About to celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) is one of those best-ideas-you’ve-never-heard of, giving convicts the chance to stay out of prison and improve their lives through books.
Started in Massachusetts in 1991, and since expanded to eight states including Texas, Arizona, and New York, CLTL has changed the lives of hundreds through reading courses designed for them. Instead of being sentenced to decades in prison, these serious offenders are instead given a second chance: they are given probation, with the mandate that they must attend a reading group, a sort of community service to themselves.
A recent Guardian article describes the program:
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….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. And those from the programme who did reoffend committed less serious crimes.
With articles and op-eds cropping up on a regular basis about how too much of our population is incarcerated, with nary an idea in sight suggesting a solution, it is truly refreshing to read an article such as this. CLTL is a brilliant idea, with proven results. So why hasn’t it been more widely adopted, or publicized? Why did I have to discover it through a British news site? Granted, it is almost 20 years old, so perhaps I missed some of the coverage when I was toddling around in diapers.
This is a feel-good story that has been proven to work. It’s not a one-time deal, dependent on one amazing individual who brings change to a select group of people, as we tend to see on Lifetime. However, anything more that I might say would be far too cliche. So instead, I ask:
How has literature changed your life?