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.
First off I thought this was some kind of punishment programme: can you imagine forcing people to read nothing but Eragon for two months? But no. This is based on the Changing Lives Through Literature programme, and the general idea is that repeat offenders are offered the chance of redemption through books.
I like it. I can hear my dad now going on about some wooly minded leftish nonsense, but it’s interesting, and it seems to work, which is more than can be said for prisons.
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.
I wonder who gets to decide what’s on the reading list?