A discussion group on Russian literature meets inside the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Facility in Richmond in April. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

Regarding the July 6 front-page article “Tolstoy behind bars: Life meets Russian lit”:

On the surface, college students reading and discussing Russian literature with youths in prison are noble ways to enrich the young lives on both sides of the bars. When given the opportunity to connect with caring mentors, discover talents and develop skills, young people can indeed change their own stories.

But the fundamental flaw is the belief that lives can be changed only from inside youth prisons — dangerous, traumatizing places that certainly harm more than they heal. I was incarcerated as a young person, and I’ve seen how young people can turn their lives around when society makes better investments in them. Why must we wind up in prison before society invests resources in us that can put us on the path to success? The young people reading Leo Tolstoy would have gained even more if they had had the opportunity to meet and grow with those college students before getting in trouble.

If, as one student observed, the only thing separating these young people was a prison fence, then there is no need for the fence. We say “da” to investing in communities so they can respond to the challenges in young people’s lives with more opportunities. But to building more cages for kids, as is planned in Virginia and other states, we say “nyet.”

Hernán Carvente Martinez, New York

The writer is the National Youth Partnership strategist for the Youth First Initiative.