You, Me and Boo Radley

Students and inmates find common ground in classic literature

  • The W&M Literature and the Law Program
    The W&M Literature and the Law Program  Professor Paul Marcus, fourth from left, and law students share ideas over dinner for the monthly book discussion they'll lead later that evening with inmates at the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail.  
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At first glance, Professor Paul Marcus’s Literature and the Law program looks like your average book club. There’s the circle of chairs, the eager dissecting of characters and motivations, the sharing of personal stories and, of course, the after-discussion cookies.

But there’s one big difference. When this monthly book club meeting is over, some of the participants go home to their campus apartments and the rest go back to their jail cells.

For the past seven years, Marcus has brought a small group of William & Mary law students to the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail to lead book discussions with inmates. The mission is simple: to break down the barrier of mutual distrust and misunderstanding between future attorneys and those incarcerated.

The program serves a real purpose, says Marcus, an internationally recognized expert in criminal law and procedure. “These are people who have been in the criminal justice system and they’re affected by it. I think it makes a difference in the way they view the whole legal system and also the way they view people who, quite frankly, have had much better chances in life than they’ve had.”

Josh Treece ’09 volunteered with the program during law school and says that the experience is eye opening for everybody involved. Treece had never stepped foot in a jail before and had never spoken with actual inmates. Before the first discussion session, he expected to be more on edge and even intimidated by the environment.

“All the inmates are incredibly nice. They all want to learn. They all want to sit down and be treated just like others,” says Treece. “Having real-world contact with people in jail builds a connection that you don’t get in law school.”

The students and inmates discuss classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, and contemporary best sellers like A Lesson Before Dying. The program is so popular at the jail that there’s a waiting list. Inmates show up with pages and pages of notes, some having read the books two or three times.

Treece was impressed with the depth of the discussions. “They see angles none of us would ever have picked up on,” he says. “A formal education is one thing, but it’s not going to substitute for general life perspective.”

Marcus is well known at the Law School for his infectious teaching style and his insistence on getting students actively involved in the learning process. In addition to being selected as the first to hold the Kelly Professorship for Excellence in Teaching, he has been honored with the University of Arizona's Distinguished Citizen of the Year Award, the College of William & Mary's Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, which is given in consideration of "characteristics of heart, mind, and helpfulness to others," the Williamsburg Big Brothers Program Mentor of the Year Award, and the Law School's Walter L. Williams, Jr. Teaching Award.