Prison book club: a little pocket of honesty

Volunteers at federal prisons across the country are helping inmates foster a love of reading and the art of respectful conversation

Kate Taylor, The Globe and Mail, November 22, 2014

In a nondescript lounge with cafeteria-style tables and a few vending machines, eight men have gathered to discuss a historical novel about a plucky housemaid fighting the plague in 17th-century England. The men quickly point to the parallels with the Ebola crisis and gradually tease out one of the book’s chief metaphors: Anger and betrayal spread through a quarantined village like a contagion.

“The first pages got me. It shows you how much despair – and hope – there is,” one member remarks, describing a scene where the maid offers her stricken employer the thinnest slices of apple she can cut. After a thorough dissection of Year of Wonders, a 2001 bestseller by the American author Geraldine Brooks, they move on to lighter fare and a faster discussion of the popular Swedish novel The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. There are two books on the evening’s agenda because the previous month the club members were in lockdown and couldn’t attend. They spent a week in their cells while guards searched the prison for contraband.

This is the book club at Warkworth Institution, a federal medium-security prison about two hours east of Toronto. Housing about 650 inmates including sex offenders, murderers and drug dealers, it’s the largest federal penitentiary in Canada. At some point, perhaps recently, perhaps years in the past, the men gathered in the visitors lounge have done horrible things.

But nobody here is talking about why they are here. They are talking about books and why they read them.

“Reading a book, sure, there is adventure, there is escapism, lifting yourself out of this reality, which isn’t always kind or welcoming,” says one inmate, a tall man who looks to be in his 30s. “[But] it’s in a purposeful and productive way. It’s better than drugs. It’s better than banging your head on the wall. It’s safe and builds something, knowledge, empathy.”

He makes it sound as though drugs and head-banging might be the real alternatives.

The book club at Warkworth is one of 17 in 14 federal prisons run by a Toronto organization called Book Clubs for Inmates. The group, a non-religious charity, sends volunteers into the institutions to lead monthly discussions and gets private donors to cover the cost of the books. The idea began in 2009 when executive director Carol Finlay, a retired Anglican priest and English teacher, began a club at the Collins Bay Institution, near Kingston.

“I went into Collins Bay. … I thought I would do prayers with the guys in segregation,” Finlay says, recalling how she discovered that nobody in prison needed any more religion. “I had to find something that was small ‘s’ spiritual: They are overwhelmed with volunteers evangelizing them. … I have always been interested in book clubs as a way of forming community. You may not like the book but you get together with people and discuss it.”

Armed only with a template from a prison book club in Britain, Finlay found herself in front of 20 tough-looking, monosyllabic male prisoners who, at the most literary end, had read a bit of pulp fiction. Others had not read any kind of book in years. Nonetheless they agreed to give the club a try. It quickly took off – although at one early meeting, Finlay and a volunteer had to separate two men who got into a fist fight over the book.

“They didn’t know how to listen respectfully,” Finlay says of the Collins Bay inmates. “We realized we had something to give them; what they call ‘pro-social skills.’”

Read the rest of the article here.

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