Editorial: Program finds a way to change lives for the better

Friday, July 13, 2018

Whenever you can positively redirect the life of someone who has been convicted of a crime, it’s a good day.

We are fortunate enough to live in a progressive state that has tried a range of programs to divert convicted criminals from doing straight prison time to going straight.

One such program began when the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth collaborated with the local probation office to create what came to be known as “Changing Lives Through Literature.” The program is based on the belief that individuals who read about characters in literature may find a connection between themselves and those characters. This program’s participants — judges, probation officers and instructors — believe that bringing carefully selected works of literature to criminal offenders may help these men and women gain insight into their lives and behavior, while learning that they are not alone with their problems.

How many of us have been affected by a powerful book that continues to speak to us years later?

It may not be for everyone, but we’re told the program helps reduce the recidivism rate among certain segments of the prison population. Former offenders credit the program with giving them a second chance.

The success has been good enough over the past quarter century that liberal and conservative penal systems throughout the U.S., including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia, have embraced the program.

That includes Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region, with the help of Greenfield Community College.

Two of the college’s leaders have been honored for their efforts to help probationers through literature.

Former GCC President Robert Pura and current Dean of Humanities Leo Hwang received the Franklin County Bar Association’s Liberty Bell Award for using Changing Lives Through Literature here.

Pura and Hwang helped to implement the program at GCC four years ago with the aim of using the college’s resources to help yet another group of non-traditional learners by transforming the lives of individuals on probation through reading and group discussion.

Participants include probationers from our region who come out of the Orange and Greenfield courts, plus judges and probation officers, and the bar association is convinced it works.

According to Pura, the program gives those who complete it a certificate, and “it builds confidence in hopes of building a bridge toward greater involvement in the collegiate pathway.”

Hwang has been running the program since it began. Among his duties are choosing the books for participants to read and leading discussions on the material.

According to Hwang, the program gives participants an opportunity to explore themes of truth and empathy.

“It’s an opportunity to really have these participants explore literature as a way to see themselves and the world around them,” Hwang said, adding, “My part is just a small bit in a much larger network.”

If the program can get some of the people convicted of crimes back on the right path in their lives, it’s a success. GCC’s participation enhances the program by acclimating participants to education and how it can improve their prospects. Through GCC’s involvement in the literary program, these inmates can learn education and career guidance can make a difference by channeling former inmates into new jobs or occupations, steering their lives in a new direction.