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For Jailed Parolees In Mass., A Program That Gives Time Off For Good Reading

(Daniil Kuželev/Unsplash)
(Daniil Kuželev/Unsplash)

The judge emailed us during the afternoon. She had to go to a meeting. She wouldn’t be there for the beginning of class at 5:30 p.m., but she wanted us to know she’d show up later.

By 5:45 p.m., I was discussing “Assimilation,” a terrific E.L. Doctorow short story, with the other members of our “Changing Lives Through Literature” class: two Suffolk Country probation officers and eight men on parole after being released from the various state prisons, where they’d been residing after committing various crimes.

At 6:00 p.m., the judge quietly came through the classroom door. One of the students looked up from the story, smiled and loudly said, “All rise!”

The judge laughed, too.

In the third semester of my association with the class, I’m still a little uncomfortable with the title of the program. In our classroom at Bunker Hill Community College, we’ve read lots of fine stories, some powerful poems, and, thanks to a spectacular lapse in judgment on my part, "The Great Gatsby." I wouldn’t bet that the literature has changed the lives of any of the guys on parole, though one of the probation officers, an ex-Marine, has acknowledged that he wouldn’t have read the stuff I picked on his own. I choose to take that as a positive observation.

“You mean I get to walk in the front door of the courthouse, and then when the thing is over, I get to walk out the front door, too?”

But the experience of sharing as equals their reactions to poems and stories with the folks they’ve previously known only as representatives of the state? That has to be worth something to the guys on probation, right?

Beyond that, students who complete the semester are eligible for a reduction in their time on probation, which I’m sure they regard as a life change for the better. And certainly, some of those guys have gotten some fun out of the opportunity.

Halfway through the first class with which I worked, the judge told the guys that at the end of the semester there would be a kind of graduation ceremony in one of the courtrooms at 3 Pemberton Square. They’d receive a certificate, and they’d also get a book, courtesy of Library of America, which helps to support the program.

“Hold on,” one of the guys in that class said. “You mean I get to walk in the front door of the courthouse, and then when the thing is over, I get to walk out the front door, too?”

He, like his classmates, had previously only left the building through the back door that led to the parking lot, where, cuffed, he’d been put in the van that would take him to prison.

At those end-of-the-semester ceremonies, I’ve talked with other judges who’ve participated in the program. They say they value the opportunity to get to know the students as people. The judges tell me that too often their work is a matter of processing the men who come before them as quickly as possible.

“Next.”

[Judges] say they value the opportunity to get to know the students as people.

I wish I could say my experience with “Changing Lives Through Literature” has been without disappointment. It hasn’t. One of the most thoughtful and vocal students in the second group with which I worked failed to show up for the final class meeting. The ex-Marine probation officer told me the young man had been arrested again.

“We won’t be seeing him,” the probation officer said.

“If I’d had to pick one man who’d make it through the program, he’d have been the one,” said the judge.

I guess she figured he’d fooled us. And maybe he had. Some of them do, I guess. But there are two ways to regard that student’s absence from the final class. The fact that he’d reoffended is an invitation to suppose he hadn’t changed his attitude, let alone his life. But who knows what he’ll pick up to read, now that, once again, he’s got plenty of time to do it?

Maybe we’ll get him next time.

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