A NEW CHAPTER
The author of THE PRISON BOOK CLUB found you can’t always JUDGE an inmate by their CRIME.
ann walmsley reveals how she overcame her fear to start a book club inside prison walls
Ann Walmsley’s first brush with crime was actually more of a brutal battering when, 15 years ago, she was violently mugged by two men outside her London home. Her choice several years later to voluntarily enter a room with nearly 20 uncuffed criminals is a testament to the journalist and author’s belief in the transformative power of words. Eight years after the attack she was invited to join her first prison book club in Toronto, by her friend Carol Finlay – who had just started the Book Clubs for Inmates initiative at the Collins Bay mediumsecurity prison in Kingston, Ontario.
“I said I could help her with book selections, but once I said yes, that’s when she said, ‘You know you actually need to come into the prison and hear the men discussing the books in order to know that you’re choosing the right titles for them.’” Ann’s ‘yes’ became a ‘no’, but Carol urged her to reconsider. “I thought, ‘Maybe I could go in just once and be better informed about how inmates in a medium-security men’s prison react to good quality literature.’ It was a sickening feeling at first, to confront fear again, but at the same time, as a writer and journalist, we are blessed – or cursed – with curiosity, and I had this immense curiosity that was crowding in and motivating me to find out what it was like in a prison.”
The experience wasn’t at all what she’d expected. “I was very surprised to see that everybody walked around freely, and they didn’t necessarily wear prison uniform. Also, there were no guards in the room – there wasn’t even a security camera. However, there was a chaplain with a little belt with a personal alarm that he could press if anything happened, but he left the room pretty quickly!”
Ann also hadn’t anticipated the welcoming nature of the inmates. She shook the hands of murderers, drug traffickers, bank robbers – the whole felonious bunch. Some were what Ann calls ‘lifers’. “You can’t tell right away when you meet them, because they don’t say, ‘Hi, I’m here for 17 years for murdering somebody’. And I didn’t really need to know. I was there to interact with them on a level playing field about books – like you would interact with anyone about books.”
The Prison Book Club – Ann’s resulting memoir – relays the literary discussions that took place over her 18 months in two prison book clubs.
In her first session, the inmates were discussing Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, the true story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s wrongful arrest following his heroism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “They had identified with this character and imagined themselves into his life, which is really an act of empathy,” says Ann, who would come to witness the inmates stepping into the shoes of a varied cast of characters – many of them women. Ann talks of one book club member who she calls Gaston, and his reading of The Book of Negroes – a novel with an American slave girl, Aminata, at its centre. “The book [Aminata] reads to get through her ordeal is Gulliver’s Travels, so Gaston the bank robber says, ‘Okay, I’m going to read it, too.’” >
They had IDENTIFIED with this character and IMAGINED themselves into his LIFE, which is really an act of EMPATHY.
Ann had the impression that there was a lot at stake in this club. “It’s not like in the book clubs that I’m part of, where it’s more social,” says the small-town Picton native, who devoured library books as a child, started her first book club at nine, and has since been a member of many a wine-and-cheese literary gathering. “For these guys it could be a ‘life and death’ kind of thing. This could be the lever to get them out of prison – if they can engage in a new way within society when they leave. So I got that sense from some of the men – that they were investing in this in a big way.”
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s historical novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was a firm favourite, but the tome that really got the men talking was one they mutually disliked. “It was Sebastian Junger’s War,” says Ann, remembering that while they found the book ‘dull’, its theme of institutionalisation struck a nerve. “One of the fellows, Ben, actually volunteered that he felt institutionalised. He said, ‘I’m like those soldiers, and anxious about going back on [the] outside. I’m used to the way things happen here, I’m used to my coffee in the cafeteria and the prison’, and another group of inmates really were riled by that comment… You kind of felt that they might take it outside to the yard later.”
We got a LETTER from them saying, ‘There’s no BOOK CLUB up here, can you COME and START one?’
Despite such heated debates, Ann believes the club provided something of a haven for these men, saying it was “where they could extract themselves from the more dangerous aspects of prison life… and get away from the boredom”. The benefit to their literacy levels, too, was considerable. According to the Literacy and Policing Project, 79 per cent of Canadian federal inmates don’t have their high school diploma, while 65 per cent have literacy levels worse than a grade eight student.
