Changing Lives Through Stories
“Novels and short stories can have a dramatic effect on people in prison. But for that to happen, offenders need to know that literature can carry personal associations and can enhance their own dignity.” Success Stories: Life Skills Through Literature
o one wants to spend valuable time and money setting up and running a programme unless they know it’s going to work, and work well. Using literature to explore issues relating to offending behaviour has been going on under a variety of names and in various venues since 1992. We therefore have a body of evidence to prove that this programme works very well indeed.
In 1992, Professor Robert Waxler of the University of Massachusetts, with his passionate belief in the power of literature, and his friend Robert Kane, a district court judge who was weary of seeing the same faces before him and longed to find an effective way of working with recidivists, devised a programme in which short stories, poetry and excerpts from books would be used as a means to focus on offending behaviour issues. Robert Waxler wrote in the book he edited with Professor Jean Trounstine, ‘Changing Lives Through Literature’ (published by University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana):
“I wanted Bob (Kane) to take eight to ten criminal offenders appearing before his bench, headed to jail, and sentence them instead to a series of literature discussions that I would design and facilitate at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.”
Of course there were those who thought the idea was crazy. Jokes flourished about the threat of having to read Shakespeare being a stronger deterrent than prison. Remember we’re talking about America, where the criminal justice system has earned a reputation for being harshly punitive. Yet the jokes stopped when the programme started to prove itself. News of its success spread rapidly and soon programmes were being run in Texas (yes, Texas!), Arizona, Kansas, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut as well as new groups springing up in Massachusetts. Throughout the States the programme is run as an alternative to being sent to prison, (although there are now some being run within prisons too).
I heard about Changing Lives Through Literature in 1999 when I was Writer-in-residence at HMP Channings Wood, a medium security prison for 600 adult men in the south west of England. At HMP Low Newton, a women’s prison in the north of England, their Writer-in-residence had started a version of Changing Lives Through Literature and proved it could be as effective inside prison as out. By early 2000 I had secured three year funding from the Arts Council England to run nine 10 week programmes of Changing Lives Through Literature which I renamed ‘Connections’ (this was before the youth career service unfortunately decided to rename themselves ‘Connexions’). My reason for changing the name was because I knew the word ‘literature’ would scare some prisoners - literacy problems being widespread in prisons - and I didn’t have the luxury they had in the States where failure to attend meant being sent to prison. I also wanted to emphasise the aim of the programme which was to make connections between their own life experiences and those of the fictional characters discussed.
When the three year funding ended at Channings Wood we had worked with over 100 prisoners, all volunteering to give up their free time to attend the weekly session. Their enthusiasm for the programme persuaded me to seek further funding to take it wider in the UK. In 2002 the Paul Hamlyn Foundation agreed to fund pilot groups in five establishments; two women’s prisons, two male young offender establishments and a mixed adult drug rehabilitation unit. Again the results were very exciting and three of the five establishments have continued to run ‘Connections’. The other two intend to start it up again when they have the resources available.
In Massachusetts several years ago they undertook a study to gauge just how effective Changing Lives Through Literature was being in reducing recidivism. Two groups were selected; both had the same number of offenders with similar offending patterns. Both groups undertook identical offending behaviour programmes but one group also took the CLTL course. Within a given period, 42% of the group that had not done the CLTL course had re-offended. In the group that did do the CLTL work, only 18% had re-offended. Furthermore it has been noted with any re-offenders who have done the CLTL course, that subsequent offences are less likely to involve violence against another person.
At Channings Wood we have been unable to track the participants after release because we haven’t had the resources to do so. However, I can include here some interesting figures over the three years:
Course completion rates
When you bear in mind the fact that at Channings Wood the sessions took place during evening association and were entirely voluntary, the low drop out rate is even more impressive.
At HMP Foston Hall, HMP/YOI Bullwood Hall and HMYOI Feltham where they ran the ten week pilot Connections programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, attendance was also on a voluntary basis:
- participants completing* 16
- participants completing* 10
- participants completing* 9
* Of the seven participants who did not complete the course, only 2 dropped out voluntarily, the others being transferred or released before the end of the 10 weeks.
