Sentenced to read

A heartwarming story about the power of reading!

Novel approach: reading courses as an alternative to prison

In Texas, offenders are being sent on reading courses instead of prison. Could it work in the UK?

With one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the death penalty, the US state of Texas seems the last place to embrace a liberal-minded alternative to prison. But when Mitchell Rouse was convicted of two drug offences in Houston, the former x-ray technician who faced a 60-year prison sentence – reduced to 30 years if he pleaded guilty – was instead put on probation and sentenced to read.

“I was doing it because it was a condition of my probation and it would reduce my community hours,” Rouse recalls.

The 42-year-old had turned to drugs as a way of coping with the stress of his job at a hospital where he frequently worked an 80-hour week. But cooking up to a gram of crystal meth a day to feed his habit gradually took its toll on his life at home, which he shared with his wife and three young children. Finally, fearing for his life, Mitchell’s wife turned him into the authorities. “If she hadn’t, I would be dead or destitute by now,” he says.

Five years on, he is free from drugs, holding down a job as a building contractor, and reunited with his family. He describes being sentenced to a reading group as “a miracle” and says the six-week reading course “changed the way I look at life”.

“It made me believe in my own potential. In the group you’re not wrong, you’re not necessarily right either, but your opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s,” he says.

Rouse is one of thousands of offenders across the US who, as an alternative to prison, are placed on a rehabilitation programme called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). Repeat offenders of serious crimes such as armed robbery, assault or drug dealing are made to attend a reading group where they discuss literary classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bell Jar and Of Mice and Men.

Rouse’s group was run by part-time lecturer in liberal studies at Rice University in Houston, Larry Jablecki, who uses the texts of Plato, Mill and Socrates to explore themes of fate, love, anger, liberty, tolerance and empathy. “I particularly liked some of the ideas in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty,” says Mitchell, who now wants to do a PhD in philosophy.

Groups are single sex and the books chosen resonate with some of the issues the offenders may be facing. A male group, for example, may read books with a theme of male identity. A judge, a probation officer and an academic join a session of 30 offenders to talk about issues as equals.

Of the 597 who have completed the course in Brazoria County, Texas, between 1997 and 2008, only 36 (6%) had their probations revoked and were sent to jail.

A year-long study of the first cohort that went through the programme, which was founded in Massachusetts in 1991, found that only 19% had reoffended compared with 42% in a control group. And those from the programme who did reoffend committed less serious crimes.

CLTL is the brainchild of Robert Waxler, a professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. As an experiment, he convinced his friend, Judge Kane, to take eight criminals who repeatedly came before him and place them on a reading programme that Waxler had devised instead of sending them to prison. It now runs in eight states including Texas, Arizona and New York.

In the UK, nearly half of prisoners reoffend within a year of being released from jail. Could programmes like CLTL work on this side of the Atlantic where Ken Clarke, in his first major speech as justice secretary, indicated that more offenders could be given community sentences by putting a greater emphasis on what he terms “intelligent sentencing”?

Lady Stern, senior research fellow at the international centre for prison studies at King’s College London, is not convinced. “Research does show that the public are largely pro-rehabilitation, but when you take an idea that involves offenders attending a university campus to be part of a reading group, instead of being sentenced to prison, it asks a lot of even the most thoughtful and socially conscious public,” she says.

The initiative was initially met with an inevitable flurry of criticism in the US. Waxler and his supporters were described as “bleeding-heart liberals”.

“They were shocked at the idea of offenders going on to university campuses to read books for free while the students were paying their way through education,” says Waxler. “Some even thought the offenders would steal from them. It only takes one person to prove them right, but it’s never happened.”

In Texas, the public have been largely won over by the success rates and how cheap the programme is to run. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison at a cost of more than $30,000 (£19,520) a year, Rouse’s “rehabilitation” cost the taxpayer just $500 (£325).

But it is the experiences of offenders, some of whom have never read a book before, that Waxler points to.

“In one group we read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway,” he recalls. “The story focuses on Santiago, an old fisherman in Cuba, and opens with some heartache: Santiago is not able to catch fish. We talk about him and the endurance he seems to represent, the very fact that he gets up every morning despite the battering he takes.

