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…
…In Texas, the public have been largely won over by the success rates and how cheap the programme is to run. Instead of spending a lifetime in prison at a cost of more than $30,000 (pounds 19,520) a year, Rouse’s “rehabilitation” cost the taxpayer just $500 (pounds 325).
But it is the experiences of offenders, some of whom have never read a book before, that Waxler points to.
“In one group we read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway,” he recalls. “The story focuses on Santiago, an old fisherman in Cuba, and opens with some heartache: Santiago is not able to catch fish. We talk about him and the endurance he seems to represent, the very fact that he gets up every morning despite the battering he takes.
“The following time the group meet, one of the offenders wants to share something. He’d been walking down Main Street and he said he could hear, metaphorically speaking, the voices of his neighbourhood. He’d been thinking about returning to his old life, to drugs, but as he listened to those voices, he also heard the voice of Santiago. If Santiago could continue to get up each day and make the right choice then he could do too.”
Santiago, a character in a novel, had become the offender’s role model. For many offenders, some of whom have spent half their lives in jail, it is the first time they’ve had a worthy model, says Waxler.
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