Book Clubs v. Jail Sentences

What would happen if instead of serving a jail sentence, a person convicted of a crime could attend a book club? Leah Price recently published an essay, "Read a Book, Get Out of Jail," in the New York Times about Changing Lives Through Literature, a program formed in 1991 in Massachusetts and now used in eight other states in which convicted felons and other offenders attend bimonthly, mandatory seminars led by literature professors.

The essay brings up a number of interesting issues surrounding the program. For instance, Price talks about how the book club has historically been a white, middle-to-upper class pastime, and how this program redefines those demographics. She also talks about the idea of literature-as-escape. Traditionally, reading has been associated only metaphorically with escape from confinement. In this program, literature becomes a vehicle of escape literally.

While the positive aspects of such a program can't be overstated, one can't help but think of the (Foucauldian) irony in this situation: how elements of the education system can so easily be interchanged with elements of the prison system.


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  1. Interesting timing for this post - I've wondering and thinking about whether or not books may help to keep kids out of jail - and if so, how to initiate and engage in something of the sort.

  2. Anonymous12:11 AM

    Thanks for sharing this post with your readers and spreading the word about CLTL. For many of the participants, reading was a punishment--something mandated by the education system. In this program, however, reading becomes a reward and something in which the probationers look forward to participating. Education, like prison, isn't a cure all. The value of CLTL is that it encourages participants to examine their own lives and decisions through the stories being played out in literature. For many, seeing themselves in literature is a transformative experience and more profound than a simple act of education.

    I encourage anyone interested in learning more about the CLTL program to check out the official website at and the official blog at


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