When Prisoners Read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, It’s Pretty Powerful

The deeper politics of the novel still resonate—especially with inmates—nearly 150 years since it was published.

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“It’s a story about the difference between the head and the heart,” says Brian Troy. The story is Crime and Punishment by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and though it was a difficult read for Troy, the themes were familiar to him. Along with a dozen other men wearing dark blue scrubs, Troy is sitting in a large concrete classroom at the Cleveland Correctional Center in rural East Texas, about an hour north of Houston.

Everyone in the room, all of them convicted criminals currently serving out their sentences, had been assigned to read Dostoevsky’s epic as part of a yearlong course on business skills offered by the Houston nonprofit Prison Entrepreneurship Program. They’re all nodding along as Troy compares his life to that of the main character. “Raskolnikov rationalized killing this pawnbroker,” he says, describing the book’s seminal moment. “I got into this situation trying to rationalize: bend a rule here, bend a rule there, and then it piles up.”

Troy is halfway through a five-year sentence for various economic crimes, committed while he worked as a financial advisor in Fort Worth. His wife and kids have never visited him, and he gets teary when he brings up his daughter. “We realize here that punishment is every day. Every day we miss our families.”

PEP’s course, and the book club, are both an effort to address a fundamental problem in the criminal justice system: the stubbornly high rate of recidivism. After prisoners are released, it’s usually difficult for them to get a job, as many employers shy away from hiring convicted criminals. Since they often lack basic business skills, and since they’re desperate to make money, they often end up turning back to crime to pay the bills. Last year, the Texas Legislature recognized the revolving-door problem and passed numerous bills making it easier for ex-prisoners to find employment. Those laws were championed by the Texas Association of Business, which now considers criminal justice reform to be a part of their mission. TAB figures that men and women would be a drag on the state budget if they returned to prison, but if given a chance to work, they would benefit the community by becoming employees and taxpayers.

To implement this approach, Texas has turned to private organizations, like PEP, to offer educational programming at no cost to the state. The program claims that for every privately donated dollar they spend, the state makes $3.40 in savings on welfare, tax revenues from employed ex-convicts, and child-support payments. And a recent study out of Baylor University found that graduates of the program almost never return to prison.

This is an exceptional feat and speaks to the power of the program to transform inmates into law-abiding citizens. Or, to borrow a term used by teachers in PEP, to “de-gangsterize” their pupils.

Every graduating class of PEP reads Crime and Punishment. The book “provides a powerful platform from which intense discussions are launched,” explained PEP’s CEO Bert Smith, “from the twisted rationalization of criminal behavior by the criminal to the profound psychological and personal consequences of the crime, and ultimately to the role that the love of another person can play in restoring hope in the criminal’s life.” Jeremy Gregg, the chief development officer, said that the sheer difficulty of the book gives the men a sense of accomplishment, which helps in their rehabilitation.

It’s a difficult book, sure, but it’s also a page-turner, as the police investigation unfolds and Raskolnikov is slowly consumed by guilt. “When he went and told on himself,” Gregory Arradondo, an inmate serving three years for a drug crime, told me, “I’m like, ‘Man, you did not just go tell on yourself! Don’t do that man!’ I’m trippin’ out with him!”

But beyond the plot points, the deeper politics of the novel still resonate nearly 150 years after it was published and make for an obvious choice for the program’s participants. Today the liberal-conservative split over crime and punishment is often painted as one of society versus the individual. Liberals tend to look at crime as a product of societal factors like poverty and race, whereas conservatives have tended to focus exclusively on the individual’s responsibility for committing heinous acts. But when you meet prisoners like those in PEP, actively trying to turn their lives around, you see that the truth is in between. They blame themselves and they blame society. And they’re using the novel to help explore the parallels of their lives to that of Raskolnikov, the novel’s anti-hero who grapples with the same issues they currently face.

Take, for instance, Raymond White. The gregarious forty-year-old from Fort Worth, who is close to finishing a seven-year sentence for dealing cocaine, told me that he has been free for only a single year of his life since he turned nineteen. He served fourteen years for robbery and then came out in his mid-thirties with a young daughter to support, but no plan for how to do it.

“I tried to work,” he told me. “Man, I had so many felonies that I really couldn’t get a job.” He worked on a trash truck—he said that the company “loved my work”—and he remembers the supervisors chuckling as he ran behind the vehicle, eager to prove his time in prison had no bearing on his work ethic.