At Collins Bay, some of the members may have struggled with the reading, but the printed words were only one aspect of the book club. “It’s not just the reading of the book, it’s the act of discussion,” says Ann. “Trying your ideas out with other inmates. Being prepared to listen to their arguments and maybe even have your point of view changed.”
A seasoned book reviewer and English major, Ann was surprised by how much the inmates taught her (Gaston the bank robber, for one, inspired her to pick up the work of 18th-century essayist Charles Lamb). She was also taken aback by how much she laughed. “They tease each other a lot, so you feel you’re part of this camaraderie” – and this solidarity sank deep, as the inmates themselves pointed out. “Typically inside prison the white inmates don’t speak to the black inmates, don’t speak to the indigenous or aboriginal inmates, and they’re all in their particular sort of ethnic ghettos, whereas in this book club, some of these walls were being broken down,” says Ann. Prisoners’ self-esteem also enjoyed a boost (“they were overwhelmed that somebody would want to come in and hear what they had to say about a book”) and the inmates started meeting prior to the monthly session to compare notes.
“When two of the fellows, Frank and Graham, were transferred to the minimum-security prison, we got a letter from them saying, ‘There’s no book club up here, can you come and start one?’”
The Beaver Creek Institution book club was thus born – so popular that it swiftly amassed a sizeable waiting list. “There was some sniping when one rather well-known white-collar criminal ended up in the minimumsecurity prison and sort of jumped the queue into the book club,” says Ann, telling how Frank and Graham took total ownership of the club.
“Graham was an enforcer in the Hells Angels [Motorcycle Club]. So he was good at working within an organisation, shall we say,” she smiles. “But he did withdraw from the Hells Angels during the time that he was in the book club. That’s really an unusual thing to do in prison. It’s dangerous,
typically, to do, because they may suspect that you might snitch. But he withdrew and decided on a new life.”
A week after Graham was released on parole, Ann met with him at his halfway house (right before he became a sought-after public speaker, with the police force even asking him to talk to their new recruits). She catches up with many former inmates on the outside. “I suppose I didn’t imagine when I went in [to the prison] that it would have an impact on my own fear levels and the way I view inmates, but it did,” says Ann, who once couldn’t walk at night – even accompanied – without an alarm that mimicked a barking Doberman.
Back in 2002, Ann had been living with her family in London’s Hampstead for two months when, after dropping her daughter at a party one evening, she returned home to a horrifying encounter. “I was just so focused on parking the car that I hadn’t noticed there were these two guys coming at me, and they quickly broke into a run as soon as I closed the [car] door.” Ann managed to lob her purse over her garden wall and ring the doorbell, alerting her husband, before her attackers reached her. “They grabbed me in a chokehold and strangled me until I was unconscious, not saying anything… They just strangled me, and I thought I was being murdered.” Over the two-and-a-half years Ann remained in London she suffered
I suppose I didn’t IMAGINE when I went in [to the prison] that it would have an IMPACT on my own FEAR LEVELS and the way I view inmates, but it did.
from post-traumatic stress, and her throat never fully recovered. “While I can speak fine, my singing range has [been] curtailed,” she says. “I don’t sing much, but I can’t even sing ‘Happy Birthday’, you know?”
In 2015, she returned to London while touring her memoir, and presented a talk to the club at the UK’s largest prison, in Wandsworth. “They asked me questions that I had not received anywhere else, very much directed to the fact that they were inmates. The first one was: ‘When did you forgive the men who attacked you?’,” says Ann, who answered, “It may have been the very first night, because I was imagining the mothers of the young men – who were about the age of my own son – and thinking about them in that maternal context.” Another inmate extended Ann an invitation to join his reading group. “It was just sweet, normal, social and considerate.”
An official charity since 2011, Carol’s Book Clubs for Inmates program has rolled out to numerous prisons and thousands of inmates across the country. And Ann, still riding the success of The Prison Book Club – which won last year’s Edna Staebler Award for Creative Nonfiction – has three more books in the works – including one about her very own ancestor who was charged with shooting and killing the first attorney general of Upper Canada 200 years ago (the irony is not lost on Ann). Before we part she shares some sage advice on facing fear – the very words her father used when convincing her to enter the prison that first time. “He said, ‘If you expect the best in people, they will rise to the occasion.’”