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Prison Program Aims To Change Criminal Minds With Great Books

July 9, 1995

POINT OF THE MOUNTAIN, Utah (AP) _ A few feet from where state prison inmates spend their days punching out license plates, a group of felons is discussing Huckleberry Finn’s definition of thievery.

Leon Hendricks, a heavily tattooed offender, easily grasps the moral distinctions between ``borrowing″ and ``stealing″ made by Mark Twain’s hero. But in Hendricks’ macho world of prison and the streets, ``taking″ is just as excusable as ``borrowing,″ and both are poles apart from ``stealing.″

``Stealing is when you take someone’s stuff when they’re not around,″ Hendricks says, adding a pungent disparaging remark about that particular activity.

``But if you’re taking something,″ he adds, ``you just take it and they can do something about it if they’re man enough.″

``What if someone pulls a gun?″ another inmate asks.

For Hendricks, the answer is obvious. ``Then I ain’t taking it,″ he replies.

In and out of prison four times in eight years for theft and parole violations, Hendricks, 26, was getting ready to be released to a halfway house. He was looking forward to being a father to his three children, but knew he could be back in prison before long (and he was right; within days of being released, a possibly drug-induced rampage landed him in jail facing new criminal charges).

Prisons in the United States, where a higher percentage of the populace is behind bars than anywhere in the world _ 455 for every 100,000 people _ are full of Leon Hendrickses. Why?

``Despite the multitude of differences in their backgrounds and crime patterns, criminals are alike in one way: how they think,″ Dr. Stanton E. Samenow writes in ``Inside the Criminal Mind,″ a book that serves as the inspiration for a unique pilot program at Utah State Prison.

The Cognitive Restructuring Through Moral Literacy program is aimed at changing criminal minds through character education derived from intensive study of great books. It’s how Leon Hendricks met Huck Finn.

The theory behind the program is a flat rejection of the view that criminals basically are victims of societal forces beyond their control.

Rather, as Samenow writes, criminals ``regard the world as a chessboard over which they have total control, and they perceive people as pawns to be pushed around at will.″

In short, criminals choose criminality and they, not society, are to blame. Any attempt at rehabilitation, according to Samenow, must involve radical alteration of a criminal’s self-concept and view of the world.

Since January, selected inmates at Utah State Prison have been reading, completing rigorous computerized study guides and attending discussions with University of Utah student volunteers about such books as ``Cheaper by the Dozen,″ ``Call of the Wild″ and ``1984.″

The first phase of the program, funded by a $25,000 grant from the National Institute of Corrections, involves 25 books and will end in August. But Larry Bench, the research consultant for the state Department of Corrections who conceived and oversees the project, says that is too few books to affect behavior.

Working with University of Utah sociologist Gerald W. Smith, Bench has compiled a list of 100 books that will take inmates a minimum of 3,000 hours to master. They range from classics of literature and biography to ancient and contemporary philosophy and self-help texts _ from Plato’s ``The Republic″ to Stephen R. Covey’s ``The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.″

Bench and Smith rejected works that were too theoretical, ambiguous or inflammatory. ``We were not too interested in including `What’s Wrong With America’s Prison System?′ ″ Bench explains with a laugh.

Participants have not found the program easy. Only 19 of the original 55 volunteers remain active, although 17 of the dropouts were either transferred or otherwise prevented from continuing.

One casualty was a white supremacist who refused to study the life of black leader, journalist and statesman Frederick Douglass. Another, told he was signing up for a ``moral literacy″ program, showed up prepared to discuss ``moral intimacy.″

The survivors are somewhat older and better-educated than the general prison population, Bench said. They include murderers, sex offenders and thieves, and they are variously motivated. But the opportunity to work on the program’s 20 computers and to discuss Chaucer or Homer with attractive young college students are strong enticements.

``It doesn’t get much better than that in prison,″ said Bench, who will evaluate the inmates’ progress with reading, vocabulary and empathy tests. Data on recidivism rates will, of course, take much longer.

But Bench believes he and Smith already have met their main initial goal: to prove that such an experimental program can work inside a medium-security facility.

``We haven’t had one disciplinary incident. In fact, we haven’t had any of the problems we thought we’d have,″ he said. ``We thought the books would be ripped off or destroyed. But to date we haven’t lost one book. Even the people that dropped out sent the books back.″

One enrollee, a sex offender with a graduate degree, said most of the participants are ``currently less violent than the average inmate,″ and primarily were drawn by the reading list and the opportunity to learn to type and become computer-literate.

``On the whole I feel the program is worthwhile as a vehicle for promoting moral reasoning,″ the inmate, who asked not to be identified, wrote in an evaluation of the program.

The university students in Smith’s classes write the study guides using Computer Tutor software and then participate in book discussions at the prison. They give the program mixed reviews.

Several admitted they were frightened at first. Some of the women were disturbed by catcalls as they passed through the prison. But most enjoyed the discussions.

``They wanted to convince us of their views,″ said Krista Simonsen. ``They wanted to change OUR minds.″

Back at the prison, the ``Huckleberry Finn″ discussion continues. Hendricks is being roundly chided for championing a code of conduct he is warned will land him back in prison once he hits the streets.

The exchange is lively, moving one inmate to observe: ``If we had had this discussion in population, it would have resulted in blows and name-calling.″

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