Ann Walmsley’s book, The Prison Book Club, is about her experience with a book club that began at Collins Bay Institution and then extended to several other federal prisons
Book clubs have become integral parts of many prisons in several countries. They are seen as a way to involve prisoners in the discussion of issues and ideas in ways that promote positive qualities such as engagement, clear thinking, and empathy. And the book does include many discussions about the books being read by the clubs. It also introduces readers to many interesting characters and shows prisoners as full and complex human beings. Walmsley’s account, though, is also about how the experience of being in a prison and meeting prisoners in a non-judgmental setting changed her. Prior to the events in the book, she had been traumatized by a serious assault outside her home, and the resulting legal process had also been very difficult, as it so often is for victims.
The following excerpts, used with permission of the publishers, Penguin Random House Canada, are drawn from the beginning and the end of the book.
On her first visit to a prison:
“I was fearful to the point of shock. My peripheral vision closed down and I felt like I was looking through a zoom lens, catching only concentrated bursts of images…
“The men who walked in the door were dressed in white and blue… Those were the inmates? Why were they walking around freely like that? Where were the guards?…
“I have no recollection of what the men said… Instead I was rehearsing in my mind the self-defense maneouvres that I had learned… I was sure we were about to be taken hostage…
“The men seemed equally baffled by my choice to drive such a distance to risk sitting in a room with them….”
On the way home “I asked myself what I had learned in that meeting… Almost nothing, because I was so pathetically scared… I needed to consider what it would take for me to return on a regular basis and get to know the men…
“Fear is judgment. I knew that. It is at the heart of some of the worst social injustices. If the men were bringing their best selves to a book club and trying to live a different life for a couple of hours, I should honour that effort… And then it just came down to a decision not to spend my life living in fear.”
After several years of working with book clubs and getting to know some prisoners, her viewpoint had changed dramatically. Indeed, she met with a number of former prisoners from the club after their release.
“My stack of books from my time in the prison book club occupies a corner of my office reserved just for them… Now all I have to do is look at that stack of books and the men’s voices are in my head, offering surprising insights or making me laugh. ..
“Someone once asked me what I would do with a spare evening, given the choice between attending a book club meeting with my women friends in Toronto or with the men at Collins Bay or Beaver Creek. I would choose the prison book clubs. I would give up the wine and beer, the hot-pear-and-apple crumble and the unusual cheeses to sit without drinking or eating anything in a room with the prison inmates I knew. Why? Because so much more is at stake. Anything could happen there that could change their lives or mine.”
This book helps to humanize prisoners and also to understand conditions in prisons as well as people’s efforts to turn around their lives after being convicted of a crime.
The Prison Book Club was published in 2015 by Viking Press and is widely available.
More about Ann Walmsley can be found at http://www.annwalmsley.com/