Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Books will set you free

Whenever I think of Texas, images of George Bush, the Confederate Flag, the illegal annexation of the formerly Mexican state, rednecks, the Klan and other negative things form in my mind. Unfair, but they're the constantly circulated stereotypes put forth by popular media (and George Bush).

So imagine my surprise to read about the Changing Lives Through Literature project, in which criminals are sentenced to a reading group and probation rather than prison. Now the obvious joke is that many of my students act like prisoners in my seminar groups, but I think there's something to this: well-chosen books widen your intellectual horizons and explore complicated emotional landscape: perhaps they can be therapeutic.

Repeat offenders of serious crimes such as armed robbery, assault or drug dealing are made to attend a reading group where they discuss literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar and Of Mice and Men.
Rouse's group was run by part-time lecturer in liberal studies at Rice University in Houston, Larry Jablecki, who uses the texts of Plato, Mill and Socrates to explore themes of fate, love, anger, liberty, tolerance and empathy. 
Groups are single sex and the books chosen resonate with some of the issues the offenders may be facing. A male group, for example, may read books with a theme of male identity. A judge, a probation officer and an academic join a session of 30 offenders to talk about issues as equals.
Of the 597 who have completed the course in Brazoria County, Texas, between 1997 and 2008, only 36 (6%) had their probations revoked and were sent to jail.
A year-long study of the first cohort that went through the programme, which was founded in Massachusetts in 1991, found that only 19% had reoffended compared with 42% in a control group.
Instead of spending a lifetime in prison at a cost of more than $30,000 (£19,520) a year, Rouse's "rehabilitation" cost the taxpayer just $500 (£325).

What books would you put on the reading list? Presumably not crime novels, which could act as manuals for the incompetent criminal, nor stories of heroic escapes. I'd guess that A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch would be a good deterrent (it's set in a gulag), as would Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ('go straight, or we'll make you read it again'). But what else?

Joking aside, this is the perfect riposte to philistines like the new government (50% cut to arts funding/admin announced today, as well as the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission), who despise the humanities as pointless.

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