Books Behind Bars

Anyone who tells you that Canada's prison system and the prisons themselves coddle and comfort the inmates is either lying, woefully ill-informed or dimly unaware of the reality.

Prisons, especially in the federal system, are dreadful places. They are crowded, violent, noisy tenements of human degradation. They house more than 14,000 of our fellow citizens.

Of course we have to put away, sometimes for very long periods, those who threaten us and would do us harm. The violent, those who steal and destroy, the white, blue or no collar criminals have to be punished.

The traditional theory is that they are sentenced to prison AS punishment not FOR punishment.

That's the theory. In practice, Canada's prisons are trade schools, institutions of higher learning where we enroll young, often violent, incompetent young men who are taught by the more experienced to become more proficient, often more violent criminals upon release.

And the situation is getting worse as more and more prisons are built. This week , Canada's correctional investigator Howard Sapers warned that the government is ill-equipped to handle the growing number of aging prisoners who are open to physical assault by younger more aggressive convicts.

About 20 per cent of all inmates are fifty years old or older.

For the past couple of years, I've been writing to a convict in a New York State prison. He is a convicted murderer. He has been incarcerated for 26 years. He used to listen to The Sunday Edition when he could pick up the signal from Montreal.

In his letters, the recurrent theme is his need for certification as a human being, albeit a flawed one. He knows he committed a horrible crime, but he is desperate to reclaim some element of common dignity.

It is not a commodity easy to come by behind the walls.

There is however a group of volunteers in Ontario trying to restore a small measure of that humanity to convicts. It is called Book Club for Inmates.

It was begun about three years ago by a woman named Carol Finlay who wondered what went on in the 13 prisons in the Kingston, Ontario area.

She contacted a local prison chaplain and wondered if he knew of any book clubs inside prisons. There were none. She decided to start one.

The club began with the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, then Angela's Ashes, then The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, who visited the book club inmates twice.

They decided the optimum number of members would be 12 to 15. They'd meet once a month and discuss the books and the life issues the books present.

The idea has spread to eight federal penitentiaries in Ontario.

Most of the club members have never read a book for pleasure, only what they were forced to read in school. Some 97 percent of inmates are high school dropouts.

The inmates are so enthusiastic about the project that they often turn off their television sets to read.

The wardens and administrators love the idea because there's no cost involved and little bureaucratic time and trouble.

The inmates, as I said, love the book clubs. Said one; "It has opened up a whole new world to me."

One of the saddest comments: "Thank you for thinking about convicts such as me."

In most of our prisons there is very little to do---sit in the cell or watch television in an overcrowded unit. There are no trades training classes any more. Only drug and alcohol re-hab courses.

Men and women in our prisons are eventually going to come out and once again live among us. What kind of people they will be is governed to a large extent by their prison experience.

Book Clubs for Inmates can enrich to some extent, that experience.

To somebody in a penitentiary, contact with the outside is like oxygen. To know that somebody on the outside is thinking of them is crucial. They want to try for a normal life in the most abnormal of conditions.

It came as a surprise to me that the fastest growing segment of Canadian voters is the prison population.

But then that makes sense. Voting is an act of citizenship and inmates have a need to remind themselves and the system that they are citizens.

Ironically, they strongly favor the Conservative Party.

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