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The History of Changing Lives Through Literature

Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) is a program that began in Massachusetts in response to a growing need within our criminal justice system to find alternatives to incarceration. Burdened by expense and repeat offenders, our prisons can rarely give adequate attention to the needs of inmates and, thus, do little else than warehouse our criminals. Disturbed by the lack of real success by prisons to reform offenders and affect their patterns of behavior, Professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane discussed using literature as a way of reaching hardened criminals.

In the fall of 1991, Robert Waxler, Robert Kane, and Wayne St. Pierre, a New Bedford District Court probation officer (PO), initiated the first program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where Waxler is a professor in the English Department. Eight men were sentenced to probation instead of prison, with an important stipulation: they had to complete a Modern American Literature seminar run by Professor Waxler. The seminar was held on the university campus and included Judge Kane and PO St. Pierre. For 12 weeks, the men, many of whom had not graduated from high school and who had among them 148 convictions for crimes such as armed robbery and theft, met in a seminar room at the university. By discussing books, such as James Dickey's Deliverance and Jack London's Sea Wolf, the men began to investigate and explore aspects of themselves, to listen to their peers, to increase their ability to communicate ideas and feelings to men of authority who they thought would never listen to them, and to engage in dialogue in a democratic classroom where all ideas were valid. Instead of seeing their world from one angle, they began opening up to new perspectives and started realizing that they had choices in life. Thus, literature became a road to insight (see the New Bedford paradigm).

In 1992, a women's program was added by combining the Lynn and Lowell District Courts (see the Lynn-Lowell paradigm), and a graduation format was established in which probationers who had finished a set of CLTL sessions received praise and certificates of completion in front of a full courtroom. By the summer of 1993, with support from the Gardiner Howland Shaw Foundation, 40 men had completed the New Bedford course with negligible recidivism (see an article by Jarjoura and Krumholz).

After receiving nationwide publicity and program assistance from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities in 1994, CLTL was able to gain funding from the State Legislature of Massachusetts to expand into courts throughout the Commonwealth. Soon Texas came on board, as well as Arizona, Kansas, Maine, New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. An adaptation of CLTL is also running strong in England. California and Illinois are interested in starting programs, and one is almost underway in Canada. CLTL has won awards and has been featured nationally in The New York Times, Parade Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and on the Today Show. The program has also been highlighted in newspapers and on radio and television shows throughout the world (see Articles).

In 2003, CLTL was awarded an Exemplary Education grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a website and training materials to expand its reach. In 2004, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities granted funds to the Massachusetts program to buy books and provide transportation for students to attend seminars.

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