Juvenile offenders turn to Russian literature with gusto

Juvenile offenders turn to Russian literature with gusto
1931 illustration by Alexander Surikov for Fyodor Dostoevsky's A Gentle Creature. Photograph: 50 Watts under a CC licence

16 May 2013

A detention facility might be one of the last places on earth you’d expect to find a Russian literature class, but inmates at the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Centre are clamouring to enrol in a course that covers everything from War and Peace to Crime and Punishment.

Although there’s no guarantee that participants will see the error of their ways and commit to leading crime-free lives, staff members at Beaumont claim that the free classes, which are run by the University of Virginia, have led to a change for the better in students.

University researchers have noted an array of positive behavioural changes, including decision-making, social skills, educational goals and civic engagement. Some students have even continued on to higher education.

One student, Jonis Romero, who has just been released, told The Washington Post that the class helped him to think about how he wanted to live his life. Since leaving the facility he has started work at a carwash and hopes to go to George Mason University. Another inmate, Alex Espinoza said it “helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things”.

The class has also benefitted students at the University of Virginia who have the opportunity to study alongside those at the correctional centre. Andy Kaufman, who heads the class, has even created a Books Behind Bars course to teach University of Virginia students how to help juvenile offenders relate to literature

Although this is not the first literature class to be offered to offenders in the US, Kaufman thinks that Russian novels tend to resonate more with prisoners as their authors often asked “the accursed questions — who am I? Why am I here? Given I’m going to die, how should I live?”

Source: The Washington Post