Saturday, February 28, 2009

Read a Book, Get Out of Jail
By LEAH PRICE writing in The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 2009

In a scuffed-up college classroom in Dartmouth, Mass., 14 people page through a short story by T. C. Boyle. They debate the date at which the action is set: when was the Chevy Bel Air released, and what was the drinking age in New York State that year? They question moral responsibility: when the three friends in the Bel Air assault a girl, should peer pressure be blamed for their impulse, or hormones, drink, sin?

To which the man at the head of our table rejoins: “There’s a kind of complexity to human experience that isn’t always recognized. You try to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, but sometimes both are wrong, right?”

Of the 14 people, a dozen are male. One is an English professor, one is a graduate student, two are judges and two are probation officers. 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. At each two-hour meeting, students discuss fiction, memoirs and the occasional poem; authors range from Frederick Douglass to John Steinbeck to Toni Morrison, topics from self-­mutilation and family quarrels to the Holocaust and the Montgomery bus boycott.
Read the full piece at nyt.


Anonymous said...

I run a book group at Arohata Prison every Thursday with a group of ever changing (nature of the business), but always engaging, intelligent, and interesting women, who love to read out loud short stories by:
Owen Marshall, Roald Dahl, Alice Tawhai, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, A.L. Kennedy, Janet Frame,Frank Sargeson, Sue McCauley, Katherine Mansfield.. and the list goes on...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this link with your readers. I encourage anyone interested in finding out more about Changing Lives Through Literature to visit the official website at and our blog at .

Anonymous said...

Hi again Graham,

I was inspired by your post - and Maggie's comment - to post a blog entry of my own about the scheme, and about how Janet did some prison visiting in Wanganui when she lived there, including a poetry reading.