The Prison Book Club

Fingal Libraries
by Fingal Libraries on February 18, 2017.

Ann Walmsley’s The Prison Book Club is a memoir of the two years she spent as a volunteer in Ontario at two prison book clubs for inmates. She is an award-winning Canadian journalist who’d suffered a violent mugging in 2002 when living in London. Because of this, she was initially very reluctant to accept the […]

Ann Walmsley’s The Prison Book Club is a memoir of the two years she spent as a volunteer in Ontario at two prison book clubs for inmates. She is an award-winning Canadian journalist who’d suffered a violent mugging in 2002 when living in London. Because of this, she was initially very reluctant to accept the offer made in October 2010 by her friend, Carol Finlay, to help facilitate the book club in Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, two hours east of Toronto. Walmsley was in a bit of a rut, doing some freelance work and dealing with family health problems. Carol Finlay’s initiative was part of a registered charity, Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI), now a successful nationwide Canadian program.

For the author’s first meeting where she sat in, she was so distracted by her surroundings she has little recollection of the book discussion. Although the BCFI initiative was non-religious, the book club meetings took place in the chapel for reasons of space and security. The organisers worried that this location put off some prospective members from joining the group. One incentive for book club membership was that every participant was given a copy of the chosen book that month, the cost covered by the BCFI.

The running of the books clubs during her time was affected by problems in the prison. At Ann’s third meeting, one of the most vocal members, Dread, is absent and in segregation after an incident. There are a couple of lockdowns, where the prisoners are confined to their cells and the scheduled book club meeting is postponed. The lockdowns give some of the more enthusiastic prisoners time to read the selected book and other writings. During the summer of 2011, the soaring temperatures in the cells and common spaces like the chapel cause unrest, as only offices are air conditioned.

The Christmas period is a difficult time for prisoners, as many are alone and unvisited. Tight restrictions on sending and receiving gifts mean a Christmas card is the main family exchange. One of the men, Gaston, a serial bank robber with previous drug problems, gets emotional and breaks down when talking with the author about his four absent children. For the December book club, two Christmas-themed short stories by O. Henry are chosen, and Carol reads aloud TS Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi”.

The second prison book club arises because after five months two of the most active participants in Collins Bay, Graham and Frank, are transferred to Beaver Creek Institution, a minimum-security prison north of Toronto. They begin a book club there and ask Carol and Ann to help establish it. The atmosphere at Beaver Creek is more relaxed and a few of the prison staff even participate. The prison librarian there is an inmate and he joins the group. The presence of a few white-collar criminals adds a different perspective.

Each book club discussion is intriguing and gives us as much insight into the men discussing it as the book itself. Through Carol’s initiative there is authorial support for the book clubs. Lawrence Hill visits Collins Bay; he is the Canadian writer of The Book of Negroes, an acclaimed historical novel about a young girl sold into slavery in South Carolina in the 1700s. Thirty men attend his visit, double the usual number. Hill addresses his own writing background and the potentially controversial title, which the men discuss themselves at the next meeting. Later the men read Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Ran Into Doors, and the Irish author answers all the men’s questions by email.

Walmsley also conducts individual interviews with six of the most stalwart book club members, who have kept journals for her. It’s the sort of extensive access any journalist would not normally get, and provides an important insight into the men. Each one has a different story of how they ended up in prison, but it’s clear that the book clubs have given them a broader perspective, involvement, and enjoyment.

Other books discussed and debated by both book clubs include some of the most popular book club choices of the last decade:

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Alias Grace by Margaret Attwood

In the book the names of prisoners, prison workers, chaplains and volunteers have been changed, with the exceptions of Ann and Carol. The author met with some of the released book club members before publication to give them a copy. In 2015 she visited the largest UK prison, Wandsworth, to talk about the book with prisoners. The Prison Book Club won the 2016 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Nonfiction last September.

The Prison Book Club is available at Fingal Libraries. The book clubs choices mentioned are also available.

By Fergus O’ Reilly, Howth Library