Former addict Andy French said literature had changed his life
Exeter University is researching how a programme in which prison offenders read classic literature can help prevent reoffending.
The Stories Connect course uses stories and poems from Shakespeare, Steinbeck and Dickens among others.
It is already introducing offenders at Parc Prison in Wales and Feltham Young Offenders Institution to literature.
It is based on the Changing Lives programme in the US, which aims to use literature to reduce offending.
Sam North, a lecturer from Exeter University's English Department, told BBC News: "Any civilized society runs its prisons not only as punishment but also as centres of healing.
"I think the power of literature to heal is proven.
"But we want to find out which texts are most suitable for which kinds of offenders."
Mr North says literature also helped addicts and other sick people.
He said: "Literature is an incredibly broad thing and heals all of us all the time.
"We're interested in how you deliver it in a highly charged way to get a result."
Mary Stephenson, formerly writer in residence at Channings Wood prison in Exeter, said she had seen at least two prisoners change after reading classic novels.
"It made them realise they weren't thick or stupid and they were just as much an audience for that kind of writing as anyone else.
"That gives them a great boost and a lot of them started to do education."
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and the modern adventure novel Touching the Void by Joe Simpson all resonated with offenders in different ways.
One of her former students, Andy French, who spent several years in prison for drug offences, is now studying for a teaching degree.
He said: "All these theories made sense of my life.
"Now I know why I took that route and it has helped me understand myself."
A programme in which prison offenders read classic literature could help prevent reoffending.