Staying Out of Jail With Books' Help

Massachusetts lowers recidivism by helping repeat offenders discover the power of literature

The men carrying dog-eared, paperback editions of ''The Autobiography of Malcolm X,'' quietly gather in Room 616. While dusk turns to darkness outside, Prof. Anthony Farley is turning on the lights of understanding inside.

The men in this University of Massachusetts classroom are on probation, all repeat offenders balancing uneasily between the threat of prison and the maze of the real world. For the next hour and a half, a lively discussion about Malcolm X ebbs and flows.

Welcome to ''Changing Lives Through Literature,'' a course where hope can be the payoff instead of prison.

Four years ago, Robert Waxler, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, suggested to his tennis partner, District Court Judge Robert Kane, that the period of probation was in fact an opportunity to share the power of books and ideas. Let Jack London, James Dickey, Frederick Douglass, Norman Mailer, Malcolm X, and other writers stir the assumptions and expand the thinking of troubled men and women.

At a time when politicians and many citizen's organizations clamor for more prisons and harsher penalties, Professor. Waxler saw it differently. ''Instead of sentencing men to jail again,'' he says, ''introduce them to the power of literature and ideas.''

Troubled men on probation, he told the judge, were ready for a sea change. ''The criminal-justice system is a revolving door where people are continually sent to jail,'' Waxler says, ''then they come out and create terrible situations for themselves and everyone else.''

With Judge Kane's approval, Waxler and probation officers selected eight men with 148 convictions between them. ''I didn't want anybody to say later that I stacked the deck with people with minor offenses,'' Waxler says. ''These men had weighty criminal histories.''

Participants had to be able to read, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and attend class once a week for 12 weeks. Waxler choose novels and short selections with strong narratives and plots.

After completing the course, six months of probation time is removed for each participant, and a $30-a-month probation service fee is waived for six months.

What happened in the initial class, in varying degrees, was a kind of mini-participatory democracy, a first for most of the men. ''Most of them had never been on a college campus before and have felt isolated at the margins of society,'' Waxler says, ''No one has listened to them.''

Often the discussions in the classroom included visiting judges, lawyers, and probation officers, all joining in the give and take. But it is the ''students'' who gain the most.

Another plus is to be in an atmosphere that allows them to be serious.

''The men talk about the characters,'' Waxler says, ''but they are really talking about themselves, and often for the first time they are allowed to become self-reflective.''

One participant, Manuel Amaral, came face-to-face with Jack London's Wolf Larsen, a tough, brutal character. ''I used to be just like him,'' he told Waxler, ''and he was a real idiot.''

''It was a moment of revelation for Manuel,'' Waxler says.

As the course progressed the feedback from the men was almost all positive. Many wanted to reconnect with their families, start reading to their children, and try to enter mainstream life. Several went on to attend community colleges.

Now, four years later, about 130 men and women in seven locations in the state have taken the course. Only a handful have dropped out. Last year, the state legislature allocated $100,000 to help administer the program. A new spinoff from the women's discussion class includes writing sessions.

Two years ago, a state study revealed that only 18 percent of the first four classes (34 men) were back in jail after two years. Another group, with the same criminal backgrounds but without taking the course, had a recidivism rate of 45 percent.

''We do a lot in probation that is apparently ineffective,'' says John Owens, a probation officer in Dorchester. ''This course is a new way to help men and women see beyond their probation experience to glimpse their potential.''

Rudy Goodwin, who took the course with Boston College law professor Anthony Farley, wants to do it again. ''Yeah, I'm changed,'' he says, ''I learned I can express myself to anybody now, and I don't have to get angry doing it. And I learned to listen better. There are a hundred other views, and I can't always be right.''

Most women in the course also have a positive reaction, says Deirdre Kennedy, a probation officer at the Dorchester court, ''One woman got a library card for the first time, '' she says, ''and started taking her seven-year-old daughter to the library every Saturday. She couldn't believe how excited her daughter was when they both checked out books together.''

In Mr. Farley's class, the reading list included selections from Ursula LeGuin, a story by Ray Bradbury, an article by former Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, Frederick Douglass's account of his life as a slave, Elie Wiesel's book on the Holocaust, excerpts from W.E.B. Dubois's writings, Jeanne Wakatsuki's ''A Farewell to Manzanar,'' essays from Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X's autobiography.

''I was afraid I would walk into the class and face a sullen group of men who felt they were condemned to be here,'' says Farley, a former federal prosecutor. ''But out of our readings we had some amazing discussions. I think it all adds up to hope for them. We have a criminal-justice system that is out of control. What prison produces is anger, alienation, and recidivism. I can only hope that what they get will help them break that cycle of despair.''

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