But the background checks kept him mostly unemployed, and at home, little had improved over his fourteen years away. “A lot of people wrote me off. My grandmother had died. My mother was living in Portland,” he explained. “The environment I went back to was the same as the environment I had just come from. It was no good for me, because once I realized people wouldn’t hire me, and I didn’t have no way of making no money, I started back selling drugs. And that life didn’t last long.” They caught him in less than five months.

“I don’t have a problem with working, but society didn’t—” He pauses. “I couldn’t say they wouldn’t give me a chance.” He pauses again. “They wouldn’t give me employment, a chance to show them I could make a change.”

Although Dostoevsky does not have Raskolnikov commit murder out of his own economic desperation, many of the men in PEP told me that the character’s lack of mental control felt relevant to the way they had been driven to commit their crimes. Raskolnikov feels a pressure to succeed from his family, and a lack of love and support from the world around him, causing him to spin out of control. “We do things on impulse, spur of the moment, or certain circumstances outside of ourselves,” said Jason Torres, another program participant.

White saw his crimes as a reaction to his failure to find a job. Not everyone in the program had such a straightforward explanation. Take 53-year-old Dean Sprenkle, on a 3-year stint for cocaine possession. He attended the University of Houston, where he tried to read Crime and Punishment and gave up. Now he has finished it, and like the protagonist, who believes himself to be a kind of superman and kills an old pawnbroker and her sister, Sprenkle told me that he “had these insane ideas I never shared with anybody, and then I committed crimes based on the ideas.”

Sprenkle moved with his family during high school from Pennsylvania to Baytown, Texas. “It was a huge culture shock,” he said. In Pennsylvania he had been class president and captain of the basketball team. “I moved down here and I was nothing,” he said. “I never really adjusted.”

Sprenkle identified strongly with the book. “I had all these ambitions. I started college, but then I went to drugs. I just lost focus,” he told me. “It was just that insane thinking, like the character [Raskolnikov]. I justified everything. The laws didn’t apply to me, as long as I wasn’t hurting people directly. But indirectly, everything I did was hurting people. The families that I sold drugs to. My family. I didn’t realize all the collateral damage.”

Sprenkle’s daughter was a teenager when he was first locked up and now she’s close to thirty. She wrote him a letter that Sprenkle painfully paraphrased: “‘You came home and said you loved me . . . and then you went right back to prison. If that’s what love is, I never want anyone to ever love me.’” But she ended the letter, “‘I’ll always love you, because you’re my dad.’”

The one theme from Crime and Punishment that almost everyone in the program mentioned was love. Raskolnikov’s emotional isolation synced up with their memories of how they ended up committing crimes, and the character’s affection for Sonya—the former prostitute to whom he confesses—synced up with their hopes for life after prison.

When 35-year-old Kinshana Cartwright—who’s serving 10 years for robbery—read Crime and Punishment, he focused on Sonya’s decision to travel with Raskolnikov to Siberia, where he was to serve out his prison term. Upon arrival, Raskolnikov is still stubborn, and he doesn’t make friends with the other inmates, but she is widely adored, and eventually he falls in love with her and experiences a form of redemption.

“He just started realizing the love, and so he was ready to start showing compassion,” Cartwright told me. He related it to his own family—he has four sisters, ranging in age from 4 to 33. “They keep in contact with me, and it makes me want to get out and love them,” he said. “Family is important, because at the end of the day, they are the ones that are gonna be there.”

But, of course, not everyone in the program has family on the outside. So the men are encouraged to find a sense of family amongst themselves. Every time one speaks in front of the class, he first dances down a central aisle to the claps and cheers of the others. He’s given a cutesy nickname. During my two visits, I met Porky Pig, Dancing Sugar Bear, Precious, Peppermint, Lollipop, Peaches, Queen Latifah, and dozens more. By the time he committed murder, Raskolnikov had secluded himself from other people. Here, the men are encouraged to be silly in front of one another so that they can bond as a family.

Before each inmate is released to a program-sponsored transition house in Dallas or Houston, he dances down the aisle one last time. The lights are dimmed and a video camera is brought out. The inmate speaks to the camera, describing his personal trajectory and what he will try to remember every time life on the outside gets tough. Then he invites up to three friends to give him a pep talk on camera. There’s no talk of the business plans that they came to this program to develop. Words like “strength” and “light” and “you” are repeated in a sermon-like rhythm. When the last man has finished, the lights come back on. The inmate takes the tape. He’ll watch it again when he is out in the world.

To see more photos of the students enrolled in PEP’s program, click here

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