Former inmate Emily O’Brien says the monthly book club she used to attend, as part of a program at federal penitentiaries across Canada, helped her and others learn to “communicate in a peaceful way.”
“In prison, there’s also a lot of turmoil and a lot of stress,” said O’Brien, who was at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.
But during her time in the book club, which started at Grand Valley in 2010, it “made people very open, and it made people talk about their insecurities, and it made people also find relatability in just different stories in life.”
Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI) was an idea proposed by Carol Finlay in 2008, after her visit to the medium-security Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. Finlay, an Anglican priest and former high school and university professor, proposed the idea to a group of inmates who welcomed it.
When the program expanded in 2010, Grand Valley Institution for Women was among the first to start up its own book club.
According to its website, the BCFI became a registered charity in 2009. Today, the project facilitates three dozen book clubs from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, with hundreds of inmates participating. There are also hopes to have a book club in all penitentiaries.
It’s like any other book club, with a lot of in-depth discussion, but without the wine and cheese.
O’Brien, who’s become an entrepreneur since leaving prison in 2019, credits the book club with giving her and other inmates strength.
“I think because we had that connection through the book club, it actually made us stronger, and it gave us something to feel good about and to look forward to,” said O’Brien, founder of the gourmet popcorn company Comeback Snacks, an idea she said was forged while she was in prison.
‘Curious, thoughtful readers’
At the Grand Valley Institution for Women, as part of the club being a registered charity, it accepts financial donations for book purchases. The inmates get to keep the books, and discussion sessions are led by volunteers like Martha Crealock.
Crealock, a Kitchener high school teacher, has been making monthly trips to the prison for the last eight years. She said there have been great discussions about the books and how they connect to their own lives.
“I really like meeting the other readers as humans, and we don’t sort of talk about how we all got there, but we just sort of engage with the books,” Crealock said.
“It’s so easy to have ideas about what prison is like, and there’s a lot of images on TV and movies that maybe represent our imagination of prison or what American prisons look like. But it’s just been such a lovely club for me to just meet a bunch of people who are curious, thoughtful readers, and mothers, and sisters and professionals.”
Inmates get to choose from a list of 250 recommended novels — many written by Canadian authors — and make suggestions on books that should be included.
Since it began, the club has grown to include a creative writing program with author Lawrence Hill and a reading program that provides books for the children of inmates, a project that came out of another penitentiary.
Themes of redemption
Tom Best, executive director of BCFI, said that often, inmates choose books that have themes with “a sense of redemption” and “adversity that is being overcome.”
“If we really believe that the inmates are going to be reintroduced into society, we really need to provide programs like this that help them build empathy, and to help them with their communication skills and their listening skills as well,” Best said.
“If we believe that people that have been incarcerated are ever going to be reintroduced to society and into the communities in which we all live, we have to do a great deal more than what we have been.”
Best believes the program is important, to help reintroduce people who have been incarcerated into the community.
Finding common ground through books
Carroll Calder, the library technician at Grand Valley Institution for Women, said the book club is one of her favourite programs at the prison.
She said the inmates have been able to find common ground through their discussions.
“We always read books about strong female characters, so hearing that and being able to share that in a world view as well — just to hear the perspectives of the different women, how they grew up, how women are treated in their respective countries, even things such as what being a mother is in all our different lives.”