“In the past when I read books I used to just put the book down without a second thought about it, now I look for a deeper meaning other than the initial story and now I try to put myself in that position just to see if I would act in the same way.” Participant at HMYOI Feltham
“…I have never done anything like this before. I enjoyed it very much so because it’s fun, you also get to hear other people’s views and you get to hear their comments.”
Participant at C-Far (Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation)
“I thoroughly enjoyed these groups and found them to be an important tool towards self-awareness and understanding of human nature…”
Participant at Henley House (Addaction rehabilitation centre)
“She was having to confront herself, being away, being somewhere strange, being on her own – I related to that.” (Participant at HMP Foston Hall, talking about
The Diary of Anne Frank)
“I’ve let a few skeletons out of my closet and I’m now able to talk about my problems rather than letting them build up. If I’d been able to talk before, I wouldn’t be in prison now. In short, this course has helped me more than I could imagine.”
(Participant at HMP Channings Wood)
“It does appear to me that Connections looks to be compatible with ETS (Enhanced Thinking Skills programme) and a good follow up to reinforce the skills and knowledge gained on ETS. I would hope the course is repeated…”
(Ian Maclachlan, Resettlement Manager for ETS at HMP Foston Hall)
“I would like to thank you so much for giving our staff the opportunity to run the Connections project, it has been a huge success and has had some excellent after effects.”
(Anne Loveday, Head of Learning & Skills, HMYOI Feltham)
“In particular their confidence appeared to have been significantly boosted, and their thoughts stimulated and directed outward – they told me there was an outlet for their feelings.”
(Jeanne Bryant, Deputy Governor, HMP/YOI Bullwood Hall)
“Due to the success of the Connections Programme, Bullwood Hall is examining ways of continuing the course and incorporating it within the Education Department. Academically, the course inspired previously negative learners to want to progress…”
(Diane Koppit, Education Manager, HMP/YOI Bullwood Hall)
“I think it (Connections) has been an extremely valuable addition to the programme and would love it if there was any way it could continue.”
(Mark Earley, Project Worker, Henley House)
Independent research findings:
During 2001 the Arts Council England was asked by the Culture Secretary to explore into the value of using the arts with socially excluded groups. This was to be a national research programme and the example chosen from the south west of England was the Connections course being run at HMP Channings Wood. As part of the research process the consultant interviewed several individually during the10 week course.
“For most of the men that completed the course, there was a time where either a text or something someone had said within one of the subsequent discussions hit a raw nerve or was particularly enlightening. The thoughts and feelings that were triggered had been deeply felt to the extent that the men had continued to think about things even after they had left sessions.”
“Participants felt the course had broadened their horizons, they felt they now read in a different way and for some, the experience had fired up an interest in reading a wider range and different types of books. All were planning on continuing their involvement in literature.”
(Helen Jermyn, Research Consultant, Arts Council England)
“I was impressed at the impact that this programme had on some of the participants whom I have known well to be chronic self-harmers. The enthusiasm with which they talked of the programme and feedback they gave me on the impact that it had had on them was extremely positive.” (HMP/YOI Bullwood Hall)
There are many positive outcomes for participants who have done the ten week Connections course. The following are outcomes that participants feel they have gained:
I hope these quotes and figures have helped you decide to run a Stories Connect programme yourself. Without exception, in my experience the people who have run Stories Connect programmes have become as excited by the results and inspired by the work as, by now, you will have gathered I am.
If you’re still undecided however, you can always ask to visit a group – the Writers in Prison Network Ltd. will be able to tell you which ones are currently running – and take a look at the Changing Lives Through Literature website (website: http://dev.cltl.umassd.edu).
This feature is taken from the first chapter of STORIES CONNECT: Changing Lives Through Stories – The Handbook by Mary Stephenson (Bar None Books 2007) available through Writers in Prison Network.