Reading as Punishment

It’s been a difficult week. The fire at Notre Dame. The scare at Columbine. The Mueller Report. North Korea, again. How about a little good news?

“Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor.”

The gist of the story is that a group of adolescent students spray-painted hate language and racial slurs on a small schoolhouse in Virginia where black children were once taught during segregation. An insightful lawyer, Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda, didn’t rush to judgment. Instead, she considered the immaturity of the graffiti and concluded it was the work of “dumb teenagers.” She recommended to a judge that their ignorance be punished by a sentence that required them to read a book each month from a list of thirty-five books she drafted and report on it.

Here are twelve of the books on the list:

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

The Tortilla Curtain – T C Boyle

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

12 Years a Slave – Solomon Northup

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

Cry the Beloved Country – Alan Paton

My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok

Exodus – Leon Uris

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

Night – Elie Wiesel

The newly found compassion understanding and compassion the students discovered through their reading was expressed in the essays they submitted about each of the books they read.

This story moved me for several reasons. As a lawyer, I care deeply about justice, but I often question what it is. What is the point of punishment if not to change the underlying behavior of those found guilty? As a writer, I was struck by how powerful books are, how they can be the instruments of change, and their importance beyond entertainment.

I wonder if the lesson here might not have a broader application. What if there was required reading in all prisons? Mandatory reading lists with books like the ones on this list for all students before they become ignorant offenders? Audiobooks could be played when actual reading is impractical.

The possibilities seem endless to me. The prospect of rehabilitative justice being actually achieved and not dismissed as a lofty goal more real is very good news.





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