating.
    The fact that there are no statistics or any other measure of the program’s effectiveness speaks volumes, too.
    I wouldn’t know about victim’s assistance programs elsewhere, but here in GA they are mainly geared to letting the victim know about court dates, keeping them informed about options they have or will have to bring pressure on the sentence, and methods or actions they can take to prevent the perpetrator from harming them again. Literature, my ass.

  4. Tina says:

    Jenni, you misunderstand my point. I never suggested that you should be serving victims — honestly, I doubt they’d get much from that, though contact with the victims of your clients might promote the apparent goal of expanding your volunteers’ horizons.

    Are you saying that victims’ services in Massachusetts, or anywhere else, offers free tuition for a vast network of college classes to victims of crime, complete with attendance by, and close personal contact with, important community figures like judges? That sounds like a great program. Please tell me whom I may contact to find out more about it.

    My impression of victims’ services is substantially different: I assume that crime victims must go out and commit crimes in order to quality for free college classes.

    I have a few other questions, too: do judges get paid for their time in these programs, or does it count as the hours they serve for their salaries? Who determines the syllabi for these courses? Do these people report to any elected official? Do instructors need training in rehabilitation or corrections, or can any otherwise qualified instructor teach convicts? Has anyone involved in the program as an instructor, or other people sharing campus space with program participants, ever been victimized (robbed, mugged, assaulted) by a program participant or former participant? And if you don’t keep such records, why not?

  5. cltl says:

    FYI The judges , probation officers, and other court officials involved with this program all work on a volunteer basis in an attempt to bring justice and mercy to the larger community. This is not a “rehab” program, but a program that demonstrates the power of literature to help make a difference in people’s lives. Anyone who has read the book being discussed on a particular night can come to the session. So the literature and the discussion could help everyone if they were open to the experience. The program has no political point of view–it actually is run in very conservative places like Texas as well as liberal strongholds like Massachusetts. If you believe in the power of story and in the importance of listening to the stories of all human beings, then you might understand the value of the CLTL program.

  6. Tina says:

    It isn’t rehabilitation? Is it now taboo to even mention the idea that convicts require rehabilitation? I thought it was explicitly a rehabilitation program administered in lieu of prison.

    Now, onto my other questions. You say that your instructors work on a volunteer basis. So are you saying that the parole officers, cops and judges mentioned in the narrative accounts of the program don’t record their hours or “clock in” in any way during the program? None of them do? Aren’t there considerable expenses involved in monitoring the convicts, ensuring and recording their attendance, reporting it to the courts, providing university facility space, supporting the graduate students (they do get credit towards their degree for teaching these courses, right?), and providing security on campus for other students who are brought into contact, with the blessing of the university, with convicted criminals? Is the program run with no supplementary insurance? No extra security on campus? Who funds your website? Who pays for the electricity in the classrooms? Why are fee-paying attendees of these schools up in arms about the program?

    Please also answer the questions about book selections, reporting requirements to any state office or official, and criminal incidents. I didn’t ask you anything about your political affiliations. If you believe so strongly in the value of the program, you should not mind answering questions about it. Everything costs something — and in this case, the cost of every crime committed by a participant in your program who would otherwise be in jail is directly on the heads of anyone who helped that person avoid incarceration, as well.

  7. Jenni says:

    Let me see if I can answer some of your questions about CLTL. Perhaps our other CLTL poster can follow up with your other questions.

    * While our program does aim to better the lives of program participants, we do not think of it as “rehabilitation” in the traditional sense. We’re not a one-stop shop, where offenders can come, participate, and emerge with a clean slate. We expose them to perspectives and experiences which they can use to start thinking of themselves and their lives in a new light. This is a more innate and organic way to induce change than a rehab center.

    * Graduate students do not teach the courses or receive any compensation for their attendance. Current and former university professors facilitate CLTL programs on a volunteer basis.

    * No extra security is required on campus. The meetings are usually held in the evenings, to accommodate the schedules of program facilitators and offenders who work during the day. There are very few students on campus at this time of the day. Further, we do not bring extremely “high-risk” individuals into the program. Nobody convicted of murder or sexual assaults, for example, may participate in the program.

    * Our website was funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (more information found here : http://www.umassd.edu/communications/articles/showarticles.cfm?a_key=239 ). The site does not require much maintenance and is hosted on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth web server.

    * The individual facilitators determine the syllabi for the course, guided by the instructional material and bibliographies found on the CLTL web site (under “Resources”).

    These are just a few responses I’m personally able to provide which may help you better understand the CLTL program a bit better. I encourage anyone really interested in the program to take an in-depth look at our site. We have nothing to hide and the answers to most of your questions can be found there.

  8. ILikeBooksToo says:

    Jenni:

    * So, Short Jenni is: The program refuses to acknowledge any standard by which “success” might be measured except that people showed up for classes and told you they felt it had a positive impact on their lives? Correct? I’d hate to be engaging with a straw man.

    * I’ll let someone else explain how your answer about the money fails to fully engage the question.

