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Should reading replace prison time?

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John Nordell/Staff/File

(Read caption) Inmates at the South Middlesex Correctional Center in Massachusetts work with books as part of a prison education program. Some courts around the world are now handing out sentences that include mandatory reading for prisoners.

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It may not be cruel, but there's an unusual punishment being practiced in some prisons across the country, and the world: reading.

This month, a man convicted of hiring a child prostitute in Rome was sentenced to two years in jail and required to buy the 15-year-old victim 30 feminist books to help her understand the damage done to her dignity as a woman, including novels by Virginia Woolf and poems by Emily Dickinson. 

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Last year, a Canadian arsonist was sentenced to serve five years in prison – and to read Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath," so she could understand “non-violent means to protesting systems she perceives as unjust."

In 2010, a Michigan teenager convicted of manslaughter in a fatal hit-and-run accident was ordered to read three books per month as a part of his sentence.

In 2010, a Texas drug abuser avoided a possible 60-year-prison sentence and was instead sentenced to probation and to read.

In Brazil and Italy, inmates can shorten their prison sentences through reading, and in Iran, at least one city is trying to reduce the prison population by ordering criminals to buy and read five books each.

Why are so many prison systems doling out sentences involving reading?

Reading books “strengthens the spirit of faith and the will to solve social problems,” Iranian Judge Naqizadeh told state-run news agency IRNA.

At least some jails, judges, and yes, literature professors, around the world appear to agree. In fact, there are many organizations that promote reading as remediation, especially for young or petty criminals, including Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL), a program founded by Robert Waxler, a professor of English at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in 1991 and later expanded to other courts throughout the United States.

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Through this program, thousands of offenders across the US are placed in a rehabilitation reading program as an alternative to prison. There, they attend reading groups where they read and discuss literary classics that may resonate with some of the issues offenders may be facing, including books like "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Bell Jar," and "Of Mice and Men." The idea: exploring themes of anger, love, tolerance, empathy, and liberty, through books.

Not surprisingly, the idea of reading as punishment for criminal offenses has some people rolling their eyes.

"They were shocked at the idea of offenders going on to university campuses to read books for free while the students were paying their way through education," Mr. Waxler, who founded Changing Lives Through Literature, told the UK's Guardian.

"...when you take an idea that involves offenders attending a university campus to be part of a reading group, instead of being sentenced to prison, it asks a lot of even the most thoughtful and socially conscious public," Lady Stern, senior research fellow at the international center for prison studies at King's College London, added.

And of course, not all offenders can read.

But reading as remediation is surprisingly effective – and cheap.

A year-long study of the first cohort that went through the CLTL program found that only 19 percent of participants had re-offended compared with 42 percent in a control group.

What's more, life in prison costs taxpayers more than $30,000 a year, while reading as rehabilitation costs just $500.

Should criminals be sentenced to reading instead of serving time? It's certainly not the only solution. But if literature can transform lives, teach empathy, even make us better people – and studies have proven that it can – then encouraging offenders to read may be an innovative and effective partner to traditional sentencing.