“If you walk through the metal detector sideways, it can’t detect the wire in your bra,” Lila quietly shouts across to the women trying to get through the front doors to visit someone in prison. Sundays are visitors days, and they are also when Carp and I will be hosting our Book Club. “They’ve been giving those women a hard time for the past half hour…” Lila comments from her perch on the bench.
Lila is a unique woman, she works outside of the prison for a small nonprofit which is almost completely volunteer based, and brings arts to the prison. Her brightly floral printed dress, heels and eyes painted with purple eye shadow contrast the mood and behavior of the guards around us. As Carp and I wait for a guard to notice us so we can go through security, she tells us to just try walking through. Carp does, and sets off the alarm. Lila says with a dry smile, “Can’t even get their attention when the security alarm goes off…”
Lila hates the prison, and makes no effort to hide it. Maybe that’s why she’s such a good fit for the Arts Volunteer Coordinator. The past couple times we have visited the prison with her, you can see what an impact she has on these men’s lives. They come up to her and say hello as soon as they see her. They fill her in on their court cases, their lives, their questions, their worries. She seems to be a sort of mother figure for the inmates there. She also seems to be exhausted, but unable to look away from anyone’s situation.
We finally made it through security with Lila and slide our ID cards for entry through the double doors and into Max. Downstairs in the activities room, Lila unpacks her purse, spilling 12 books on the table: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The inmates who will be participating in our class walk in and shake our hands one by one as we introduce ourselves.
We start by going around the room and all telling the name of the last book we have read, and how much we know about Harry Potter. It turned out no one in the room had read Harry Potter, but a few had seen the movies.
Next we went around the room next and talked about expectations, and what people wanted to get out of the class. I talked about the fact that we wanted the book club to be a safe space where no one’s opinion was wrong, all of our opinions were valid and right. Some inmates told us that they really just signed up for the class because they wanted to get out of their cells, white others said that they were writing their own novels, and wanted to improve their literary skills.
We had been considering adding a creative writing component to the class, so we asked the inmates if they would like to split the book club in half: make the first half about the readings, and then the second half could be our own writings. Most of the guys loved the idea, one of them said he hated writing.
When Carp and I’s agenda for the first class was completed, we realized we still had 45 minutes left to use up for the class. I ask everyone if they want to end class early today, we didn’t want to waste their time because we hadn’t planned much for our first class. One of the inmates laughed and said something along the lines of, “all we have is time.” We decided to read the first chapter of the book aloud together.
The guy sitting next to me confided that he was nervous about reading aloud in front of the group. I said that I had never liked reading aloud either, and he didn’t have to if he didn’t want to. He told me maybe he would to try to read aloud when it came around to his turn. He was a singer and wanted to make an R & B record after he got out of prison, so he should probably practice public speaking now. Carp commented that no one ever really notices when you mess up anyways, and the guys in the room laugh.
“Everyone notices everything about everyone in prison.”
Though the men were skeptical of the book, thinking it might be just children’s novel, once we started reading it together their eyes became glued to the page, and their voices rang out with emotion and suspense as they read a couple paragraphs, then passed on the reading to the person next to them. At the end of the chapter, Carp picked up a piece of chalk and went to the front of the room to write down the main characters names from the book. The guys asked questions and filled out character studies from what they had picked up from the first chapter.
Soon the lights flickered in the room, signalling it was time for us to go. An hour and a half had flown by reading Harry Potter in Max, and we shook everyone’s hands and told them we would see them next week, where we would talk about the next three chapters.
All in all, our first class goes pretty well. Sitting in a hot room, talking about books and reading Harry Potter aloud for an hour and a half isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. They walked out in jeans and red skull caps, and I thought about how much we had already normalized being in the prison with a mere total of three hours logged.