TURNING THE PAGE: Aurora women graduate city’s new sentencing program centered on reading

Shameika Felder, center left, and Lana Hattensty, center right, speak with Susan Achziger, left, who is a facilitator in the Changing Lives Through Literature program, and Zelda DeBoyes, Court Administrator for the City of Aurora, before the Changing Lives Through Literature graduation, April 22 at the Aurora Municipal Center.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Over the course of 12 weeks, four women — who were balancing typical lives, court-ordered treatment and maneuvering the criminal justice system — learned a lot about themselves, each other and literature.

“When I walked in I felt like a criminal,” said 28-year-old Lana Hattensty, who pleaded guilty to a battery charge in August 2018. She was among the first group of graduates of the new “changing lives through literature” program available to some municipal offenders in Aurora.

Hattensty, like the other graduates, said she plans to read more because she believes the program was life-changing. She and the three others will have their probation reduced for successfully completing the program.

Hattensty also completed a separate domestic violence program as part of her sentence, according to city attorneys.

She said the reading program has kept her busy in recent months.

“It turned out to be more than we expected it would be,” Hattensty said, recalling one of the nights when she showed up to the meeting “in a bad place” and broke down. From those around her, she said “there was nothing but love.”

She also said she’ll continue to read after completing the program.

Susan Achziger, an English professor at Community College of Aurora, facilitated the meetings. While she’s taught college students for more than two decades, she’s never led a program quite like “changing lives.” But she said she has a soft spot for young people caught in the justice system, and she believed she could put her teaching skills and training as a life coach to work.

She was right, participants said.

“They changed so much,” Achziger said of the four women in the program. “We grew a bunch.”

Shameika Felder, right, helps Olivia Dominguez pin her flower on before the two graduate from the Changing Lives Through Literature program, April 22 at the Aurora Municipal Center.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Achziger chose the reading material. She assigned two novels: “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Night” by Elie Wiesel, and two short stories: “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs and “When the Other Dancer is the Self” by Alice Walker.

Those reading materials are easily accessible and have a bevy of talking points, Achziger said. It made for easy discussion throughout the 12-week program.

When three of the four women showed up to the graduation ceremony at the municipal court building last week, they embraced each other with hugs. They’ve become friends.

Shameika Felder, 29, is a firm believer that the alternative sentencing structure works. She landed in the program after an altercation between herself and a fast-food employee one night when she and her friends were picking up food after a night of drinking.

Of the reading material, Felder said “The Monkey’s Paw” — a short story about how unexpected consequences can come of simple actions — sticks with her the most.

“There are always consequences behind what you do,” she said. “So you have to treat people with respect and kindness.”

Felder brought her daughter, boy friend and a handful of close family to the graduation. Balancing the “changing lives” program and life wasn’t easy she said, noting that when her probation officer asked her if she wanted to participate Felder wasn’t even sure she could make it work with nobody to watch her daughter. But she said her boyfriend stepped in so she could make the meetings and complete the readings.

Olivia Dominguez and Kyra McCormick also graduated from the program.

More than 3,500 people across the country have gone through “changing lives through literature,” which started at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 1992 as the state was looking for alternative sentencing options.

A study following the first 32 participants of the program found the rate of recidivism among those in the program was significantly lower: about 18 percent, compared with 45 percent among 40 others on probation.

Judge Peter Frigo, who read all of the materials alongside the four women, can attest that the program was eye-opening for him, too.

“The books were deep, but they were meant to be that way,” he said, highlighting that the program is an opportunity to see people grow from the situations that land them in the criminal justice system.

“At the end of the day you usually say something like, ‘I hope to not see you again,’” he said. “It’s a sentence and you never see them again.”

But watching people change — “as cliche as that sounds,” he said — shows that “there is a difference between a criminal and somebody who makes a mistake.”

“It’s a lot, and no easy task on their part,” he said of the graduates.

The four women thanked Frigo for his involvement, saying he felt like more of a peer than a judge during their meetings. They gifted him a pair of book-themed socks.

For Councilwoman Allison Hiltz, who initiated the Aurora program, the graduation was 17 years in the making. She was sitting at her grandmother’s kitchen table when she first read about a local version of the program that had started nearby. She said since that day she’s dreamed of helping start a program.

That became a reality when she was elected in 2017. Hiltz was able to persuade fellow council members to approve the pilot program in August with the support of municipal court staff, including Presiding Municipal Court Judge Shawn Day.

At the graduation, Day said the group of four — who were celebrated with a sheet cake, flowers and the praise of about 20 city staff — was just the beginning. The program will continue.

Felder said she wants to continue to be involved in the program because it was so helpful to her. She recommended to staff that maybe she’d be able to talk to the next group about how impactful the reading group was for her.

Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report.