Lectures · Literacy & Democracy · Panel Discussions

Literacy Behind Bars

story by Andrew Clark

According to four local educators, there seems to be one sure-fire way to help lower the number of former inmates returning to prison. The solution? Promoting literacy behind bars.

On April 8, Suffolk University and the Boston Athenæum hosted a panel discussion,  “Prison Literacy,” at the Athenæum as the fourth installment of the 2010 Civic Discourse Series, Literacy and Democracy. The discussion featured presentations by poet Jill McDonough, professors Steven Spitzer (Suffolk University), and Robert Waxler (UMass Dartmouth) and was moderated by Jack Gantos, a Newbury Honor award-winning children’s book author, and author of Hole in My Life – a memoir on his time spent in prison.

Panel moderator Jack Gantos

Waxler, co-founder of the Changing Lives Through Literature program that provides literature seminars for inmates, discussed his efforts teaching literacy skills in prison settings. According to Waxler, those in his literacy program had a significantly higher chance of not returning to prison upon being released.

“I’m convinced that literature can save lives,” Waxler said. “This type of program can mitigate violence. Some people have no other way to express themselves other than with hitting. From this type of program, we all benefit.”

McDonough, a celebrated poet who has taught at Boston University’s Prison Education program since 1999, shared examples of her students’ work while discussing the positive effect exposure to literacy has on many of the inmates she has taught in the past years.

“Taking away books doesn’t make punishment any better,” McDonough said.

Spitzer, a sociology professor at Suffolk who is finishing a book based on his work behind bars, concluded the panel, discussing the importance of literary skills in helping prisoners reflect on their lives.

“Some of the most powerful writing comes from people in prison,” said Spitzer, who is also the founder of the Jericho Circle Project, which helps incarcerated men turn their lives around. “(Literacy) gives people the opportunity to open up and reflect. It gives men a mirror to look into.”

Following the presentations, panel members took questions from the audience ranging from the attitudes of prisoners toward learning to how prison administrators are responding to literacy programs for inmates.

Additional Information

The final installment of the Literacy and Democracy series, “A Mission, Not a Market: One Laptop per Child” featuring Nicholas Negroponte, will take place on Tuesday, April 27 at 6 p.m. at the Boston Athenæum (10 1/2 Beacon Street). Reservations can be made at 617-720-7600 starting April 14th.

2 thoughts on “Literacy Behind Bars

  1. It was a wonderful panel. I want to note that one of the things I have most admired about Bob Waxler and Changing Lives Through Literature is that it is not typically a prison-based program, but one designed to be an ALTERNATIVE to incarceration. If we offer smart and successful alternatives, we will have to concern ourselves less with “prison literacy” as there will be fewer people incarcerated. That is the best goal of all!

  2. Thanks, Susan, for your comment — I’m glad you enjoyed the panel. We have had many positive responses to the program, and all of the panelists. Certainly literacy and literature can help many people, including those who have lost their way.

    Janice Thompson
    Director of Institutional Advancement
    The Boston Athenæum

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