The Maine Humanities Council’s programs in correctional facilities throughout the state serve people who often need the most help in learning about the power and pleasure of ideas. Reading and discussion programs enable troubled men, women, and young people to use literature as a source of new meaning and understanding in their lives.
Humanities programs at correctional facilities can be tricky to pull off. They require the participation and support of facility personnel, as well as a scholar who feels comfortable working in a prison. The Maine Correctional Center in Windham is fortunate to have staff who are committed to helping inmates learn ways of thinking and behaving in the outside world that will make their return to prison less likely. The MCC is also fortunate to have Robert Farnsworth as its Stories for Life scholar.
Rob is a professor in the English department at Bates College. He is a poet, a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, and he has received awards for excellence in teaching. He is also a very kind and sensitive person who deeply respects the people he works with. In reports to the Stories for Life program director, he writes how pleasurable he finds the conversation.
Rob’s students in this setting are prisoners who are on their way out of the system. Housed in separate cottages, they are being primed for life on the outside, with the intent of the MCC staff that they not come back. Stories for Life brings these prisoners together to explore fictional situations similar to ones they have experienced. Talking about their reactions to the stories, characters and narrative styles, and listening to the reactions of others, helps prisoners visualize their own situations more clearly.
“Stories for Life gave participants the chance to see so much,” Rob told the Council, “from the way we tell the stories of our lives to ourselves, and to others, and why; the ways we conceive of destiny and disaster, the ways we are surprised into seeing into ourselves and others. And it gave them what I see as the precious chance to realize themselves as capable, insightful, engaged readers of serious fiction.”
That is the beauty of the reading and discussion model so important to Council programs: that all participants from all backgrounds are treated as serious readers. It is scholars like Rob who, with the help of such authors as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, Andre Dubus, and Flannery O’Connor, truly make a difference.