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Fred Lum/© The Globe and Mail Inc./ Via The Canadian Press

Books behind bars

A novel idea: reading clubs for inmates that foster literacy, empathy and a sense of belonging

By Vivien Fellegi


Joe Davies was serving time for drug trafficking and extortion the first time he met Rev. Carol Finlay. Finlay, an Anglican priest, was running a book club for inmates at Collins Bay Institution, a multi-level prison in Kingston, Ont. Davies (whose name has been changed) joined mainly out of boredom.

The tiny room where the inmates were meeting was hot and reeked of body odour. Davies’ six-foot-four body and piercing green eyes might have seemed intimidating had it not been for his eruptions into gleeful chortles at the amusing passages in the book they were discussing, Three Cups of Tea, about an American mountain climber who built schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beside him, the 60-something, bespectacled Finlay appeared small and frail. “I thought she was completely nuts to be in a room with 15 notoriously violent offenders and no guard in sight,” says Davies. He remembers thinking, “This will be entertaining.”

But Davies was wrong about Finlay. She took firm charge of the conversation, allowing the inmates to voice their views. “It was amazing to watch,” says Davies. Finlay also encouraged the men to open up about their own lives. “I was impressed. It wasn’t at all what I expected,” he says. What he could not have anticipated was that the book club would turn his life around.

Being a reader can become an important new facet of inmates’ identities, says Jenny Hartley, professor emeritus at the University of Roehampton in London. Hartley co-founded an organization in 1999 that has set up dozens of inmates’ book clubs in the United Kingdom, and has co-authored surveys and reports on the subject. Some offenders suffer from low literacy and see reading as “non-manly,” she says. For this group, joining book clubs improves their reading skills, as well as their attitudes toward the written word. Reading can help members see themselves in a more positive light, she explains. 

Davies, 42, says his parents were loving and never abusive. They owned a campground and other businesses, but also paid the bills by committing fraud and selling drugs. When they split up, Davies was left alone with his father, an avid reader who was also an alcoholic.

He soon joined a gang. “Those guys became my surrogate family,” says Davies. Eventually, he graduated to the Hells Angels. Davies’ job was to hunt down people who owed money for drugs. “I was a nasty person to be around— the police used to call me The Terminator,” he says. Lording it over cowed debtors boosted his shaky self-esteem. “When everyone feared me and people got out of the way, that was respect,” he says. Davies thought he was invincible. But in 2006, he was arrested, convicted and slapped with a 17.5-year prison sentence.

His parole officer didn’t believe that felons like him were capable of changing. Davies says the officer told him, “I don’t like you. I don’t like your offence, and you’ll remain what you are.”

Luckily, Carol Finlay, now 71, has a more optimistic view of human nature. “The book clubs expect men and women to be the very best that they are, and they become that,” she says. Finlay established Book Clubs for Inmates (BCI) in 2009, after sensing a call to spend time with people on the margins. She cites Matthew 25:36, where Jesus says, “I was in prison, and you visited me.”

“I see Christ all the time in the prisoners,” she says.

She had always viewed literature as healing, so in 2009 she began the first book club in Collins Bay Institution. Since then, the book clubs have mushroomed to 26 groups in eight Canadian provinces. They are entirely donor-supported. “The clubs were one of the few rehabilitative programs,” she says, describing them as “an oasis” in a “dog-eat-dog world.”

Reading and discussing books in a group fosters empathy, says Finlay. And acquiring a sense of empathy can be transformative. “A lot of them have been dealt with very badly in life and have hard shells around their hearts,” she says. Books help to break through those shells. “When you read a book, it puts your feet into the shoes of the hero or heroine . . . and it digs you out of your own place.”  

For Davies, reading “was almost a therapy.” The group at Collins Bay read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the saga of an 18th-century West African girl kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American colonies. Davies was outraged by the book’s depiction of the slave-drivers’ cruelty. Then the penny dropped: as an enforcer for the bikers, he had been just as cruel. Davies saw that he had no more business selecting victims for a beating than the slave merchants did selecting slaves. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’” he says.

Author Hill is a book club volunteer. He says the clubs help to teach inmates the tools of civilized discussion. “Normally they can’t disagree openly without fear of being hurt,” he says. But in the book clubs, inmates learn how to listen and differ respectfully — social skills that are essential for getting by on the outside.

Prisoners are also drawn to books that showcase tenacity, says Finlay. In her 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls describes how she beat poverty and family dysfunction to become a successful author and journalist. “Inmates like books about overcoming obstacles,” says Finlay. (Click here to view a list of the prisoners' favourite books.)

Davies agrees. Like Walls, prisoners often come from difficult backgrounds, he says, and these stories of triumph are inspiring. “If those people can survive their circumstances and succeed in life, I can make it too.”

But the greatest impact of the book clubs may be their ability to improve inmates’ self-esteem and communication skills — both powerful tools for rehabilitation. “A lot of people who engage in antisocial conduct lack confidence and become outcasts,” says criminal lawyer Brian Greenspan, who is on the board of Book Clubs for Inmates. But in the book clubs, prisoners’ views are respected and they feel valued.

Just believing in a prisoner’s capacity to change is healing, says Finlay. She glimpsed Davies’ intellectual potential at their first meeting. He was curious and articulate, she says. “Who is this guy? A PhD?” she wondered. Shortly after, Davies outlined his hardscrabble past in a letter to her. She was so touched that she asked him how she could help. Davies was stunned. “I don’t remember anyone else in the prison system ever asking me what they could do for me,” he says. Davies asked Finlay to write a letter of support to his parole board, and her letter contributed to his early release from prison in 2012.

By the time Davies had earned his parole, Finlay had become almost maternal. “I love him like one of my kids,” she says. She invited him to weekly dinners after he was released from prison. And she told him he could be whatever he wanted. “That helped me to stay on the straight and narrow,” says Davies. Finlay was also a role model for Davies, illustrating the rewards of volunteering. “She inspires me to be a better person,” he says.

Today, Davies owns a painting company, has a girlfriend and gives talks at book club fundraisers. He also helps out in a program that pairs volunteers with recently released convicts. “It’s my way of giving back for so much that I’ve taken,” he says.

On a chilly summer evening just before sunset, Davies and Finlay are in Cobourg, Ont., dining in an elegant Italian restaurant on the shore of Lake Ontario. Finlay is dressed in a jacket and silk pants. Davies wears a paint-stained T-shirt. Finlay is overwhelmed with the amount of work it takes to keep the book clubs afloat. “I feel it’s taken over my life,” she tells him. But Davies isn’t sympathetic and gently chides her for complaining.

Finlay isn’t offended. She knows Davies doesn’t believe in self-pity — he’s grateful to be alive at all. At the end of the meal, he grabs the bill — a sign that Finlay’s protege is doing well. “He’s totally turned his life around,” she says. “I’m so proud of him.”

Vivien Fellegi is a freelance writer and former physician in Toronto.



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