The Prison Book Club by Ann Walmsley (2015 Penguin)
Ann Walmsely spent years leading in-prison books clubs in Canada. She is a compassionate writer and well-read teacher who inspired inmates to read, to think, and to write journals about the literature they read.
The Prison Book Club is set in Ontario, in and around a series of men’s prisons. Walmsely kept track of the books, the conversations, and the resulting journals, all while interspersing her own story and reactions. It is a good read, one I recommend for anyone considering teaching inmates, or introducing inmates to literature. The books were primarily fiction, excellent fiction, but also some nonfiction. The themes varied but were chosen with her audience quite specifically in mind. In conversations with her friend who started these book clubs—and kept being asked to start more and more, Walmsely reveals as much about herself as she does about the inmates and their lives.
She learns a lot. She learns Canadian prison system rules (so different from U.S. rules); she learns about food and noise and the petty disagreements among men stuck in close proximity. She attempts of overcome many of the barriers between visitors and inmates, like the requirement to carry an alarm to alerts guards of trouble. She is welcomed and encouraged by the prisons’ chaplains and held in high regard by her motley crews.
She focuses on six men, recording their responses and journal entries; she meets a few of them after they are released and learns how the navigate the Outside World. Some of the stories will encourage readers; other will depress.
Walmsley is an excellent teacher. She has read almost everything and knows which books might appeal to which inmate. She listens carefully. She allows the better students, Ambassadors, to lead the class. If college education majors could read this book and use it as a model for their own teaching careers, the world would be a better place. I am a hearty reader but found myself making note of title after title that she tosses into her mix. I can’t wait to start on my new list, and I believe that’s the same enthusiasm she inspired in her inmate book readers. Good job!