“The following time the group meet, one of the offenders wants to share something. He’d been walking down Main Street and he said he could hear, metaphorically speaking, the voices of his neighbourhood. He’d been thinking about returning to his old life, to drugs, but as he listened to those voices, he also heard the voice of Santiago. If Santiago could continue to get up each day and make the right choice then he could do too.”

Santiago, a character in a novel, had become the offender’s role model. For many offenders, some of whom have spent half their lives in jail, it is the first time they’ve had a worthy model, says Waxler.

Literacy is a problem. Offenders are unlikely to be sentenced to the programme if they cannot read. However, those with poor reading are not excluded. The groups may read short stories, or excerpts from a novel may be read aloud so that low-level readers can participate.

In the UK, a version of the programme called Stories Connect is running in a handful of prisons with some success, and in Exeter it has recently moved out into the community for people with drug and alcohol problems. But it does not yet have the support of the criminal justice system, so cannot be an alternative sentencing option for the courts.

Retired probation officer Louise Ross voluntarily runs the small group in Exeter. Participants are referred from the Exeter and North Devon Addiction Service, and were, until three-year funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation ran out in April, made to attend as part of a community service order. Now all attendance is voluntary, but stories of how the programme changes lives are no less impressive.

After years of opiate abuse, Steve Rowe, 50, who joined the first Exeter group three years ago, says: “Stories Connect didn’t just change my life, it saved it.” He explains: “We looked at a section of Oliver Twist, the relationship between Bill Sikes and Nancy. One of us pretended we were Bill while everyone else asked questions. The idea was you responded as much as you could from that character’s point of view. It makes you think about what others think and feel, and really helps you to reflect on yourself.”

Mary Stephenson, a writer, who runs Stories Connect, says more funding is needed. To date, in Exeter, 96 people have been through the programme, but of these only 29 completed the course. This, she says, is largely due to the chaotic lives of the participants, many of whom are battling with drug problems, and the fact that the groups are not an alternative to prison, which removes the main incentive.

There are plans, again subject to funding, for the University of Exeter to run a research project into the effectiveness of the programme in the UK, both inside prisons and out. But until then, there are no quantitative results that prove the programme reduces reoffending.

Next week, Stephenson is attending a roundtable meeting with prisons and probation minister Crispin Blunt, at which she will make the point that the programme could be achieving so much more.

“In terms of tackling reoffending, we need both more funding and the political support to explore it,” says Stephenson. “There’s no doubt among the people I’ve worked with that the success in America could be repeated here.”

Waxler agrees: “I think that one of the great testaments of this programme is that it demonstrates clearly that literature can make a difference to people’s lives,” he says. “I already believed that, but I knew it could also be used to rehabilitate offenders.”

Rouse says it is hard to judge how much the reading group should take credit for turning his life around as he’d already made the decision to change.

“I didn’t want to lose my family,” he says. “But the group did give me the guidance and direction I needed in my life, and without it I’d have spent the rest of my life in jail. It gave me a second chance.”

They really should make a movie about this, don’t you think so? AND the biography too, of course.


Subway salesman selling his life story

I love this human interest piece. I find the writer inspiring, the way he sells his story. If I were a passenger in the train I don’t think I would buy the book the first time he approached me, but I probably would the next time I see him.

Author Whose Bookstore Is the No. 2 (or 4, or 5)
Randy Kearse went from being a major drug dealer to selling his story of redemption on the subway, while making new friends.
Published: July 9, 2010

Randy Kearse stepped onto a southbound No. 2 train in Harlem and scanned the crowd, trying to figure out who might be in a buying mood. He strode across the car, pressed his back against the steel doors and cleared his throat: Showtime.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentleman,” he called out.

“I am not begging, borrowing or asking for your food. I don’t represent the homeless, I’m not selling candy or selling bootleg DVDs,” he said, then paused. “I write books.”

A few passengers looked on curiously. Others stared at their hands, at their shoes or at nothing in particular, just not up at Mr. Kearse. He could practically read their minds: Uh-oh — here we go again.

