Friday, February 27, 2009

Reading to earn freedom

Did you see this piece by Leah Price in The New York Times about prisoners who can join a book club to earn time out of jail? English professor Robert Waxler at UMass-Dartmouth started it, working with a judge and a probation officer. Here's how Price describes a class: The eight others are convicted criminals who have been granted probation in exchange for attending, and doing the homework for, six twice-monthly seminars on literature. The class is taught through Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program that allows felons and other offenders to choose between going to jail or joining a book club.

What an unusual and smart idea. The biggest hurdle I can see is fundamental literacy. I have taught in jail before, and some felons have such challenges with simple reading and writing that they will need to do a lot of work before a book by John Steinbeck or Toni Morrison makes sense to them. For those who read well, though (and I encountered some highly literate people in jail, too), this is a creative and constructive idea.

There are also two fair arguments that (a) it's not right for prisoners to get personal tutoring from college professors and access to their otherwise expensive classes when many of their victims cannot afford such luxuries; and (b) books shouldn't be transformed into punishment. I'll grant both arguments have merit. But I still like to see people thinking laterally about alternatives to incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenders.


Anonymous said...

To learn more about the CLTL program, check out the website ( and the blog at

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this article presents a very reductive view of Changing Lives Through Literature. Harvard professor Leah Price’s one day in a CLTL classroom presents a very limited, academic view of this 18 year old program. Price presents reading as punishment, rather than as a thought provoking agent for change, calling a book a “literary ankle bracelet”. Yet CLTL works because books transport readers and lead to soaring, life altering discussions about agency, society, anger, love, and change. CLTL works because narratives open the human heart. Price doesn’t mention that she attended the first of a twelve-week CLTL session. No doubt she would have walked into a very different classroom, with very different students at week 6 or week 7.
Price flippantly connects the CLTL program to a book club, rehab, imprisonment, or, somewhat mockingly, to a Sunday school class. But Dr Price really misses the richness and complexity of what goes on in a CLTL classroom. Dr Price is writing from the perspective of expert, when she actually has a lot to learn.