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.’”

Ann Walm­s­ley

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