The idea of bringing Tolstoy to juvenile offenders is flat ridiculous to some, who think they need a tough wake-up call and practical job skills, not what they consider literary fluff.
But the commonwealth spends nearly $80 million a year on juvenile correctional centers, and in recent years more than a third of the people released from those centers were convicted of another crime within a year.
No one’s predicting a miracle cure for recidivism, a national problem. But there’s no cost to the Department of Juvenile Justice for the class. And staff members at Beaumont see a marked change in students’ behavior and goals with the class, said Michael Hall, the principal of the high school there. Some have gone on to college.
Researchers have documented positive changes in behavior, decision-making, social skills, educational goals and civic engagement, according to a study by U-Va.’s Curry School of Education. The study also points to benefits for the undergraduates who study alongside incarcerated youths.
The demand for the service-learning class, the response and the impact it seems to have prompted U-Va. to give Andy Kaufman, a lecturer and fellow at the university, a $50,000 grant to expand his experiment. He hopes to bring classics of Russian literature to more U-Va. students, more people at Beaumont, and more inmates at other prisons in Virginia and nationwide.
Beaumont residents said privately that the course had a profound effect on them. Jonis Romero, just released back home to Woodbridge, said that since taking the class, he thinks constantly about how he wants to live his life. He got a job at a carwash right away and hopes to go to George Mason University. Alex Espinoza, an 18-year-old from Arlington County, said it “helped me acknowledge the little things, not worry about greedy things.”
One inmate told researchers that for the 90 minutes of class each week, he felt like a human being again. “When they leave Beaumont,” lead research assistant Rob Wolman said, “do we want them feeling like human beings or feeling like criminals?”
‘Who am I? Why am I here?’
Kaufman’s first time in a prison found him, in his Jos. A. Bank suit and penny loafers, getting stared down by 15 men in orange jumpsuits. An expert on Tolstoy, he had been invited to a men’s prison as part of a community book festival. He had always thought the humanities could have real relevance to people’s lives.