Of the 14 people, a dozen are male. One is an English professor, one is a graduate student, two are judges and two are probation officers. The eight othersare convicted criminalswho have been granted probation in exchange for attending, and doing the homework for, six twice-monthly seminars on literature. The class is taught through Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program that allows felons and other offenders to choose between going to jail or joining a book club. At each two-hour meeting, students discuss fiction, memoirs and the occasional poem; authors range from Frederick Douglass to John Steinbeck to Toni Morrison, topics from self-mutilation and family quarrels to the Holocaust and the Montgomery bus boycott.
Robert Waxler, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and the man at the head of the table, founded the reading program in 1991 with Superior Court Judge Robert Kane and Wayne Saint Pierre, a probation officer; since then, it has expanded to eight other states. Led by literature professors, the program has brought thousands of convicts to college campuses even as the withdrawal of Pell grants from prisoners (who were ruled ineligible for federal college financing in 1994) drove a wedge between the two state-funded institutions where young adults do time. Meanwhile,... [continues]
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