In 2009 University of Virginia faculty member Andrew D. Kaufman founded “Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership,” a community-based literature course that takes his university students to a maximum security juvenile correctional center in Virginia.
Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership is an educational program in which university students meet weekly with committed youth at a maximum security juvenile correctional center to explore questions of meaning, value, and social justice though life-changing conversations about Russian literature classics.
Participants discuss personally relevant topics ranging from family to death, and success to moral responsibility. These interactions become the catalyst for both groups to learn from one another and share their most intimate human stories, while at the same time forming powerful connections and challenging whatever stereotypes about the other group they may have entered the class with. Correctional center students and university students come away transformed by this unique educational experience—moved by their discovery of the relevance of classical literature, inspired by the humanity in one another, and empowered to pursue lives of greater purpose and meaning.
Having completed its ninth year, Books Behind Bars has been featured on the Today Show, in the Washington Post, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Moscow Times, on Katie Couric, NPR, and Russian national television. Seats at the Table, a feature-length documentary about the program, has been shown at film festivals throughout the United States, in France, and the UK, and in 2020 it will air nationally on PBS.
“When I walked into that building every Tuesday afternoon, I wasn't locked up. It's like for the next three hours I can live, I can be myself, I can open up, I can be me.”
- incarcerated youth participant
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a 20-year-old college student or a 20-year-old resident of a correctional center. You know what it feels like to lose someone you love. You know what it feels like to struggle with family situations. You know what it feels like to try to search for your place in a world that doesn’t always make that easy.”
- Andrew Kaufman
“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
“We are learning from the residents as much as they’re learning from us. They’re humans with hopes and fears and flaws and dreams just like me, but they’re behind bars.”