UVA Students Take Books Behind Bars to Teach and Learn Life Lessons

Jun 2, 2017

With growing national concern about this country’s enormous prison population, there’s new attention on a program that puts University of Virginia students behind bars to study Russian literature with those who are serving time.  Sandy Hausman reports that Books Behind Bars is now the subject of a documentary.

UVA students head into one of Virginia's juvenile prisons to teach Russian literature and to learn about life.
Credit Rosalia Films

A series on You Tube has fun combining street culture with high Russian literature.

As the music from Masterpiece Theatre plays, a young African-American man closes a book and addresses the camera:

“What it do, Blood?" he asks. " Welcome to Thug Notes, your main hook up with classical literature summary and analysis.  This week we’re keeping it real with Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.. Now C&P is the story of one of the baddest white boys in western literatures – my boy Raskolnikov or Rody as he liked to be called.” 

But at the University of Virginia this combination is no joke.  Andy Kaufman, a lecturer in Russian language and literature, takes 18 students into one of Virginia’s juvenile detention centers, once a week for ten weeks, to explore this very subject with 30 residents.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re a 20-year-old college student or a 20-year-old youth in a correctional center.  You know what it feels like to lose someone you love," he explains. "You know what it feels like to struggle with family situations.  You know what it feels like to try to find your place in a world that doesn’t always make that easy.  Those are the issues of Russian literature, and those are universal.”

He recalls, for example, a discussion of Crime and Punishment – the story of a 20-year-old man who committed murder.

“When he confesses to Sonia – a prostitute – instead of slapping him or rejecting him she weeps, and she embraces him.  He says, ‘How, after I’ve told you that, can you respond in that way,’ and she says it’s because I can see that you are one of the unhappiest people in the world.  We were talking about that scene, and one of the residents raises his hand and says, ‘Where’s my Sonia?  Where’s the person in my life who would see the worst of what I’ve done and still love me?’ 

Kaufman says that moment conveyed more about compassion in Dostoyevsky’s work than he could have shared in ten lectures, and Charlottesville filmmaker Chris Farina agrees.  By making a documentary about Kaufman’s class, he hopes to change the way our country deals with kids who commit crimes.

“If I can share the love and compassion that people felt for each other, if an audience gets that sense of understanding people as individuals and not as types in a group, I think it would change policy.”

And he recalls his own conversation with a prison guard:

“When he was young he was actually on the same path as some of these residents," Farina recalls.  "He somehow found himself in a library and formed a relationship with the librarian who showed him the wider world through books.  What he said about these kids is, ‘We’re not necessarily going to save them all, but we’re going to save some if we try.  We know what the result is if we don’t do anything?  What’s our choice?”

For the UVA students, who are charged with facilitating discussions with residents, Kaufman says the course offers lessons in leadership and an opportunity to move beyond stereotypes about criminals.

“It’s not a stereotype.  It’s a person you have a relationship with now, and the complexities of their lives, the complexities of their situation really come through.” 

For prisoners it’s a chance to briefly escape.

“When I walked into that building every Tuesday afternoon it’s like I wasn’t locked up.  It’s like for the next three hours I can be myself" explained one young inmate.  " I can open up.”

And Kaufman says the program often builds self-esteem.

“Many of them have not been successful in traditional classroom environments, and yet many of them are brilliant and creative and talented in many ways that they themselves didn’t even know.”

Chris Farina says he’s still raising money to finish the documentary, called Seats at the Table.  He hopes to release it next year, and Kaufman hopes to use the film to promote similar courses at other universities nationwide.