I first met Jean Troustine when I was researching a new novel and needed to know about women in prison. Not only was Jean smart, funny and full of every fact I needed--and every fact I didn't know that I needed--but she invited me to participate in Changing Lives Through Literature, an award-winning sentencing program featured in The New York Times and on the Today Show. Sitting in a room with around 15 women on probation, a probation officer and Jean, we all discussed my novel, and discussed our lives, and when I left, I was frankly exhilarated and every perception I ever had about women and crime was turned on its head. Since then, we've become fast friends.
Jean's a prison activist, professor emerita at Middlesex Community College, and the author of Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women's Prison, based on her ten years at Framingham Women's Prison, where she directed eight plays with prisoners. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Almost Home Free, and the co-editor of the New England best-seller, Why I'm Still Married; Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes. On the steering committee for the coalition for Effective Public Safety in Massachusetts, she explores and explains the criminal justice system for Boston magazine, Huffington Post, and more.
I'm totally honored to have this amazing woman on my blog (and even more jazzed that we are friends.) Thank you, Jean!
I am always am haunted by something before I write it, and I imagine it's the same for you as well. Tell us, what made you know you had to write this book?
The day I received my first letter from Karter is still embedded in my mind. I remember sitting in my office at the college where I teach, and beginning to examine the envelope. Like all letters from prisons (in Massachusetts, in my case), there was a stamp that told the world the letter was from a prison and warned readers to be wary. So I was a little anxious opening it. In fact, as I read the letter, I began shaking. But now, when I look back, I don’t think it was just fear. I think I knew unconsciously something incredibly important in my life was about to happen because of that letter.
Karter was so smart, so amazingly articulate, and that piece of paper pulled at me so much I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I kept wondering how could this person I had never met before actually reach out of that letter and touch me? But it happened. He did. And he sounded sincere. I felt conflicted because I was aware of the weight of answering him. I called a friend before my class began and read the letter to him, wondering all the while. Karter told me so more than words. Oh, he told me facts: he had been sentenced as an adult at 16 for a murder he committed in a Massachusetts classroom. He was now 31, having spent half is life in prison. He asked for help for a female friend. But that wasn’t it. Partly, it was his language and his ability to string together words so elegantly. I could not believe the man who was writing to me was the same person who was called in Internet stories, a “monster.” He was no monster, but he had killed someone. I felt something like fate, and I felt something I have come to call “cognitive dissonance.” I wanted to understand the contradiction. Who was he, why had he killed a boy, how had he lived in prison, and was he the same or different from thousands of other kids who are sent to adult jails and prisons? But I also wanted to know how he could sound like every really smart student I had ever taught.
What was the research and the writing like for you? Tell us about Karter Reed and your involvement with his case.
The book really evolved. The first draft was written in the voice of “Oh my God, I met a murderer.” In some ways it had the passion I felt reading novels and watching evocative TV shows, but the voice wasn’t quite right for the whole book and my agent at the time, said nope, won’t do. Now I realize that it was my discovery that I wrote and I needed to do that, but it wasn’t my ultimate voice for the book. However, discouraged, I rethought the book. The next draft was written in a year or two, along with a few years of letters to and from Karter. His story got me interested in researching juvenile justice issues and why indeed we allow kids to be sentenced as adults. By year five, I almost had a new agent, and then she died. By year six, I had a brilliant editor with my publisher IG, and he asked me to expand the book. He was 100% correct. But at the time, I thought, oh no more rewriting? I have to say, it truly took seven years to reach this milestone, because the people I met, the material I read, and the issues I learned about, all made the book stronger. And Karter Reed helped me as his letters enlightened the issues I then delved into; his letters helped me see what was at stake for a child who grows up behind bars. We ended up writing more than a hundred letters to each other; I’d like to think I was one of the forces on the outside who helped Karter stay motivated when times got tough. I testified for his parole; I interviewed his family; and I cheered for him every step of the way. I still do.
