A Letter that Touched Me

I vividly remember going to school the day of the stabbing and being floored by the rumors. I remember going home that night to be completely consumed by the news, calling friends and hearing the rumors. At the age of sixteen, having another 16 year old killed by one of my “friends” was about the most traumatic experiences I’d ever had. The next day at school, the somber atmosphere within our small group of friends was extremely dark.

I’m friends with a lot of people who were at Dartmouth High the day of the event. A lot of them are on my friends list on Facebook, and each April all those friends remind me of the tragedy when they all switch their profile photos to that of Jason. Each April I have been reminded of how much I hated Gator and Karter.

Then, I saw someone posting about your book on my feed. It was extremely negative feedback, asking for a boycott. Then, about a third of my friends list jumped on the bandwagon. However, your book piqued my curiosity for many reasons. I hadn’t Googled Karter in years, so I didn’t know he was released nor did I know he was up for parole. I didn’t know anything about him. I assumed he was gone forever, an old memory.

I bought your book 3 days ago, and finished it about 15 minutes ago. Your book brought back memories that I didn’t even know I had. Your book gave a voice to a person who has been a monster in my mind for 20 years. Your book was absolutely amazingly well written, and what you have done for Karter is absolutely incredible. I haven’t read a book that caused me to feel sick, and caused me to cry both out of sadness and happiness, ever. While I don’t agree with the timing of your book release, I wouldn’t have discovered it without that decision.

I have no way of contacting Karter, and he probably wouldn’t remember me if even I had stood face to face with him. But, if you could let him know that I wrote to you let him know that there are some souls from New Bedford that believe everyone can change, and that I’m extraordinarily proud of him and his progress to become an example for the thousands of others who made a earth-shattering mistake as a child.



                       photo by Emily Breitbart from reading at Porter Square Books                                   

Preview of Boy With A Knife


Boy With A Knife:
A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice

Nearly a quarter of a million youth are tried, sentenced, or imprisoned as adults every year across the United States. On any given day, 10,000 youth are detained or incarcerated in adult jails and prisons. In 1993, one of those teens was Karter Kane Reed, who, at the age of sixteen, stabbed another teenager to death in a high school classroom in a town outside Boston. Convicted of second-degree murder, Karter Reed was sentenced to life in prison.

And that is where the story of  Boy With A Knife begins. This book takes readers on a twenty-year journey, from Karter Reed’s arrest and trial during the “tough on crime” 1990s, through his twenty-year incarceration, to his eventual release in 2013 after he became one of the few men in Massachusetts to sue the parole board and win his freedom. In addition to being a portrayal of one boy trying to come to terms with the consequences of his tragic actions, Boy With A Knife is also a critique of the practice of sentencing youth to adult prisons.

In 2007, from prison, Karter began corresponding with me. We wrote over one hundred letters to each other, and I learned the truth about the boy, who in news articles from the early 1990s, had been condemned as a “monster,” carrying out a “methodical crime.” Instead of a monster, I discovered a fallible human being, a teenager at the time of his crime, who had made a serious, life-changing mistake, but had spent his time in prison maturing into a man who thought each day about the life he had taken, while at the same time fighting the unfair and arbitrary justice of prison officials and the parole board.

Karter’s story raised a swirl of questions about juvenile justice, centered around the sentencing of youth to adult prisons, which led me to write Boy With A Knife, a primer on why we must reform the juvenile justice system, and how we can do it.

Today, Karter Reed is a productive member of society, a homeowner with a steady girlfriend, a steady job, and a college degree. “Yes, he had murdered a boy;” I write in the book, and “yes, he had become a man capable of a truly meaningful life.” If we hope to give such kids a true second chance, creating a just juvenile system must be a priority.

AVAILABLE  APRIL 12, 2016 at  http://igpub.com/boy-with-a-knife/ or request it at your local bookstore.

For speaking or reading engagements, contact trounstinej@gmail.com

Click to read Advance Praise:
 Nell Bernstein, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Judge Nancy Gertner. Piper Kerman,  Dr. Robert Kinscherff, Caroline Leavitt, TJ Parsell, Luis Rodriguez, Shon Hopwood, and Christopher Zoukis.     

Click here for National Book Tour  April-July, 2016


My Dear Friend Joe Dever


Judge Joseph Dever, center, featured with me and our Changing Lives Through Literature class

My dear friend and colleague, Judge Joseph Dever, is in hospice care at home and not expected to live past the weekend. I have never eulogized someone before their death, but Joe and I often joked that he was essentially “my second husband,” and I know he needs to feel my words sent into the world at a time when he is dying.

