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March 06, 2009

Jail Time or ’Jane Eyre’?

Price-190 Would you rather go to jail or join a book club? No, it's not a trick question.

Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program, gives low-level offenders the option of skipping out of jail if they take a literature course with other offenders, a judge, and their probation officer.


Seriously, because literature can transform. As participants read John Steinbeck, Frederick Douglass, and Toni Morrison, they begin to find themselves within the stories, inside a character. For those who have felt marginalized or alienated, this sense of "not being the only one" offers them hope. And getting to speak their opinions before a judge or probation officer makes them feel listened to and gives them confidence to take a job interview or apply to school.

Leah Price, writing in the New York Times, explains it this way:

“Poetry,” W.H. Auden once wrote, “makes nothing happen.” But Waxler insists that “literature can make a difference” — more specifically, that lives are touched by printed art as they can’t be by the act of sitting around a table arguing about a movie, a song, a self-help book or one’s own childhood. The probation officer begins by telling participants that “this program isn’t a miracle,” but it works in mysterious ways. Perhaps reading stories allows participants to form narratives (whether conscious or not) about their own past and future. In a study of more traditional 12-step programs, the criminologist Shadd Maruna has argued that recovery from addiction requires the ability to distinguish a “before” from an “after.” Searching for terms to explain the mechanism by which literature “changes” readers, participants come up with “turning points,” “epiphanies,” even “grace.” “When it’s working,” Waxler says, “this discussion has a kind of magic to it.”

Good literature provides a narrative for our lives. For example, the characters that fill the pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and the Gospels teach us of the pain of sin and the glory of goodness. As financial burdens weigh down our criminal justice system, I am hopeful that more states will turn to such innovative approaches to corrections.

(Image © Paul Sahre for the New York Times)

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I am familiar with the CLTL program. It currently operates in eight states and in England. I too would urge others states to start a CLTL program in their region. This program should be in every district in the country!!

Jason Taylor

Presumably Mein Kampf counts as literature?

Being cultured doesn't necessarily make you more virtuous. And when it fails to do that it can make you more effectively wicked. Michael Corleone was after all quite cultured.


Jason, you're absolutely right about culture not being enough to create virtue. At the same time, books with virtuous story lines can go a long way in solidifying truth. I consider my faith far more vibrant because of the metaphysical poets, George Eliot, and Shakespeare. There's something about stories that create pictures of our doctrine. Of course, poor doctrine has pictures too, and can create vice, not virtue. And I think that's what you're referring to.

Jason Taylor

More or less. And most Victorian Literature that has survived would be fairly appropriate to that end(which doesn't mean there was not Victorian vulgarity, simply that it did not survive).
Moreover at the very least, literate people are unlikely to be petty criminals. They can be traitors, tyrants, fanatics, terrorists, and sworn enemies of civilization. They can also be arrogant aristocrats, mob chieftains, and on and on. But they are seldom famous as petty criminals. I guess that's sort of a blue-collar job so to speak.

Shannon K

Hey Zoe: "Stories that create pictures of our doctrine" -- how true! I've been thinking of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde recently, with its vivid reminder that thinking I can make a habit of indulging in sin and yet remain in control of it is categorically, and dangerously, wrong. And Dickens has an uncanny knack for making me realize how little grace I extend to the people in my life.

Would you mind explaining how reading Shakespeare has made your faith "more vibrant?" I can see how George Eliot could do so (I'm in the middle of Middlemarch right now...), but I've read a handful of Shakespeare's plays over the past ~year and didn't receive any spiritual benefit. I'd love to know what it is I'm missing!


Shannon, you're right to put me to the test a little on my comment about Good Old Willy:) I must admit, after attending the raunchiest version of Twelfth Night ( http://thepoint.breakpoint.org/2009/01/twelfth-night.html ) two months ago, your question gives me a little pause. But, after a little consideration, I'm going to stick with my guns on this one.

True, Shakespeare is not always a paragon of virtue, but he has an uncanny ability to draw raw and truthful portraits of sinful humanity. Take Hamlet and Macbeth. Few would hold up Lady Macbeth or Claudius as beacons of goodness, but their cruelty does the trick in making sin out for what it really is. Sometimes the most poignant way to point the way to goodness is to illustrate the opposite, and I believe Shakespeare does this honestly.

And a few of his plays go even further--to paint gracious images of true virtue and grace. I think immediately of Isabella in Measure for Measure whose purity and grace put Angelo's hypocritical legalism to shame.

So, while I could hardly say that these late-night college reading assignments changed my life, they did paint pictures of doctrine--both wicked and righteous--for me.

(And thanks for the little pop quiz:) I'm not convinced one of my English profs didn't put you up to this:))

Jason Taylor

Of course books did make me want to open doors for ladies, respect an honorable enemy, be a generous host and a gracious guest, and be fierce in the field and meek in the hall.


Hi–thanks for sharing the news about Changing Lives Through Literature with your readers. We’re happy to read about the increased interest in the program. If you or your readers want to keep up to date with CLTL and issues related to literature/criminal justice, I suggest visiting our wordpress blog at http://cltlblog.wordpress.com .

Shannon K

Thanks for the explanation, Zoe! I see your point that, presented well and properly, a portrait of evil can be eye-opening and cautionary. I'm probably due for a re-read of Hamlet and Macbeth (haven't read them since high school!) and will keep your comments in mind when I do. And perhaps Measure for Measure needs to get added to my reading list...

And no, no involvement with your English profs :).


This sounds like a really interesting program. Maybe we should try it out on our children, as a pre-emptive measure. Seriously, we have become so focused on "practical" training to prepare everyone for a high tech job in the global economy (blah blah blah) that we have crowded arts and literature out of education. Certainly there are many people who have warned about the adverse effects this might have. This program seems to support their assertion, by demonstrating how adding these things, even in a remedial way, can improve lives.


Hi David--a lot of child psychologists are already using bibliotherapy to reach troubled youth (a quick search on Google reveals a lot of information on the practice).

Certainly, it would beneficial to encouraging the general youth population to think about the intimate connection between their lives and the stories told in literature. I wonder if revamping the English lit curriculum and teacher training processes might be a start. Encouraging students to think less about plot points and more about how they connect with the characters and stories seems a worthy educational goal and one that can reap positive results in the future.


Jenni, you took my thought even further than I intended. I was merely suggesting we get more literature back into curriculum. You have highlighted the fact that, to whatever extent we may encounter literature (in school or elsewhere), there are still different ways of processing it. You are suggesting we need to do more with our "right brain" and perhaps give the left side a break? I agree.

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