Plexus News Banner
Thursday Complexity Post
February 26, 2015


Can Literature in Lock Up Reduce Recidivism?


Free Minds is a prison book club started 13 years ago by Tara Libert and Kelli Taylor, former journalists who believed that reading good books, discussing them, and putting private thoughts into prose and poetry could help prisoners change their lives during incarceration and after release.


In a Washington Post story by Robert Samuels, three club members in their 20s, recently released after years behind bars in Washington, D.C., tell how reading and writing helped them turn their lives around. All three began getting in trouble in their early teens. They were charged with serious crimes, tried as adults, convicted and sentenced to lengthy terms. According to a 2007 report by the CDC, juveniles tried as adults are 34 percent more likely than youth tried as juveniles to return to prison.


Adult recidivism rates are also discouraging. The Bureau of Justice Statistics tracked 404,638 state prisoners from 30 states who were released between 2005 and 2010 and found more than two thirds of them were re-arrested within three years of their release and more than three quarters were re-arrested within five years. Studies showed the most perilous time for getting into trouble was in prisoners' first year getting out of prison.

 Many teachers and researchers think reading and discussing literature can help people convicted of crimes develop empathy, expand their horizons and reflect on their own lives. An Urban Institute report found prisoners who took post secondary education reoffended at significantly lower rates. Robert Waxler, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Jean Trounstine, professor of humanities at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, co-founded Changing Lives Through Literature. Trounstine taught literature and writing at a high security women's prison, and eventually directed women inmates in their own plays based on classic themes. Waxler, concerned that our culture seems to marginalize literature, convinced a judge to sentence male offenders aged 18 through 44 to a literature course rather than jail. Individual changes were encouraging and the program grew. Early evaluations showed literature students had a 19 percent re-arrest rate compared with a 45 percent re-arrest rate for a control group of similar offenders. Authors studied included Jane Austen, Jack London, Earnest Hemingway, Maocolm X, and Shakespeare.


Many prisons lack libraries, and The Prisoners Literature Project has been sending books to inmates for years. A Capitol Hill Times story by Leigh Ann Smith notes the strong relationship between literature and incarceration-Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote when he was behind bars. The story describes the work of Seattle-based Books to Prisoners, which sends thousands of books to incarcerated people in Washington and across the country. A note from a grateful recipient, quoted in the story, read, "Books allow us to live vicariously, to feel, to acknowledge, emotions that have much scar tissue.


The three young members of Free Minds spoke at a Washington D.C high school, not only to warn about the consequences of their own wrong turns, but to read memoirs and poems they had written and tell students of the comfort and wisdom they found in books. Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler was a favorite. Reading together also created relationships that became a support network for life and job hunting after jail. When a skeptical student asked why a former offender had let himself succumb to chaos rather than taking charge of his life, the  young man replied, "you have a good head on your shoulders." The Free Minds website has several success stories. One offender had been incarcerated at 12, another had done time in solitary. Another, Antwan, talked about maintaining optimism, saying, "Shoot for the moon. If you miss you're still gonna land among the stars. ".



Remember PlexusCalls!



Friday, February 27

1-2 PM Eastern Time

Large Systems Change: Coherence and Convergence

Guests: Steve Waddell and Tom Bigda-Peyton




Creating large change systems: this is the first of two calls.The second call to continue the conversation will be on March 6. Participants are free to attend either or both of the sessions.


Large system change, sometimes called transformation science, is a growing field of knowledge and practice. Many initiatives are addressing big messy problems like sustainable energy, health care, climate change and education. These initiatives are worthy in their own right but can miss opportunities to create a greater collective impact. How can the efforts of multiple initiatives be brought to scale and coherence in order to enhance the effectiveness of individual projects? How can synergies be developed, duplicative effort be addressed, and gaps in effort be filled? A way to approach this challenge has arisen from work related to sustainable electricity, from which these guests and colleagues have generated a framework that is applicable to other issues as well. Join us for a conversation on this topic by Steve Waddell and Tom Bigda-Peyton. Each has nearly 30 years experience working on a range of change issues.



Friday, March 6, 2015

1-2 PM Eastern Time

Action Networks: Global to local structures for change

Guests: Steve Waddell and Tom Bigda-Peyton


This is the second of two calls on system change. While change always requires local action, change efforts are almost always heavily influenced by large contexts such as national conditions and-with increasing globalization-global ones. New approaches to organizing change move beyond traditions of hierarchy and build on multi-stakeholder strategies and inter-organizational networks. This discussion will build on 20 years of work with such strategies, highlighted in the book Global Action Networks, and will provide examples from U.S. healthcare reform.




Steven Waddell, PhD, focuses on collaboration and networks among organizations and institutions in business, government and civil society to produce innovation, enhance impact and build new capacity. His clients and project partners have included The Global Knowledge Partnership, the UN Global Compact, the World Bank, Global Reporting Initiative, the Ford Foundation, Humanity United, Civicus, International Youth Foundation, USAID, International Research and Development Centre, and the Forest Stewardship Council. He is a principal of Networking Action and lead steward for the Ecosystem Labs, which develop large change systems. He has a PhD in sociology and a master's in business administration. He is author of several articlesand other publications, including the books Societal Learning and Change: Innovation with Multi-Stakeholder Strategies and Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together.


Thomas Bigda-Peyton, EdD, is a system coach and consultant working to catalyze innovation and whole-system engagement in large organizations and networks striving for collective impact. Tom uses methods such as collaborative problem-solving, action learning, and positive deviance to promote culture change in industries such as healthcare, government, and forestry. As a practitioner-researcher for 25 years, and currently as a Partner at Second Curve Systems in Boston, his clients have included multiple healthcare systems, the Federal Aviation Administration, Fidelity Investments, the government of Ontario, and the Forest Safety Council of British Columbia. He is co-author of the books From Innovation to Transformation: Moving Up the Curve in Ontario's Healthcare System and Safety Culture: Building and Sustaining a Cultural Change in Aviation and Healthcare. Tom holds a doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Intervention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he worked with two pioneers in the field of organizational learning and system dynamics, Chris Argyris and Don Schon. He also holds master's and bachelor's degrees from Harvard.





See all upcoming PlexusCalls on the Plexus Calendar. Subscribe to the PlexusCalls or Healthcare PlexusCalls podcasts. Or, visit the Community section of for the audio archive.  


Follow us on Twitter          

 Like us on Facebook 


Plexus Institute

1025 Connecticut Ave, NW Ste 1000 

Washington, DC  20036

Phone: 888-466-4884

...fostering the health of individuals,

families, communities, organizations,

and our natural environment by helping people

use concepts emerging from the new

science of complexity


Join Plexus 

  Find us on Facebook  Follow us on Twitter