You've also worked at Framingham Prison putting on plays, something you wrote about in Shakespeare Behind Bars. Can you talk about that please?
My work with women behind bars turned me into a prison activist. And lately, I’ve become more of a prison abolitionist. I think we need to contain some people, for sure, but not in the kind of conditions that we currently hold people in where women are at threat to hang themselves because they can’t see their families and won’t get out of prison for years. I brought some joy and some intellectual challenge to a group of females at Framingham Women’s Prison by teaching and directing plays. We performed them for the whole prison. We did Shakespeare, Aristophanes, Clifford Odets, Jean Giraudoux, and adaptions of Hawthorne and other classic writers. This was not therapy, but like all art, it was cathartic. Eight plays in ten years. It was what gifted me with the understanding that most women I met did not need prison to teach them a lesson. They knew their crimes. They punished themselves every day. They had made lousy choices, and most were in for crimes involving drugs, bad choices, or men they followed into trouble; many were subject to vile harassment. Theatre gave them a way out. It turned me on to the fact that it is a crime sending most women away from their children instead of supporting them in their communities with programs that teach them life skills, offer educational programming, and build job readiness. We need to see the face behind the crime, and as Karter taught me, no one should be defined by their worst moment in time.
And you work for this wonderful organization Changing Lives Through Literature, which I was so thrilled to attend. What astonished me so much was how the women related to the book--and to me, and how great our dialogue was. Are there more programs like this out there?
Changing Lives (CLTL) is a unique book group which is designed to reach those in conflict with the law. A judge, a probation officer, a professor, and a group of probationers all sit together discussing books, in what we call a “democratic classroom” where all opinions are equal. When we read your book, Pictures of You. What was wonderful for you was that the women were honest about what characters they liked and identified with and who they didn’t connect with. There’s a no BS quality in CLTL and life experience levels the playing field. The program allows participants dignity and respect as they discuss characters’ lives and consider choices for behavior they might not have considered in their own lives. Reading a book about a family allows us to think about our own families and yet talk about the book. Sometimes it has a healing quality, and there’s an amazing community that forms from reading and discussing literature. Through the years since CLTL began, along with Massachusetts where we currently have twenty programs that link Education to the Courts, we have had programs in California, Arizona, Texas, Kansas, Virginia, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and in England!
It's terrifying to think that ten thousand or so youth are incarcerated in adult prisons. Is anything being done about this?
Actually, 250,000 kids are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults every year across the United States. My book unravels how we got to where we are and why it isn’t working. And there are some organizations fighting hard across the country to change laws, change the racial disparities we have in our justice system, and pass new laws to treat kids as kids. It’s slow-going. I’m writing an article now on “the state of juvenile justice” so to speak. The Supreme Court has ruled on cases that have helped the treatment of juveniles in the past years, keeping them away from the death penalty and away from life behind bars with no parole. But we also have states that have refused to raise the age of adulthood to eighteen. New York is one of two states—the other is North Carolina-- to automatically prosecute 16 and 17-year-olds as adults, despite risks to youth and public safety.
What's obsessing you now and why?
Obsessing me is how to ever again find time in the day to clean up my house.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
How are the people in the community where Karter committed the murder responding to my book coming out? The answer is: this was a brutal crime and a horrible tragedy and it is still a reminder of how it ripped apart people’s lives. In no way do I (or for that fact does Karter) justify what he did in 1993 when he killed Jason Robinson. There are still deep wounds and Karter’s development and change as a human does not take away the loss of life. Still, I believe that we must take care of all our children, or as James Baldwin said, more eloquently than I, “For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” Education is the first step; then change policies as we change minds.
Karter has become someone who I would be proud to live next door to. You can listen to him here on Radio Boston. You can find out about my book and my book tour at my website www.jeantrounstine.com and you can join my twitter chat on April 12 using the handle @justicewithjean and that day buy my book at its debut price on Amazon! After that, support your local Indie!