It’s becoming more routine now, and the prison guards are getting to know us. They flip through our notebooks and copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, they stamp our hands, sign us in and nod us toward the prison entrance.
Inside maximum security, we meet Lee, our newest addition to the book club. Someone who had dropped out of the class had passed the book on to him, and he had read the entire book in a week. We were discussing last week’s writing assignment with Jim. Jim tries out an example. “So my home, you know- my cell, has a big window staring down into a parking lot…”
Lee jumps in to help. “You might see the window, but I would see the wall. See? It’s like how we all notice different things…”
Lee then began talking about how in an environment like this, you always had to be on your toes. And you always had to keep your eyes out. When you walked into chow (dinner hall) and it was quiet, you should be worried. When you were anywhere and it got quiet, you should be worried. He said that he grew up on the streets, and he knows people and vibes and he knows how to protect himself.
The other inmates begin to filter in- Malik, Tyler and Anthony. We begin class by opening the floor up for them to share their writings from the week. Their stories are wonderful, and they are all into it. We toss around the idea of creating an anthology full of the inmates stories, and creating a book. The proceeds would go back to the prison book club, to fund more books.
We begin speaking about the book, and Lee asks the room question Carp and I were going to lead with today:
“So what house would you be in if you were in this book?”
The characters in Harry Potter are grouped into “houses,” which roughly amount to the values they hold as individuals. Slytherin is known for cunning and trickery, Griffindor for bravery, Ravenclaw for knowledge and Hufflepuff for loyalty. Slytherin known for having Voldemort, the genocidal evil wizard in the book, and Griffindor is known for having Dumbledore and Harry Potter, the supposedly good wizards.
Lee says that he would be in Slytherin, and so would most of the guys in here.
“We are people who do what we feel we need to do to protect ourselves and get ours. That’s led us down some paths that have got us locked up, right?”
He implied in a joking but serious way that everyone in prison was there because they were ruthless, not to be trusted, self directed only. His statement was also reminiscent of the conversation we had before class about his learning from a young age, and from time in prison to be aware of all situations, and keeping an eye out for one’s own well being. Stealing cars, selling weed, stealing credit cards- these are all morally “bad” things, but in the mindset of someone who is trying to protect themselves and make their lives better, this might be the way they see forward. Not seeing the traditional line of “good” and “evil,” but seeing a choice of what will help them.
I say that I would probably be in Ravenclaw, because I like to stay to the sidelines, and observe and learn.
“Knowledge is power,” Malik says. “I’m locked up, but I still want to be in history books someday. It’s choices I got to make to get me there,” Malik states.
We talk about the book that they want to read next, and the general consensus is that they can’t wait to read the second Harry Potter. They laugh, saying that when they first found out we were reading Harry Potter, they were not interested at all. But after really reading the book and getting into it, they are now hooked. Anthony says that he is going to go to their library and see if he can check it out this weekend.
My mom was the one who suggested that we read Harry Potter in the prison, and she has never even read Harry Potter herself! Regardless, it was a great idea, and it has really taken off. At least five inmates are thoroughly appreciating J.K. Rowling’s work.
“She spent seven years writing this first book! I’m sure the next ones took a little less time, but that’s how you can really tell a good writer. She crafted this series from the very beginning,” Lee comments.
“She was a waiting tables to pay rent while she was writing this, and now she’s a millionaire,” I point out.
As we’re heading out after class ends, Anthony asks me what books I am reading right now. I tell him I am reading A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, and alternative history of the US. He tells me that he loves books like that, and just finished reading “The suppressed history of America.”
This week, I completely lose track of time talking, and Carp has to remind me that we need to leave because security director is flickering the lights as a hint. I tell Anthony we’ll see him and everyone next week, and head out. I’m proud of myself that I didn’t bolt out of class like I have the past couple of times. Carp and I walk out of the activities basement with the men, and part ways with them as we walk toward the double doors leading out of the prison.
Photo Credit: http://projects.seattletimes.com/2014/prison-labor/assets/day1/walla-walla-prison.jpg