But in a city weary of the relentless, and illegal, subway pitch for money — the emotional spiel, the hand or cup offered from seat to seat — Mr. Kearse is something of a subway sales impresario.

With little or no marketing muscle behind him, Mr. Kearse said he had sold some 14,000 copies of his self-published books in the last three years, at $10 each, mostly through hand-to-hand sales. He has also sold about 4,000 copies of a 750-page, 10,000-entry dictionary of urban slang terms, “Street Talk,” through Barricade Books of Fort Lee, N.J., the publisher said.

Most novice authors would be lucky to sell that many books through traditional and online stores. Mr. Kearse seems to have reached those numbers largely on his own hustle.

“My quota is 35 books a day,” Mr. Kearse said. “If I don’t hit that number, I’m staying out until I do. Overtime.”

Mr. Kearse does it with a well-designed pitch and a salesman’s instinct for closing the deal. But he also has a product that people seem to want.

“This book is about my life, my experiences, the lessons that I’ve learned from the mistakes that I’ve made,” he said, “mistakes that sent me to prison for 13 and a half years.”

Mr. Kearse, 45, went from hustling crack cocaine as head of a multistate crew, to federal prison, to author and urban self-help guru who not only writes books about his experiences but also mentors children, crooks, prisoners and their families on the perils of the criminal life. Or as one of his titles suggests, he has gone from “Incarceration to Incorporation.”

Plenty of authors have emerged from prison with manuscripts. Some even get them published. But instead of fictional tales of sex, money and murder — the stuff of the booming “street lit” genre — Mr. Kearse has assembled step-by-step guides to going legit, or “Changin’ Your Game Plan: How to Use Incarceration as a Stepping Stone for Success” — another of his titles.

That book, and his overall message of redemption, landed him on “The Colbert Report” in 2007, where he held his own in banter with the host over whether inmates should ever be returned to society.

The market for his message is the subway system, the trains that run through Harlem and the South Bronx. His target demographics, he said, are black and Hispanic passengers from the neighborhoods he once flooded with drugs.

On one recent outing, in an hour Mr. Kearse sold about 10 books. Two buyers asked that he autograph the books for a brother or boyfriend in prison. Another bought a copy for a grandson. One young man gripped Mr. Kearse’s hand tightly, said that he had read the book and thanked him.

“What I’m doing now is the same thing, same concept, as when I was hustling; it was just illegal business that I was doing then,” Mr. Kearse said. (New York City Transit also prohibits selling or panhandling on the subway.)

“I try to show people how to use your natural instincts, the same grind,” he said.

Over lunch in Harlem, he described the science of the subway sale:

A sparsely populated train is better than a packed one; it’s easier to work the crowd.

The cars on the No. 3 train are too loud; you’ll have to yell; it’s very unprofessional.

The A and J trains are too big, with too much ground to cover; intimacy is important.

The Nos. 2, 5 and 4 trains through Harlem are the best: the right audience, smaller cars, and long relatively quiet stretches to make his pitch.

Mr. Kearse said the sales provided him with enough income to cover his bills and pay the rent on his apartment in the Bronx, as well as to help out his five children, ages 20 to 23.

But he said what really motivated him to roll his bag of books around every day was the chance to influence lives.

“A guy wrote me a while back and asked, in respect to all the damage that I’ve done, that I’ve left behind, if I think doing good things now changes any of that,” Mr. Kearse said. “You know, I don’t know if I have an answer for that.”

Mr. Kearse, a 10th-grade dropout, said he had built a name for himself on the streets, first locking down the drug trade in a public housing complex in the city, then in North Carolina by setting up a crew of 40 to 50 workers that distributed for him in five cities.

He was indicted on charges of moving more than 50 kilograms of cocaine over two years, he said — allegations he does not dispute.

Since he left prison in 2005, his record has been clean.

“The difference in what I’m doing now is there’s no stress as far as worrying about what the future’s going to be like. Am I going to jail one minute? Am I going to be killed another minute?” he said. “I can stand behind what I’m doing and not feel like I have to hide things.”

