The title caught my attention on a shelf in the Port Hope library. The Prison Book Club. A neighbor and I started a book club here in town over ten years ago, and I know how much it means to all of us. I had to find out how a book club worked in a prison.
There were two prisons with new book clubs, both in Ontario: Collins Bay and Beaver Creek. I was familiar with Collins Bay, at least as an outsider. When I lived in Kingston in the sixties, I could sometimes hear the umpire in the prison yard calling out on a Sunday afternoon, “Steven Truscott up to bat!”
Ann Walmsley wrote this memoir about the eighteen months she spent co-facilitating book clubs in both these institutions. Her partner was Carol Finlay, who has since set up 22 book clubs inside 15 penitentiaries in 7 provinces, and has begun coaching volunteers in New York and California.
Reading good books, fiction or non-fiction like memoirs, is about seeing things through another person’s eyes. So, while increasing empathy, such books also increase literacy and communication skills. The members of the book clubs discuss characters and themes (such as loneliness, forgiveness, home). They listen to all opinions with respect. The men take turns leading the discussion on a particular book, making sure that everyone gets a chance to express an opinion.
The inmates communicated with authors. They wrote Roddy Doyle with questions after reading The Woman Who Walked into Doors. Doyle wrote back with lengthy answers. After they read The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill came to the prison to talk to them.
One man’s comment on The Zookeeper’s Wife (non-Jews hide Jews in the Warsaw Zoo during WWll ) by Diane Ackerman was this:
“Good is more contagious than evil. It goes around.”
Another said this about the book club: “It is a refuge away from the status quo of prison life”.
But, it’s a two-way street. If, as volunteers, we have preconceived ideas about inmates being defined by their crimes, some of which are terrible, we learn that inmates are fully human with much to teach as. When asked what she would prefer to do with a spare evening, go to her own book club of women who have been meeting for ten years, or go to the men at Collins Bay or Beaver Creek, Walmsley didn’t hesitate.
“I would choose the prison book clubs. Why? Because so much more is at stake. Anything could happen there that could change their lives or mine. And I am sure that at least one of their comments would stay with me always.”
Part of the success of the prison book clubs is that every man is given a copy of the book they are reading that month. In my book club, we borrow from the library. Who pays for the inmate’s books? A charity has sprung up, and anyone can donate. Visit this amazing site: bookclubsforinmates.com
Do the book clubs have continuing positive influence when the men are released on parole? Just one example: When Walmsley met with one of the men for coffee a few days after his release, the first thing he told her was that he already had a library card!
I love my library in Port Hope, Ontario. It keeps my mind in good company and in a constant state of wonder. The staff greet me like part of the family. Indeed, going to the library is like going home. I remember my father’s advice when I was just nineteen and leaving home for my first job in Montreal. “First thing you do in a new town is get a library card.” Good advice, Papa. It may have kept me out of jail.
Would you consider being a volunteer in a prison book club?