    * I think you’d probably be relatively safe with convicted murderers and rapists, frankly. After all, Jack Abbot killed a waiter, not Susan Sarandon. Middle and upper class people tend to be non-combatants in the criminal realm, unless and until they are selected as victims.

    * Still, I think your assumption that people who are not convicted of murder or sexual assault are “lower risk” than people who happen to have been convicted of these crimes tells us something about the assumptions that seem to underlie your project, and talking about that may help you understand the discomfort that some people here are expressing. So let’s pick at this thread for a second.

    Let’s look at a burglar. We’ll even set aside the fact that a significant number of the people identified by the system as “burglars” are actually serial rapists in fact or in training. Let’s just look at the crime itself.

    Burglary is a violent crime. Doors get kicked in. Property is damaged. Property with sentimental value is taken or, often, defiled. Homeowners who happen to be home are at the very least threatened with violence. In their home. Those who are not home come home to a home that will never be quite so much a home ever again.

    So, as an alternative to sentencing, you propose giving the perpetrator of this crime an opportunity to read…Animal Farm?

    Even if we assume as correct the assumption that literature necessarily has a “positive” effect on people such that an encounter with literature is a legitimate alternative to sentencing, what deeper understanding about the nature of crime and victimization is someone going to take away from Animal Farm? What do they learn from this encounter that will make them less likely to victimize other people? Do you even care?

    Your choice of literature seems to indicate that you believe things about these people along the following lines:

    1. Maybe they’re caught up in “the system” and would benefit from engagement with critique of “the system”. Somehow.

    2. Maybe they are trapped by rigid gender role definitions that have caused them to have poor anger management skills, and reading about this will help them overcome self-defeating habits. Somehow.

    3. etc. etc. etc.

    As opposed to, say, they are people who victimized other people, causing real harm, and would benefit from having to deal with consequences or, at the very least, having to *confront* the human consequences of their actions.

    Note that I’m not saying, “Throw them all in jail to rot.” By all means, let’s try something else. But I don’t see anything in your program that says — “What you did was wrong. Stop it.” I just see a lot about how it’s all the man’s fault.

    So, what am I missing?

  9. cltl says:

    What are you missing? Probably a good literature course.

  10. ILikeBooksToo says:

    CLTL:

    Wow. Can you teach me to argue like that?

  11. Tina says:

    Wow, it didn’t take long for the CLTL program to take off the gloves and offer a glimpse of the operative contempt these types of people have for non-criminals, a.k.a. victims, the public, and all of us footing the bill for their glorious adventures in hanging with convicts.

    All that talk about “magic” and “expanding horizons” quickly snaps down to this: a group of elite activists scolding others for not having the appropriate types of warm feelings for the people who steal our cars and break into our homes, or worse.

    Talk about a double standard. If this is what “studying literature” does for one’s moral fiber, I’m ‘gainst it.

    And on the subject of hiding behind the organization’s name while issuing personal attacks? I don’t recommend it. It looks really bad for CLTL, obviously. Also, it’s cowardly.

  12. CLTL isn’t about prisoner rehabilitation, it’s about the transformative power of reading and education. Reading allows individuals to empathize with others and look at themselves and the world in new ways. CLTL offers the opportunity for criminal offenders to do something they have NEVER had the opportunity to do: discuss great literature with their peers, a professor, and a judge.

    Why aren’t there any studies proving the effectiveness of CLTL? Well, if you’ve ever attempted to do any studies in criminology, you’ll realize that privacy laws and poverty get in the way of following up with offenders.

    But there is a length study ongoing in RI on the effects of CLTL, and there are numerous studies in psychology on the POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF READING. That’s the key. That’s what the program is all about.

    Tina, you’re colouring all offenders with the same brush, which is really unfair. These are people too, and they’ve often been dealt some really unfair hands. If you think they’re not being punished for their crimes. They are. If you think CLTL allows them to get out of jail, it doesn’t.

  13. Tina says:

    OK, so CLTL claims on its website that their program helps reduce recidivism, but you and others are saying that it is not technically “rehabilitation”? What is it, alchemy?

    Remember, the public is paying for you folks to rehabilitate criminals. I imagine that rehabilitation is a word used quite a bit in grant applications to the NEA, presentations to legislators, et al.

    I am astonished by the claim that there is no rehabilitative intent.

  14. Rob says:

    Can’t we acknowledge that all parties here have a common desire to reduce violence, reduce rape… there is violence and rape in every prison story I’ve ever heard, and that needs to be addressed somehow. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that rape is rarely prosecuted successfully on the outside and those who are incarcerated for rape are the exception to the rule.

    Any discussion that gets into low blows really gets away from meaningful attempts to break the cycle of violence. Of course there has to be some hope that this is rehabilitative, in the sense that re-offenders are not rehabilitated.

    My $0.02
    -Rob from Illinois

  15. Chris Murphy says:

    The term “cycle of violence” assumes that the offenders are merely reacting to what was done to them. What about the offenders who can claim no such history?

  16. Rob, I’m with you 100%. Amen to that.

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