I worked with Joe beginning in 1992 when together we started the Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program for women. We were inspired by Judge Robert Kane and Professor Robert Waxler who began the program for men in the southern part of Massachusetts. They aimed for an opportunity to help people get out of the cycle of crime by offering them a literature intervention, so to speak. We wanted to give it a shot with women, and so for nearly twenty-three years, Judge D, as I called him in our classes, trooped from Lynn to Lowell every other Tuesday evening for CLTL at Middlesex Community College where we held classes, most often in the president’s office. For twenty-three years, he joyfully climbed into a van with the women and a Lynn probation officer, and rode more than thirty miles to and from the college, because he believed so strongly in this program

I have written many times about CLTL, notably here, but for those who don’t know, the program brings those sentenced by the court to probation into a college literature seminar. It is a very unique collaboration between the courts and education, and while “changing lives” is a large claim, it certainly helps pave the road to new attitudes, abilities, understandings, and intentions—for all the participants. Simply put, probationers, probation officers, judges, and professors sit in a classroom together and discuss books. I call it a “democratic classroom” because all opinions about literature are on equal footing. It’s been called everything from “Books for Crooks” to a program where they “Throw the Book at Them.” Judge Dever always called it “the joy of my judgeship.”

Joe Dever was Boston born and graduated from Boston University School of Law in 1960. He was first a dedicated public defender, something he prided fiercely, and he always told me, “in no uncertain terms:”  There are no better public defender programs in any part of the country than in Massachusetts. He loved the law passionately, almost as much as he loved his family. Joe and his wife Anne (who always organized and appreciated Joe’s lofty spirit) raised a family of public servants. They inspired their four children to fight for the good of others. They relished humor, and they loved their home in Marblehead. A loyal and generous soul, Joe spent many mornings with buddies from his town, eating breakfast, discussing the day, admonishing the Red Sox, and critiquing all decisions made by those in public office.

But Joe knew the law was a foundation for him. Once when I was called for jury duty, Joe told me he hoped very much that I’d make the cut. “Nothing teaches you more about being a citizen than being on a jury,” he said.

Like his uncles, Governor of Massachusetts, Paul A. Dever, and Ted Dever, the presiding justice at Cambridge District Court, Joe yearned to make a difference. He was appointed a judgeship in 1987 by Governor Michael S. Dukakis. He was eventually appointed presiding justice in the Lynn District Court and held that position for more than 10 years.

A 2005 Boston.com article written by Kathy McCabe about Judge D. when he retired from the bench at age 70 (as is required by law) quoted him as saying “My mother believed very much in the dramatic arts.” That is another thing Joe and I shared, a love for the spoken word. After my book Shakespeare Behind Bars came out, Joe stood on the bench in his robes at our graduation ceremony and read from my book to a packed Lynn District Court, quoting me and quoting Shakespeare.

There was no one who could read like Joe. Every semester at the beginning of our CLTL class, Joe read the poem I have on my syllabus from Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s book, In Evidence. Helfgott-Hyett interviewed veterans, soldiers who served in WW II, to create her Holocaust poetry, and after the reading, the class discussed what one has to know in order to understand this poem—what words, phrases, ideas.  Joe’s voice always rang out with the same kind of pain and joy that he contained in all his conversation. A sonorous voice filled with the kind of wisdom and understanding of a life well lived, a life that indeed filled a room.

At the University Theatre
in Harvard Square, I went
to see The True Glory and
I was still in uniform.
When they showed the films
of Dachau, the woman who sat
beside me said, “That’s a lie.”
I was rugged in those days.
I just couldn’t take it.
I said, “Lady I’ve been there.
I still smell the stench.”
And I said it loud and all
the people heard.

Joe’s life was a tribute to language. He lived with dignity, joy, a gratitude for all that he had, and the knowledge that he did change people’s lives. He will be sorely missed by the world. I am proud to say I shared so much of my work with Joe Dever, and to Joe, I say yes, “all the people heard.”


Poetry from Prison or ReEntry 101

There’s a long tradition of people writing poetry behind bars. Besides letters, poems are the written communication used most by prisoners to reach out to others or to communicate with deeper parts of oneself. Some of my favorite prison poets include Ethridge Knight and Jimmy Santiago Baca. But imagine my surprise when my niece who spent not quite a year in a Texas jail sent me three poems from her time behind bars. And she sent them as they were written in a notebook.

Hannah1It’s touching to see how she felt like she had a “scarlet letter” even after a year, how she knew what lay ahead was terrifying, and how there was nothing but warehousing going on for her drug habit.

NO nameHannah

While she’s in her 20’s, she has the wisdom to see how she’s been silenced and has had rights taken away. But what I find profound, is that she also is aware how easy it is to lose hope and motivation–even with a first offense.

Hannah3But perhaps my favorite of her poems is this one. She realizes what heroin has done to her young life. “I’ve been locked behind bars and time has been murdered.”

This is not a new story but it is one we need to pay attention to. Yes, she needed treatment, but jail gave her a kind of death. Now, out in the world, she pays a few hundred dollars a month for probation, drug testing, and the “privilege” of wearing an ankle bracelet.She writes that the costs are broken down like so:

“$65/month for probation fees
$182/month for ankle monitor
$10 per drug test at random
$1400 for SMART residential “treatment” program (jail rehab)
$260 for aftercare
And there’s probably some other court costs and what not
that I can’t even remember at the moment.”

She must take a long bus ride for testing several times a week, and she stays home nights. She still has no real treatment follow-up program to what she went through in jail. Luckily, she has some family standing behind her and has found a place to live, and a few friends to share her world with. But she has no job.ankle bracelet

This is reentry in the United States.