Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Book Discussion in a Prison Library

Last week I visited ECIW , a prison on the Eastern Shore, and sat in on a prisoners' book discussion. I entered the room where the discussion was taking place, and sat quietly in one corner just listening. Of the 6 inmates, 2 European Americans had tatoos on all visible places except their faces. Of the African Americans, one was definitely a candidate who qualified for AARP membership, one was a 23 year old, and the other 2 were somewhere in between.

They were discussing the book "Hole in my Life" one of the titles our system received through the Great Stories Club, a reading program that connect troubled teens and young adults. Our experience has shown that many of the adult prisoners are comfortable reading books that have tough themes for young adults. Last year for example, they discussed the "Watsons go to Birmingham" and loved it. The librarian at ECIW wrote: I have just finished a book discussion group using the book "Hole in My Life. We had a fabulous group of 10. ... We had too much to talk about in one session... We used some of the questions provided on the website and some that we came up with. The group decided it wanted to stay together and discuss the book "Sold".

I have so many requests for participants that I have already begun a second group for Hole in my Life. We have two additonal groups beyond those signed for this book.

"Hole in my Life" is about an individual who wanted to be a writer and who ended up in prison because he particiapted in smuggling in order to get money to pay for college. The inmate facilitated discussion group discussed choices, being caught up in wrong doing, and the chance for redemption.

The older gentleman said he has been in prison since the 70s, and he has seen many changes. "They used to have some good programs for prisoners", he said. "Now maybe they have no money because there is very little that the prison administration offers to help inmates to be rehabilitated". He looked at the 23 year old and said, " Young brother it is easy for this atmosphere to make you get tough and hardened because there are many negatives, but you can also make use of the opportunity to improve yourself since you have a chance of getting out".

The young man acknowledged he made stupid mistakes, did not want that to define him, and thanked the older gentleman for giving him a pamphlet about Nelson Mandela because it helped him realize that he could use his brain to do something positive even while imprisoned.

They discussed the book, citing parellels in their own life. One prisoner said he was within 3 years of leaving the prison, but was worried because the institution still had not done much to ensure that he would be successful when he got out. The talked about race, parenting, loss ( the parent of one died while he was incarcerated and he worried that he would not be around to be a good parent to his 6 year old daughter.

Sitting in the corner, listening to him, made me feel good the library and books were the vehicle for such introspection.