One afternoon, arms stretched wide and a book in each hand, he waited for at least a few passengers on a No. 2 train to smile and nod, buying into what he was trying to sell. Thirteen down, 22 books to go.

Would you buy his book if he approached you on the train?

Heartwarming Librarian Tale

Oh, what a lovely story about a boy who stole books and a librarian who ‘encouraged’ him.

Boy Lifts Book; Librarian Changes Boy’s Life

Olly Neal grew up in Arkansas during the 1950s. He didn’t care much for high school. One day during his senior year, he cut class — and wandered into the school library.

As he told his daughter, Karama, recently, he stumbled onto a book written by African-American author Frank Yerby. And the discovery changed the life of a teenage boy who was, in Neal’s memory, “a rather troubled high school senior.”

The book was The Treasure of Pleasant Valley — and it had an alluring cover, especially for a teenage boy.

Neal remembers it being “risque — a drawing of a woman who appeared to be wearing something that was basically see-through. But the symbolism was really great for me at that age of 16.”

There was just one problem: If Neal took the book to the checkout counter, he was sure that the girls who worked on the counter would tell his friends.

More Details
* Olly Neal attended the Robert Russa Moton Training School in Marianna, Ark.
* This story takes place before integration. All of the students and teachers were African-American.

“Then my reputation would be down, because I was reading books,” Neal said. “And I wanted them to know that all I could do was fight and cuss.”

Finally, Neal decided that he ought to steal the book, in order to preserve his reputation. So he did.

A week or two later, Neal had finished the book — so he brought it back to the library, careful to replace it in the same spot he had found it.

“And when I put it back, there was another book by Frank Yerby,” Neal said.

“So I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll read that, too.’ So I took it under my jacket,” Neal said.

“Later, I brought it back, and there was — by God, there was another book by Frank Yerby. So I took it.”

He read four of Yerby’s books that semester — checking out none of them.

But Neal’s sneaky behavior turned out not to have been so sneaky after all.

Attending his 13-year high school reunion, Neal ran into the school’s librarian, Mildred Grady. She had seen him trying to steal The Treasure of Pleasant Valley years ago.

“She told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it,” Neal said.

“She said, ‘My first thought was to go over there and tell him, boy, you don’t have to steal a book, you can check them out — they’re free.’

“Then she realized what my situation was — that I could not let anybody know I was reading.”

Grady told Neal she decided that if he was showing an interest in books, “she and Mrs. Saunders would drive to Memphis and find another one for me to read — and they would put it in the exact same place where the one I’d taken was.”

So, every time Neal decided to take a book home, the pair would set off to the city to find another book for him.

“You’ve got to understand that this was not an easy matter then — because this is 1957 and ’58,” Neal said. “And black authors were not especially available, No. 1. And No. 2, Frank Yerby was not such a widely known author. And No. 3, they had to drive all the way to Memphis to find it.”

But the women’s efforts paid off: Neal went on to attend law school and later became a judge, retiring as an appellate judge of the Arkansas Court of Appeals.

When Grady died, her son asked Neal to tell everyone gathered for her funeral the story of how the librarian nurtured his reading habit as a teenager.

“I credit Mrs. Grady for getting me in the habit of enjoying reading, so that I was able to go to law school and survive,” Neal said.

The Library at Your Nearest Phone Box

Cutest mini library ever – it’s the red English phone booth converted into a community library!

Ringing the changes: phone box becomes mini-library

Village that was set to lose its traditional red phone box and library service comes up with plan to save both

phone box The inside of the converted phone box/library in Westbury-sub-Mendip. Photograph: SWNS

When the mobile library stopped visiting, it was a blow for the villagers of Westbury-sub-Mendip. And when they found out they could lose their beloved red phone box, there was something of an outcry.

Happily a bright spark in the Somerset village (population 800) hatched a clever plan to tackle both difficulties. Why not buy the phone box and use it to set up a mini-library?

Today, the small but perfectly formed Westbury book box was doing a brisk trade. Adults were bringing in thrillers, romances and true-crime books, leaving them on the four wooden shelves and choosing another to take home. Young book fans were hunting around in the children’s section – a big red box on the floor – for Roald Dahl and Horrid Henry favourites.

