Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership

The nationally syndicated TV talk show Katie, hosted by Katie Couric, features Andrew Kaufman’s innovative program at the University of Virginia, taking the Russian classics to places they rarely see. “Books Behind Bars” is introducing young men behind bars to the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

donate1“Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership” pairs university students and incarcerated youth and transforms both groups through the power of conversation about the things that matter most: how to find meaning and purpose in life. The improbable—yet oddly apt—catalyst for this endeavor? A Russian literature course created in 2009 by University of Virginia instructor Andrew Kaufman, and currently co-taught by Kaufman and his colleague Rob Wolman, at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center.The program is successfully building bridges between students from very different worlds, and encouraging them to embrace their differences as well as similarities.


“Books Behind Bars is the ultimate example of service learning and learning through doing, one of the most brilliant and highly effective I’ve encountered.”
—Ken Bain, international education expert and best-selling author What the Best College Teachers Do and What the Best College Students Do

“Never before have I felt so connected to a class, so motivated to give my all, and so transformed not just as a student but as a human being.”
—anonymous university student feedback

“The whole Russian Literature Project, whenever I was in there, I didn’t feel like I was incarcerated.”
—incarcerated youth participant

“[The course] helped me understand messages that people have been trying to relay to me for my whole life, but it would go in one ear and out the other. But when you actually break it down in the sense of a story, and you start putting it together, you really learn from it.”
—incarcerated youth participant

For fourteen weeks every spring this group of about 35 young adults—the free and the incarcerated—meet weekly to analyze and discuss the work of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and others. In doing so, they confront together the enduring questions great literature provokes: What makes for a happy life? How I can be true to myself? What is my responsibility to others? Given that I will die, how should I live?

Now in its sixth year, the program has made a remarkable impact on the university and the Virginia juvenile-justice community. Somehow a course on Russian literature, taught in a correctional facility, has become a shining example of how an innovative college course can become a potent force for effective educational and societal reform. Demand for participation in the program is high, both at UVA, where students have to submit applications for course admission, and at Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center, where only residents with outstanding behavior are granted admission. UVA and Beaumont have both enjoyed positive feedback from students and favorable notice in the local, national, and international press. At a time when “education reform” seems more a political catchphrase than a viable possibility, the Books Behind Bars partners have been lauded for educating and reforming.

Washington Post feature about Books Behind Bars Read article
NPR Feature about Books Behind Bars, With Good Reason Radio. Listen
See More Books Behind Bars in the news

How Our Program Is Changing Lives
Research on the Books Behind Bars Program
What the At-Risk Juveniles Are Saying
What the University Students Are Saying
Expansion Plans and How You Can Help