APBP, in partnership with the West Virginia University Department of English, leads book clubs in both the men’s and women’s facilities at Hazelton Correctional Complex. Book clubs provide incarcerated men and women with an opportunity to read, discuss, and write about literature. Since 2014, 75 imprisoned women, 25 imprisoned men, and 27 volunteers have participated.
Each club includes 12 to 15 incarcerated members and 3 to 5 outside facilitators, and typically meets once every two weeks for two hours. Participants read fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama, chosen by all the members. Facilitators also lead creative writing workshops in poetry or other forms of creative expression.
Impact of Book Clubs
A strong reading practice can become a tool for self-awareness, increased interest in education, successful re-entry, and overall well-being. Book clubs strengthen participants’ analytical and communication skills, foster a love of thinking, and create a dynamic learning environment.
Members of the book clubs constantly affirm the importance of having access to books and of literary conversations. What happens in book club discussions not only impacts the participants, but also their communities and families as well. Parents share what they are reading with their children and loved ones, and book club titles spread throughout the prison compounds. At the end of the semester, books may be donated to the prison library or resource center.
As one of the first incarcerated members wrote: “In many ways this class and your time/effort have been an emotional and intellectual lifeline for me. Thank you for the stimulating books you’ve selected and the creative writing lessons you’ve brought for us. As inmates, this class has been a catalyst for friendships and conversations throughout the compound.”
Feedback from Participants
We asked members of the women’s book club for feedback:
“The book club has been amazing. In an environment which does not place a value on higher thinking, the book club has been a lifeline to the many inmates who wish to remain intellectually engaged. Thank you!”
“My heart is overpouring with gratitude. In many ways this class and your time/effort have been an emotional and intellectual lifeline for me. Thank you for the stimulating books you’ve selected and the creative writing lessons you’ve brought for us. As inmates, this class has been a catalyst for friendships and conversations throughout the compound.”
“This is my first time here but I’m very excited. I was an English Education major before I came here. Thank you so much for your time and energy.”
“The New Jim Crow is my favorite book so far. Michelle Alexander, the author, enabled me to view our current penal system from a different perspective. She used fact to corroborate her claims. The New Jim Crow discussed scenarios regarding drug activity that were familiar to me.
“The book club has been very fun. My favorite book has been The New Jim Crow, which has been very informative and eye-opening.”
“I like the writing workshops and the pace and/or time allotted for each reading. I enjoy the poetry and the short stories and the group discussions, insight, and input from the WVU volunteers! The book club has been enlightening and uplifting. In addition to the books, many of which I would have never chosen to read, or possibly been exposed to, and the group discussions, we are provided with current events of information relating to real life—which gives new meaning and perspective to our reads. Sadly, there isn’t a ‘high’ standard or expectation of higher learning, at least in this institution, so our WVU book club is a breath of fresh air and whiff of knowledge for me. Thank you!”
“I have really enjoyed coming and I am so glad you allowed me to join the group. Thank you for taking the time to come here and spend the time with us that you do. I appreciate it and am very grateful.”
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Julia Alverez, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent and In the Time of the Butterflies
Alex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children Here
Ernest Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize Speech
Mark Brazaitis, Julia & Rodrigo, An American Affair, Steal My Heart
Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed
James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues” and “Letter to my Nephew”
John Lennon’s Essay on Higher Education in Prison in the NYT
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
Edwidge Danticat, Farming of the Bones
Fred Chappelle, I am One of You Forever
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman
Ntozake Shange, for colored girls