Jean Trounstine is a distinguished US author/editor of six published books, a professor at Middlesex Community College, a College that provides access to affordable education for a diverse community from all ethnic backgrounds and identities. “Our mission is to empower all learners to become productive and socially responsible members of our local and global communities” they say. Trounstine is a well known and fully respected prison activist. She worked for ten years at Framingham Women’s Prison, where she directed eight plays with inmates: “ When people ask me what inspired me to teach in a prison, I tell them what kept me going was not simply my love for literature and theatre. While it is true that prison is a repressive environment, the one who offers hope in the classroom has the potential to effect change. For many of the women I encountered, education offered hope: and drama, freedom. I felt a chemistry, a link between their lives and mine”. Her highly-praised book about that work in the Prisons of Massachusetts, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison, 2001, has been featured on NPR, The Connection, Here and Now, and in numerous print publications here and abroad.
Trounstine summarizes her experiences in a very clear and simple way: “I began to understand that female prisoners are not ‘damaged goods,’ and to recognize that most of these women had toughed it out in a society which favors others –by gender, class, or race. They are Desdemonas suffering because of jealous men, Lady Macbeths craving the power of their spouses, Portias disguised as men in order to get ahead, and Shylocks who, being betrayed, take the law into their own hands.” Shakespeare Behind Bars is a gripping account focused on six inmates who, each in her own way, discovers in the power of great drama a way to transcend the painful constraints of her incarceration. In addition to her intense work in the Massachusetts State and New England prisons, she has spoken on the same topic around the world, in crowded conferences as well as small workshops: “The world I want to live in does not lock up women and throw away the key. It does not make laws based on ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ It is a world where prisoner can transform their lives through the beauty of the written word, through the music of a line of poetry, and through an idea that soars through prison bars and lives forever.” She is also author of Almost Home Free, Pecan Grove Press, 2003. About the origin of this book, she recalls: “In January of 2000, just after the Millennium celebrations died down, I found a lump in my right breast. I was in Texas, at my mother-in-law’s, miles away from my Boston home. Like many who enter the dark tunnel of cancer, I feared for my life, fought back with treatment and depended on family and friends to help me with hope. My particular nature also took me to the page where I found comfort in writing and a way to express my unique as well as my universal experiences. Thus began a journey, a journey fostered by my innate understanding that art is always most important to the artist when it joins forces with survival. The writing of Almost Home Free first came in long free writes, words pouring out over each other. Then, over the course of the cancer treatment and healing process, the book found its form and words took shape in poems. I think of these poems as a narrative: they tell a year in the life of a breast cancer patient but the underlying story is of family, struggle and a way to live amidst uncertainty. Poem after poem taught me that it is in the moment where the survivor lives most fully. Almost Home Free is the story of how none of us make it home, free.
Furthermore Jean Trounstine co-founded the women’s branch of “Changing Lives Through Literature” program for Probationers , and was a very active part of the Direction of the CLTL conference that did take place in Dedham, 2014. In that occasion the organization printed and distributed a useful CLTL Practices Guide. Who did create the Changing Lives Through Literature program? “Robert Waxler” says, “an English professor, and Judge Robert Kane, a Massachusetts judge, created Changing Lives Through Literature program in 1991, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Trial Court Judicial Institute. It was and still is a very important educational program for Probationers, based on the idea that studying literature can transform lives.”
Since its founding in 1991, the program has graduated over 5000 people who have had the opportunity to read books in a democratic classroom where Probationers, a judge, probation officer and facilitator promote deep and meaningful discussions. “CLTL continued to expand and now has won numerous awards and been featured in national media outlets such as The New York Times, Parade Magazine, The LA Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Today Show. According to Trounstine “The success of this educational program depends entirely on the belief that modern literature is the best tool our society has to explore human identity.”
How does this almost twenty years old program work? Who sponsors it? Trounstine confirms that “The main sponsor is the Massachusetts Trial Court Judicial Institute. His mission is to provide coordinated educational services, skills training, and professional development for judicial and non-judicial personnel of the Massachusett Trial Court. Established in 1998, it meets its mission by developing educational and professional programs for judges and other Trial Court employees and by building networks with the larger academic community. The Probationers may freely ask, o have the recommendation by the Judge during the trial, to be enrolled in the CLTL Program that takes place in their town. The program under the guidance of an academic teacher as Facilitator and a Probation officer, consists in reading aloud and commenting all together a story each week for several weeks. The Facilitator in accordance with the Judge chooses how many weeks and which kind of stories.”
Most programs are comprised of six to ten sessions, with graduation taking place at the last session (first thing in the morning in the first session of the court). Most groups range from a minimum of six to a maximum of twelve probationers. Trounstine insists that “For the success of this program It is important to have a teacher who is enthusiastic and committed to teaching at a level that the Probationers enrolled in the program can understand. The programs usually take place in late afternoon, once a week, in Community Colleges, Public Libraries, High schools or in the Court Rooms. At the end of the program, the Probationers graduate during a public ceremony the Judge hands them the Certificate Of Completion Of “The Changing Lives Through Literature Program”.
Are these programs working? “This past August, a report from the Rand Corporation, apparently the largest-ever meta-analysis of correctional educational studies, found a statistical basis for what some of us have been saying for years. According to Rand, prisoners who receive general education and vocational training are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities.”
Through her tireless work in the Massachusetts prison system, Jean Trounstine enthusiastically discovered that “a study of modern literature enhances readers’ verbal skills through an engagement with language, opens experience to a multitude of perspectives, enriches our sense of human diversity, and makes us self-reflective and thoughtful”, and transcribed her enthusiasm on two books co-authored together with Robert Waxler. The first book Changing Lives through Literature, 1999, a valuable anthology written by notable contemporary raconteurs such as T. Coraghessan Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, and Raymond Carver and the second Finding A Voice. The Practice of Changing Lives Through Literature, 2005 in which Jean Trounstine and Waxler discuss the “how and why” of their unique alternative sentencing program. Along with describing the program’s beginnings and the team approach that made CLTL a success, the authors also give a wealth of practical advice for other teachers. Their sample lesson plans, text suggestions, and discussion of controversies faced by CLTL show readers a way of approaching literature with alternative learners everywhere. The material is drawn from work done by the many practitioners who have posted ideas and experience of the program featured on the program’s website.
Jean Trounstine’s latest book Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and A Prisoner’s Fight for Justice, 2017, has recently hit the stands and was nominated for a 2017 Media For A Just Society Award . It is a searing critique of the practice of sentencing youth to adult prisons, providing a wake-up call on how we must change the laws in this country that allow children to be sentenced as adults. “With skillful storytelling and rigorous research, Jean Trounstine shows us in Boy With A Knife why young people engage in crime and violence, how we can create rehabilitation and redemption for those caught up in the system. This book shows why youth justice should move to the top of our national priorities if we want safe and equitable communities for all Americans”, wrote Piper Kerman, author of the New York Times bestselling Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.
To learn more about Walter Valeri, see articles in issue N1. of The Dreaming Machine https://www.thedreamingmachine.com/shylock-slips-out-of-his-skin-preliminary-dramaturgical-notes-by-walter-valeri/
Featured image: Painting by Giacomo Cuttone.