Changing Lives Through Literature part 3 of 5: Interview with Sheila, CLTL Student, Boston, MA

The following set of blog posts summarizes the work I have done with an organization called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL). My first post described CLTL, next was an interview with former CLTL student, Ken. This third post, “Interview with Sheila,” highlights the unique interview I conducted while at Boston’s Dorchester Court House. In your opinion, could a similar to CLTL could succeed in Canada?


The Dorchester Women’s Program classes are smaller, but, according to Judge Sydney Hanlon, a smaller group allows for a more intimate environment in which to discuss themes of violence, illness, responsibilities for children, and unthinkable tragedies (Trounstine and Waxler, 56). At the 2009 CLTL Annual Conference, Probation Officer Adita Velasquez would later share a similar sentiment:

In the CLTL classroom, I’m aware of what’s going on with each of these women, and I’m listening to what they tell us about those stories. And the same thing happens again and again: violence. The classroom is a special environment for them. We discuss are how they should handle it, what’s there to protect them, and how they see themselves.

At the same conference, Hanlon stated that she once sat in a CLTL classroom with eight women, all mothers. At some point in each of their lives, all of these mothers had witnessed shootings, and all of them had life insurance policies on their children. “Hearing something like that changes a judge: you don’t see people the same way again.”

Sheila and I also met at the Dorchester courthouse. Sheila is an amateur poet and told me she has not been able to put down Hemmingway since recently graduating from CLTL. Hemmingway is one of her “old favourites.” Sheila contrasted her early experiences in the CLTL classroom with the transition she saw in other students:

There was a lot of closed-minded girls that were in the class . . . there was some girls, the things that we were reading, the words they used, you know, especially like the books about slavery, you know how they used the old-time words. And how they would word it and the girls were like offended. But they learned and they changed and they became more open . . . in the class you could see that everyone became more open-minded.

Sheila is still close with one of the girls from the class, but also shared an interesting anecdote about a chance meeting on the subway:

But I do see a lot of them in passing and I do say hi and things like that. And one time I saw a girl on the train, and she was reading! I had to go up to her and tap her in order for her to put her head up. She had like a thick, thick book in her hand and she was reading.

Unlike Ken, Sheila discussed lasting bonds with her classmates, which is unsurprising considering the Dorchester women’s class is five times smaller than the men’s. Sheila’s anecdote on the train shows that CLTL students also form a lasting bonds with books.

Does it work?

Along with Vasquez, Ken and Sheila also expressed surprise at the effectiveness of the CLTL program, Ken told me, “[a] lot of people they did go into [CLTL] to get the 6 months off [probation]. . . But towards the middle of the class you just want to be there. At least for me, you just really want to be there.” A similar comment came from Sheila, “basically what I did [CLTL] for was to get the six months off [probation] . . . But I found myself liking it.” Although CLTL is for criminal offenders, CLTL creates students engaged in a unique and pedagogical approach to criminal justice. English Bookshop

Does it work? Changing Lives Through Literature was also the subject of a research study (Jarjoura and Krumholz 1998). This study compared a group of 32 former CLTL participants with a control group of 40 regular probationers. A follow-up analysis indicated that only 6 of the 32 men in the reading group (18.8%) were convicted of crimes after CLTL. In the control group, 18 of the 40 men (45%) had reoffended. CLTL graduates were three times less likely to reoffend.

My next post will summarize my interview with former CLTL participant, Veronica. Please leave comments or check other posts I’ve written for the CLTL blog, Changing Lives Changing Minds:

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

Has the Torch Been Passed? A Review of the 2008 Annual Conference

A Different Light: Report from the 2009 Changing Lives Through Literature Conference

Starting and Maintaining a CLTL Juvenile Program: An Interview with Michael Habib

One thought on “Changing Lives Through Literature part 3 of 5: Interview with Sheila, CLTL Student, Boston, MA

  1. One of my favourite testimonials came from Judge Joseph Dever at the 2009 CLTL conference:

    “I was at the deli, and the woman working behind the counter came to me and said that I sentenced her to Changing Lives Through Literature back in the 90s. ‘At that time, social services had taken away my children,’ she said, ‘I had a serious addiction; I was heading for incarceration and death. Your program totally changed my life.’ She introduced me to her coworkers as ‘the man who changed my life.’ She said ‘I never set the world on fire, but I’m alcohol free and drug free, I’m chief of a deli and I got my children back from public custody. My oldest is a sophomore at North Shore Community College, and the other one is a Senior in High School, getting a scholarship to Salem State. God knows I would have never seen them again if not for Changing Lives Through Literature. I’ve credited the program through that process.’”


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