Parish councillor Bob Dolby, who cleans and polishes the phone box/library with his wife, Lyn, beamed with pride. “It has really taken off,” he said. “Turnover is rapid and there’s a good range of books, everything from reference books to biographies and blockbusters.”

The scheme was the brainchild of resident Janet Fisher, who lives opposite the phone box. She floated the idea at a village tea party in August and the concept was accepted on the spot.

So the parish council bought the box, a Giles Gilbert Scott K6 design, for £1, and Dolby screwed the four shelves into place. A local business donated a sign and a wag added a “Silence please” notice. Residents donated books to get the project going and it became an instant hit, all for an outlay of just £30.

Fisher popped across the road today to swap an Ian Rankin novel. She was hoping to pick up a Michael Connelly book – “Some of the girls said there was one here” – but it had gone. She rejected the book on the life of Fred West and plumped for another American detective novel.

Fisher’s neighbour, Angela Buchanan, strolled over to see what was new. She picked up a Penelope Lively the other day. Nobody has yet been tempted by the audio book she left of Laurence Olivier reading Charles Dickens. “It’s such a brilliant idea. Our nearest library is Wells, four miles away, so if you don’t want to go into the town but have run out of something to read, it’s great you can use this. All sorts of interesting books turn up – manuals, picture books, good literary novels.”

And unlike the library in Wells, the phone box library is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day – and is lit at night. There is a regular check on it to see if some titles are not moving. These are then shipped on to a charity shop to keep the phone box collection fresh.

BT has received 770 applications for communities to “adopt a kiosk”. So far 350 boxes have been handed to parish councils. Ideas for their afterlife have included a shower, art installations, even a toilet. Dolby said he was just pleased that a piece of street architecture in Westbury had been put to good use. “It’s very pleasing that the phone box has been saved but is also being used to provide a service for the village.”

See how they transformed the phone box into a mini library at the original link here and also here.

Hotels That Smell Like Libraries

Books smell so good, a hotel chain is spraying its hotel with a scent specially made to smell like books!

Book that scent

What does a hotel smell like? A book apparently, much to the surprise of SONIA RAMACHANDRAN

WHAT captures the values of chic, culture and discovery? That was a question two young men had to grapple with when they were asked to design a scent for the Le Meridien hotel group.

Edouard Roschi and Fabrice Penot own Le Labo, a store that designs custom fragrances. A few months later, they came up with three fragrances inspired by French femininity, the Greenwich Meridian longitude and an antique book.

French femininity was inspired by the scent of old perfumes while the smell of being on a yacht crossing the sea was the inspiration for the Greenwich Meridian.

The book was chosen. Why a book?

“A book is a symbol of chic, culture and discovery. It could be a photography book about a country or a region or something. Obviously that can be chic and culture intensive. You can learn and discover things from books. If you are curious, you don’t have to travel. Just pick up a book and look at the pictures,” says Roschi.

Why did Le Meridien pick the scent of the book?

“The scent was designed to stimulate the guest experience by engaging in memory and emotions through the sense of smell. The construction and shape of LM01 was inspired by the Earth’s meridian lines as a nod to the origin of Le Méridien’s name.

“The scent was chosen to reflect one of the books as this was close to our core values of culture and art in the widest sense,” says Le Meridien and W Hotels Worldwide Global Brand Leader Eva Ziegler.

Since Le Merdien was founded in 1972 by Air France, Roschi and Penot took a very old copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (the author was a pilot too), and analysed the rich smell of the book.

“We used that as the platform. We added things to the perfume because the smell of the book was too regressive, too clamouring,” says Roschi.

He says they liked the idea of taking a copy of the book to be analysed. “The book was about five years old and it smelled like old paper,” he says.

“Le Petit Prince is such a French symbol and is read to kids and adults alike. It’s about travelling but it is about travelling in a very surreal way.”

Wouldn’t an old book smell musty?

“The original smell is musty — it’s oak moss and smells like mould, like a humid cupboard. That wasn’t enough to make an interesting and engaging perfume so we made it sweeter with amber, vanilla, jasmine and gave it personality with iris.”

