Refuge in Prison is a Book Club

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!”

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

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.


Ann Walmsley

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?


20 comments on “Refuge in Prison is a Book Club

  1. An uplifting story, Diane. Good books can also help us fly away from imprisoning circumstances. I’m glad these prisoners have books and book clubs to turn to.


  2. Diane: Excellent piece and very thought provoking. Would absolutely be interested in volunteering in a prison book club. I also like the comment your Dad made about finding the library in a new place. Library has always been “home” for me too.


    • Catherine, I wonder if Carol Finlay has started a prison book club in BC. I will be seeing (meeting) Ann at our local Indies Day on the 30th, and will ask her about that. I would very much like to put you two in touch. Let’s see where this goes! I can see you doing this.


  3. Hi, Diane – thank you for including me. I enjoyed your post and went to the website where I found – among other things- a few wonderful books I think I’d enjoy. Thanks.


    • Carol, thanks for mentioning the books on the website. You’ll find an incredible five pages of bibliography in The Prison Book Club, if you borrow it from the library. (And you are always included!!!)


  4. Diane, thank you for visiting my site. I feel really uplifted by your report on Book Clubs in Prisons. I have taken the liberty of making a copy which I will convey to my book club later today. Sally


    • Sally, how wonderful you belong to a book club. I’d love to know if you are in Canada or the States. Your site is very interesting. You might enjoy one of my earlier blog posts called The Sixth Sense.


  5. I agree our local library here in Port Hope is a wonderful place. I just checked out and started reading The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys about a prisoner of war camp in the 1940s. I would recommend it to any book club.


  6. An inspiring article Diane. If I wasn’t already leading a writing workshop in a jail, I can certainly see that facilitating a book club would be a very rewarding experience, and I’d absolutely consider it.


    • Sue, thanks for your comment. I really value it coming from someone who has been leading a writing workshop in a jail for several years. I’d like to hear more about that sometime.


  7. Will definitely pick up a copy of this book. Thank you for your excellent post! And yes, I would very much enjoy volunteering in a prison book club.


    • You won’t be disappointed. If you go to their website, you can contact the Director who can give you information about prison book clubs in your area … if you want to follow through with this.


  8. Great idea. I looked up UK prison book clubs and found myself reading Anne Walmsley’s interview with the Independent newspaper! She is starting work in UK prisons.


  9. Thank you for forwarding this Diane. I will order “The Prison Book Club” from the library. Thank you for making me aware of it.

    Elizabeh Pitura


  10. Thank you for this post! While I have not read books with inmates, I have facilitated book discussion groups with low-literate adults, and loved the experience. Avid readers don’t always realize that many people go through life without ever “conversing with” texts or conversing with others about texts. For many it is a revelation.


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