A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Lock 'em up or Give Them a Book?

I’ve been learning more about the Changing Lives through Literature program, in which “criminal offenders with charges ranging from drug violations to assault with a deadly weapon read and discuss literature as a condition of their probation.”  In the program, offenders join judges and others in a democratic discussion of literature.


The group’s website is filled with testimonies of how discussing literature in a group can lead to transformation:

Together around the table, we question, rethink our positions, and rediscover our voices, our values, ourselves. The ambiguity of language unsettles us, opens us to a larger world than we expected, demands that we listen and respect diverse perspectives, new interpretations, and unanticipated experiences filled with wonder and surprise.

What better way to explore options for one’s life than to read and talk and think and write about how others live theirs? And about how our experiences and choices are related to theirs? About how we might learn from their mistakes, learn to feel compassion for people different from ourselves, be validated by finding out that others experience the same frustrations, doubts, and difficulties as we do in their own lives, that we are not alone.

Literature doesn’t just make people feel good.  It also helps them name their own oppression, to see the systems in which their lives are emeshed.  Take, for example, the classic story of Pygmalion, a plot known to many via My Fair Lady.

Pygmalion’s less than subtle image of male intellectual domination may be considered analogous to other issues affecting the lives of women who commit felonies and end up in the CLTL classroom. Quite literally, Eliza participates in a con. Every gesture, every phrase she utters is weighted with a financial wager. If she weren’t so desperate to change her own life and break out of poverty, it might be as amusing as the obnoxious men making the bet find it. In American society, often, a relationship with a man has led a woman into a marginalized existence and has been a central element in illegal behaviour.


Talking about Pygmalion can give women offenders the ability to see and talk about the role that their relationships with men have played in their crimes as well as their lives.

The program sounds so tame, so. . . . liberal.  Shouldn’t offenders be locked up and made to wear orange jumpsuits instead of invited to a book club?   And yet, this program works in ways that others haven’t.  According to the Journal of Offender Rehabiliation, the recidivism rate of the CLTL program is 20%, compared with 45% in the control group.

The site also testifies to the way that those who companion offenders learn from the experience, too.  One woman explains how the discussions helped her see even more clearly her white privilege and the disparities in opportunities afforded her and the others in the conversation.

Check out the program’s website and blog for compelling stories.

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