The best part, adds Roschi, is that it actually smells like what it is supposed to do.

How does it make a guest feel?

“It starts with you leaving the taxi, bus or whatever you came in to the hotel. You’re struck by the visual welcome and then you are transformed, experiencing something more intimate, more the Meridien experience and the scent adds to that experience.

“You don’t necessarily know why, but at the end of the day you realise that there is a specific smell to the reception, to the welcoming experience. It’s not necessarily something that makes you to say, ‘Oh, that is a nice smell’. People will not just say that. They will say, ‘Oh, it is a nice smell but…’. It’s memorable, sometimes it’s bizarre.

“I think a lot of people will stop and say ‘it’s nice but what does it smell of?’. You can’t describe it in one word. That’s what we wanted as well — to stop and engage people’s curiosity.That is what the new Meridien inspires,” says Roschi.

I’ve featured book scent products here before, so not a new thing in the online market. If only perfume companies would make one for the mass market now!

Oh Billy, How I Adore Thee


I recently went to Ikea and I’m so in love with the limited edition Billy bookcases – the black one.

I have two Flarke bookcases in my room. I chose those over Billy because they are cheaper at RM99 each, unlike Billy which costs RM185 for the normal ones and over RM200 for the limited edition.

Ikea is celebrating 30 years of Billy the bookcase. You can read about it at BBC and Guardian.

Not all is nice and lovely with Billy bookcase, as this piece of news reveals that the factory in Sweden that has been making Billy bookcases will be shut down for a cheaper version in Slovakia.

You can see how people furnish their Billy bookcases on Flickr.

Billy the bookcase is out of my budget currently – not to mention out of my room space – so I’m settling for Laiva bookcase that costs RM75. Would have got one the day I went to Ikea but they were sold out of it. 😦

Bookish Beach Buddies

Some authors chose which literary characters they’d like to hang out with during summer.

Beach Buddies: Authors Pick Literary Partners for Fun, Sun
Sunday, June 14, 2009

We asked authors which book character they would like to accompany them for a day on the beach. Here’s what they said:

Jodi Picoult
I’d spend the day with Mr. Darcy, from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” naturally. Is there any other man who broods so masterfully in literature and who could benefit more from a spirited, lighthearted game of beach Frisbee? And of course, since we’d be on a beach together, I’d greatly enjoy seeing what’s beneath that proper waistcoat of his.

Barbara Delinsky
John Wheelwright from “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” by John Irving. I was crushed when Owen Meany died and, short of bringing him back, would like to hear that John, his friend and emotional beneficiary, has given lasting meaning to Owen’s life. I wonder if the belief in God that Owen’s death inspired has helped John believe in himself as well. A day at the beach would give us time to talk about that, perhaps give us both closure.

Diana Gabaldon
Give me Stephen Maturin of Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander.” Titularly a naval surgeon (ca. 1800), he’s also an intelligence agent and a natural philosopher with a mania for birds, fish, sloths, beetles and other fauna. We could have elevating conversations while turning over sea-wrack in search of sand fleas and nondescript copepods.

Philippa Gregory
I should like to spend a day at the beach with Jake Barnes from “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway. Firstly, Jake is tremendously laid back and cool with an inner sorrow, which would be good for a day, though tedious for too long. He can fish and he loves Nature, so I think we would have a reflective session perhaps from a small boat and then a barbecue of grilled fish and chunky bread. He is a virtuoso drinker, so I anticipate some chilled white to start and a strong red for the later evening. He just can’t bring any of his dopey friends.

Wally Lamb
The cool ocean waters of Cape Cod’s Longnook Beach provide the perfect antidote to a scorching Alabama summer, so that’s where I take young Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We descend the dune, ride the waves and then walk along the water’s edge, collecting shells and talking about our prospective eras: hers, in which a black man’s guilt was a foregone conclusion even with Atticus as his lawyer; and mine, in which a black family now lives in the White House but millions of black folks still live in our country’s prisons. We’ve come a way, Scout and I conclude, but have a way to go.

Who would you pick? I wouldn’t mind a summer romance with a dishy character. 😳

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