The New Bedford Men's Program
By Robert Waxler (profile)
Section 1. In The Beginning
Section 2. First Literature Seminar
Section 3. How We Continued
How We Continued
The Gardner Howland Shaw Foundation Funding and Evaluation
We wanted to keep the program running so we sought and received limited funding from the Gardner Howland Shaw Foundation, a small non-profit agency in Boston, under the direction of Tom Coury, that was committed to innovative criminal justice programs.
After the first four groups were completed, in 1993, the Foundation commissioned an independent evaluation to analyze the outcomes up to that time. The researchers, Drs. Roger Jarjoura and Susan Krumholz, set up a formal longitudinal study, mainly to evaluate recidivism, and supplemented by case studies and interviews with the offenders.
They compared our first 32 program participants with 40 other male offenders who had gone through other programs, but not ours. The two groups were similar in age and in total risk scores, although our 32 CLTL participants had a higher ratio of violent offenses than did the men in the comparison group.
The results were heartening, although not unexpected. According to the Jarjoura final report, 45 percent of the comparison group - the group that had not gone through our CLTL program - had been convicted of new crimes. This was about average given the makeup of the group, the researchers indicated, a result they would have expected before starting the evaluation. A little less than half of the criminal offenders in the comparison group had re-offended.
By contrast to these expected findings, though, the researchers reported that only 18.75 percent of our CLTL group had been convicted of new crimes during the same period. This was clearly a remarkable statistic, the researchers suggested. Unexpected, if not off the charts. The results indicated that the CLTL program was clearly making a difference, and that the program could in fact cut recidivism by more than half.
Furthermore, the report indicated that only one of the CLT students who had re-offended, had committed a violent crime after attending the program. Considering the violent history of the group as a whole, this too was worthy of special note. And it was consistent with our general belief that language and literature could be a significant way to fight crime and help stop violence. Later, less formal studies of the CLTL program would reinforce these notions.
In the study, the role of the judge was also noted as a significant factor in the process. His obvious respect for the offenders in the court and his participation in the seminar discussions made them feel important, the study noted. The CLTL students also admired the professor, according to the report, specifically his ability to understand human nature and to offer revealing insights through the readings. He cared deeply, the participants said.
In addition, the researchers concluded that the public ceremony in the courtroom as part of the graduation at the end of the literature series was an important ritual enabling "a successful transition to a conventional, non-offending lifestyle." In this sense, the CLTL program helped create good citizens, giving the participants the social verification and legitimization leading to reform and redemption.
Expansion of the CLTL Program
As we continued the program in New Bedford, Judge Kane, Wayne St. Pierre, and I talked about it wherever we could - at conferences, at small meetings, to other professors and court officials, and to reporters and broadcasters.
Early on in this outreach process, Judge Kane met Jean Trounstine in the Lynn-Lowell area, and together with Judge Joseph Dever, Professor Trounstine started the first women's program at Middlesex Community College.
We were also particularly fortunate when the Education Reporter for the Boston Globe wrote an extensive front-page article about the program in August of 1993. From that report, others followed: The New York Times and Parade Magazine, for example. National and international interest spread, eventually helping us to secure funding through the Massachusetts Legislature. Over time, the program expanded throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, into several other states and to England.
In my view, the student-probationers, in the New Bedford program at least, have too long felt isolated, as if they were caught in an enormous present without escape. They have been marginalized and pushed aside by the mainstream. In essence, they have been silenced.
Language - reading and discussion - becomes a social force for these men, an enabling power that binds them together and allows them to recognize that they are capable of humanizing the world that surrounds them. It is true not only for them, but for all of us. Literature can lead us to such recognition. And with that recognition, we can make choices, create a future, and build a story for ourselves.
The offenders have felt the dull round of the criminal justice system, the punishing authority of a judge in dark robes. Through the CLTL process, though, literature provides new perspectives and surprises. It reminds all of us that there are many interpretations to a complex life. The CLTL discussions open us to the fullness of the human experience, its twists and turns, its endless ambiguity, its heart. It is not about power, but about compassion: that's what great literature always offers.
Through the rituals around the table, offenders learn that good judges can be more than the dark robes of authority, and judges learn about the humanity of criminal offenders.
Probation officers and professors become more self-reflective too, recognizing themselves more clearly in the mirror of "the other."
The men in our program are smart. They have often survived brutal family histories, drug and alcohol addiction, and their own pent-up rage. They range in age from fifteen to forty-five or so. Some are married; some are not. Some have children - a future they want to connect with, even help nurture. As one of the men put it one night: "Walking into a college classroom where my opinion matters is more exciting now than all the challenges I found out on the street."
Language and literature can deter violence and crime. They can add meaning to manhood. These men know that now. We all do.