Now Or Never

From classics to dictionaries, the books that prisoners want to read

When Kirsten Wurmann and her volunteers first brought books into prisons, they didn't know what to expect. They were pleasantly surprised.
Kirsten Wurmann - librarian by day, book fairy on the side (CBC/S. Thacker)

When Kirsten Wurmann and her volunteers first brought books into prisons, they didn't know what to expect.

"One of the guards came in and said 'Oh, the men are really looking forward to coming down to the library and seeing some women not dressed in uniform," she recalled.

"The door opened and the first group of guys came in single file, wearing their grey sweat pants," she said. "They shook our hands and they said, 'Hi, how are you? Thank you so much. Thank you for being here.'" 

"Another time, there was a young man looking through some westerns. He was looking at the covers and flipping through the books," she explained. "I asked him what he was looking for, and he said 'I don't read but I'm looking for a book that my roommate can read to me."

Moments like those keep Wurmann and about twenty other volunteers committed to bringing books to prisons throughout Manitoba, year-round.

Here are some of the books most requested by prisoners, according to Kirsten Wurmann:

Cree and Ojibway dictionaries. "They were pointing out words and saying 'Oh, my kookum would really want me to learn more of this language. More than one of them said, 'My language was taken from me."

Pocket Ojibwe by Patricia M. Ningewance (CBC/S. Thacker)

"One of them picked up a biography of Muhammad Ali and really wanted to read it right then and there."

Muhammad Ali biography by Terry Barber (CBC/S. Thacker)

"They were eager to read. These were the men who, when they were leaving the gym, were shouting out at us, saying 'How 'bout bringing in some classics like Wuthering Heights?' or, 'How 'bout some poetry? I'd like to read some Robert Frost.'"

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (CBC)

One time, Beatrice Mosionier come in to talk about her book In Search of April Raintree"This book is by far the most popular book in the Women's Correctional Centre," said Wurmann.

"It's also requested at the Remand Centre as well. They identify with it. It tells their own story. It's very, very popular."

"One of the units was more of a segregated unit," she continued. "The inmates were behind a door and they had to open the food slot in order to hear Beatrice speak to them." 

In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier (Portage & Main Press)

If you would like to volunteer or donate books to the Prison Libraries Committee, click here. Outside Manitoba, click here.