Prison Book Club: Week 4

Reading Harry Potter in a maximum security prison

We are greeted at the prison entrance by drug sniffing dogs, but as volunteers we are allowed to walk past them without having to undergo the seemingly invasive search within a metal box.

We walk into maximum security and into the activities basement, and set up the room in the back for book club. Carp and I put up a table, and find a few chairs along the wall. An inmate walks in and asks how many more chairs we need, and comes back providing a stack for us.

It is a white room, a bit grungy with a huge rust stain running down the front wall like a big gash wound. There are cockroaches climbing the walls, and the chairs as we set up.

Recidivism (tendency for a criminal to reoffend and end up back in jail) in Kansas is 60%. When inmates practice writing, poetry, art, singing and theater, recidivism drops to 10%.

Inmates are real people, and when they are given the chance to be so, their rates of success skyrocket. 

We have a new member this week, his name is Connor. He’s read all seven Harry Potter books in the past six months, and J.K. is now his favorite author.

Soon Malik, Tyler and Anthony come in. Jim and Josiah are right behind them.

Anthony brings down the poetry book that the prison poetry club published a few years ago. Most of the guys who had helped to put it together were now out in the world again.

In class people share their writings from the past week, and we talk about how to build a character.

Carp begins class with a controversial statement.

“So… Harry Potter’s a dick,”

“Well, maybe he just comes from a bad place, had a rough family,” Connor questions. 

The other guys are in agreement. Harry Potter is not entitled or abusing his celebrity according to them, he is merely not interested in hierarchy or respecting authority. He’s doing what he thinks is right, and not asking permission.


“I thought it would be sweet if a wizard knocked on my door when I was a kid and said ‘Hey, let’s leave your parents and go to this sweet ass castle,'” Anthony states, laughing. Immediately, all the guys agree.

“That’s what I was thinking when I read it!”

“I would be like, give me one minute to get a change of socks and I’m outta here with you.”

We then jump into the realms of fact and fiction, and what makes good fantasy writing believable. We are talking about vampires, zombies and werewolves, and the Illuminati.

We talk about how J.K.’s writing makes you feel like you could just jump into the story with the characters. Why are the characters so good? Josiah says it’s because she doesn’t state much as fact, she shows character attributes with actions, and leaves the readers to connect the dots.

We find this a great opportunity to introduce the writing exercise for this week, which is to create a character of their own. We practice this with an in class writing exercise toward the end, and Carp writes on the chalkboard while the guys shout out attributes to a character we make up together named James Harris, a freelance photographer. As homework, we will all create our own characters, and we will have them meet one another in class next week.

The hour and a half is up, and we shake hands with everyone and tell them goodbye. Anthony tells me he recently ordered “A People’s History of the U.S.” that I recommended for him last week. He also ordered a book about MLK’s assassination, and the prison censored it before giving it to him.

“I don’t know why they had to censor it. It’s not like there was anything in it that was going to make me more of a criminal, or whatever. We watch stuff on TV here all the time that is way more explicit and visual than anything in a book.”

We all walk up the steps together, and then Carp and I take a left while everyone else takes a right. We walk out of the three iron prison doors and into the open air of society, and they walk back to their cell blocks for the night. Windows are open tonight because of the nice weather, and we hear shouts and screams coming from inside the cell blocks as we walk out the doors to attend Easter dinner with family.


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