Prison Book Club

Fifteen minutes into our discussion of Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, Harold raises his hand. We were in the cleanest, air conditioned classroom of the prison’s vocational building, but the fan was blowing directly above Harold’s head. “Would anybody mind if we shut this fan off?” Shutting the fan off would definitely warm the classroom.  But all twenty of us–seventeen inmates, two faculty and me (the college chaplain)–understood that Harold just wanted to hear the conversation better.  We agreed to shut off the fan.

This is par for the course in our book club discussions at the men’s prison 15 miles from our college’s campus. As our faculty lead discussions on books such as Plato’s Republic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Martian, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the men lean forward in their seats, not wanting to miss a word. They are thoughtful, intelligent men who are hungry for opportunities to learn.  Our faculty love teaching in the prison. The men who attend our book club have renewed our vocation as educators.  Every time we are with these men we witness the liberating power of education. After class, each man expresses his gratitude for us coming to read books with them and oftentimes they write us heartfelt thank you notes.  Here are some quotes from the men about our book club:

“I felt like a free man for those two hours. The time went by so quickly.”

“We, as prisoners, are rarely the recipients of altruistic acts performed by strangers; therefore, in the rare occurrence when we are, not only do those acts connect us, albeit loosely, to society, but also they affirm our humanity.”

“Having the opportunity to read material that I normally wouldn’t is a breath of life infused into my soul…The collaborative open dialogue of the book club allows me to grasp on to the very thing which my closed prison environment was built to strip away, little-by-little, year after year…my humanity.”

“This book club has given a forum for those intellectuals among our population to gather and fellowship, as well as, challenge ourselves and each other. Perhaps the group’s greatest virtue is that the club is diverse and welcoming of people from different walks of life. In a profound way, your contributions have brought together men whom under normal circumstances may not associate, and so you’ve provided us all with the opportunity to grow beyond just the knowledge provided by the books we’ve read. Knowledge we glean from each other.”

Currently, there are many disturbing cases where books are being banned from prisons, in spite of evidence that reading builds empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills and reduces recidivism. We feel fortunate that our local state prison continues to let us run this book club.

Would you like to support the program? If you would like to purchase a book for an incarcerated man in our book club, please follow this link to review our wish list of upcoming books we have been approved to read.  If all the books are purchased, you can also support these men by buying a gift card that will be used to buy books we are approved to read in the future. All our books need to be paperbacks and go through an approval process at the prison.