Glasses on bookshelf

Lessons from a Prison Book Club Volunteer

The first rule of Book Club: You must talk about Book Club.

Derivatively inverse of Fight Club’s mantra, I believe this philosophy best sums up one of the key aspects of serving as a volunteer at a prison. While many people think of prisons as facilities designed to keep people locked up, they are also inherently facilities that keep people out, a design that keeps the majority of the public not only ignorant of what goes on inside but also left to construe some stereotype in their minds of what kind of person the average incarcerated man or woman is.

From Facilitator to Messenger

In the six short meetings I’ve had at a federal West Virginia prison, I have not met prisoners. I’ve met intelligent, passionate, funny, and thoughtful men who also happen to be incarcerated. Meeting with them is always the highlight of my week, and after each meeting I not only love sharing stories about what happened with my family and friends, but I also believe that’s 50% of my responsibility as a volunteer.

My job as a facilitator doesn’t end when I leave the prison but instead transforms from that of listener into that of messenger. When I tell people about the man in our group obsessed with reading historical romances and Hallmark Christmas stories or about the dad who writes poetry for his daughter, I am consistently met with surprise—surprise that these things don’t fit their preconceived notions, surprise at just how human and relatable these men really are.

Diversity of Genres, Diversity of Viewpoints

The books we read for our meetings span a number of genres, including Sherman Alexie short stories, memoirs like Tara Westover’s Educated, self-help books such as Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, historical fiction like Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky, and so on. Our group is beautifully diverse, and with that diversity comes a number of conflicting interests; while one’s favorite genre may be fantasy, another only enjoys reading nonfiction.

It’s because of these differences, though, that our reading material has had such a range, the men collectively wanting to make sure everyone gets a chance to read their own favorite or interest at least once. The discussions the group has when deciding what books to read really demonstrate how healing book club can be for these men.

Breaking Down Barriers

For two hours every other week, the book club members engage in conversations with one another about literature that has changed their lives or ways of thinking; they listen to one another’s thoughts and opinions with a deep sense of respect and feel respected and heard in return. In multiple meetings, the group has shared with us what this means to them—how, to them, one of the worst aspects of incarceration is no longer receiving respect as a human being in even the most basic of ways. So, during our meetings together, respect has become a key pillar. That isn’t to say they aren’t endlessly teasing one another, but when they do, it’s always in good humor.

I learn so much from the men I work with at the Camp. Not just about prison life but about World War II, cars, outdoor survival, magical realism, the Pyramids of Egypt, and so much more. They are all incredibly worldly and seem to have infinite knowledge about certain subjects that keep my co-facilitator and I fascinated and eager to learn more from them. But most importantly, week after week, the group teaches each other about humanity and what it means to be human. Faith, family, loss, love—we talk about these too.

Our conversations are heavy, deep, and meaningful. I will continue to share these and my other favorite anecdotes from the book club with whoever will listen, but ultimately, what I experience when I go to the Camp is indescribable. If I could, I’d tell everyone that they should become a volunteer at a prison. Whether that be as a visitor, a book club facilitator, a teacher, etc., it doesn’t matter. What matters is communicating and connecting with those on the inside and breaking down the barriers that stand between us.

By Gabriella Pishotti

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