Prison Book Club: Dead Dandelions and Thank Yous

Reading Harry Potter in a Maximum Security Prison, Week 5

Neither I nor Carp, my fellow prison book club volunteer, are feeling particularly like volunteering today. We’ve had a great time with with the book club thus far, but today we’re tired, a little agitated, and we’ve drank either too much or too little coffee.

We pull up into the prison parking lot and realize we’re about twenty minutes early. I lean the passenger’s seat chair back, and decide to take a mini nap in the car before we have to go in. Carp does the same. Before we have a chance to shut our eyes though, a woman comes over, asking if we have a coat hanger. She’s locked out of her car.

Sorry, we tell her. We don’t have anything.

She says thank you, but comes back a couple more times. Apparently we’re the only ones hanging out in the parking lot right now. She’s found a coat hanger from the guards inside, but now she’s looking for a crow bar.

Nope, don’t have that either. When she comes by asking for a crow bar the second time, I decide to do a search in my trunk. I find a sort of metal bar, and loan it to her. We tell her good luck, and head into the prison.

Walking through the triple steel doors into the maximum security prison, we arrive in the yard (where inmates go outside to play sports, exercise, breathe fresh air) and notice that the bright green and yellow field of dandelions from last week is completely dead. I comment that they probably just mowed the lawn. Carp disagrees,

“See the way that the dead dandelions are curled up on the ground, and see the brown spots on the grass? They sprayed that with weed killer over the week.”

I realize he’s right, and the smell of herbicide fills my nostrils as we continue to walk towards the activities basement for prison book club and writing group.

Arriving downstairs, we notice that it’s strangely quiet. We go and talk to the one staff member in the basement, who tells us that there was a stabbing just ten minutes ago and book club is probably cancelled. After something like this happens, the prison usually goes into lock down and inmates can’t leave their cells until things are sorted out.

The staff member tells us that usually he would call us and let us know that activities were cancelled, but since it just happened he didn’t have time to let us know. We tell him that’s fine, we’re kind of tired today anyway. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if book club was cancelled today.

We sit down to wait in the classroom, to see what happens. If book club gets cancelled, I’m already planning what I’ll do with the rest of my Sunday. Carp and I can go to the park, do some reading in the sun, we can listen to music, we can relax, we can walk free from these confines.

There’s caution in the air, with the staff members and inmates whispering rumors of what happened, and a few more inmates trickling into the activities basement. Carp tries to distract from the tension by reading out of his Creative Writing textbook. He reads me something about the stockmarket, and I laugh nervously.

“The stockmarket? What does the stockmarket mean at a time like this, in this place?” 

In a few minutes, more inmates begin to come in, and we see a few of our book club members.

Book club begins, and it’s just three guys today: Jim, Lee and Josiah. We think this probably has to do with stabbing: things are a little less organized than usual today, all the inmates might not have been allowed out. Regardless, the smaller group allows for a different kind of conversation, and it’s nice.

We begin the writing portion of the class, and the inmates share their writings from the past week. Lee reads aloud about what he sees from his cell block window. He can see the outside, he can see the city nearby, and he can see the people walking the streets far away. He writes that he is locked in a prison, but he sees that they are locked in their own prisons out there. They are locked into societal norms and expectations, they are locked into their bodies and their perceptions of themselves.

Jim writes about what he sees out his cell block window, and he has a different view. He can’t see the city, but sees inside the prison compound, and looks out toward the flag (the main level of the cell block). He writes about how he wishes that he had more than a few minutes to talk to his family on the phone, and he wished that the prison guards were more respectful. “It makes me angry to be yelled at by an 18 year old. Just ask me, you don’t need to yell.”

Josiah prefers to write about fictional characters, and not about his actual experiences.

Jim reads more of his writings, and exercise where you write about three things that someone taught you, and three things that that same person didn’t teach you. He prefaces his reading, like all his others as “I’m kind of stupid, and this isn’t good, but it’s how I feel.” I want to tell him every time that he’s not stupid, and he always writes really thought provoking things.

He goes on to read aloud about growing up in his biker gang family. How he was rolling joints for his parents when he was 10, while also learning how to fix motorcycles and discover cocaine.

“It’s all I knew,” he finishes. “But now I have four wonderful children, who are all very successful and I am so proud of them. They were able to lead lives much different from mine.”

They surprise us after reading their pieces by genuinely thanking us for continuing to show up. Lee says that they’re not really allowed to do anything for us, because of the dynamic of inmate and volunteer relationship, but he wants us to know that they really appreciate us.

“Why do you want to spend your Sundays of freedom spending time with people that society has deemed irredeemable?” 

These are guys who are very street smart, and they can easily suss out someone’s intentions. I think they are a bit baffled why we’re here, even though they appreciate it.

We tell them that we’re learning so much from them. And that they are helping us get out of our prisons in our own heads, the prisons of our own societal routine, as Lee wrote shared from his writings. We’re all learning together.

Everyone has finished the book we’re reading: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. They are anxious to get on to the next one, but we rewind and talk about what we got out of the first book.

Lee identifies with Malfoy, and admires him for his upfront honesty. He’s not hiding how he feels. Jim identifies with Hagrid, and everyone agrees he is Hagrid. A big and burly guy from a biker gang family, he’s got a big heart and likes to make people laugh and feel comfortable.

We end the day talking about writing, and what it means to be a good writer. We discuss dialogue, and the importance of it. I tell them that I regularly carry a notebook around with me, and write down what I hear other people talking about. I tell them you don’t have to be an academic to be a writer, you just have to be observant and interested in the world around you.

I feel a little funny about discussing dialogue with them, as most of the things they are saying I desperately want to write down as quotes. But I don’t, because we’re not here for my writing. We’re here for theirs. But I think about the fact that no one else in the outside world is hearing these conversations we have with the inmates in maximum security. The supposedly most dangerous people in our society. We’re able to hear them because we have a volunteer pass that allows us through three steel doors, and I feel like I have an obligation to share what I learn from them since not everyone gets this chance we are getting to interact with the inmates.

 

“You both like to people watch, eh?” Lee asks. He’s figuring us out. He smiles.

At one point, Trump gets mentioned. I think we are talking about humility, and humility as being a base for learning. On a whim, I ask about politics in the prison. I’m aware that this is a vague question, and could be answered a number of ways.

“See. This is how they can learn something from us,” Lee tells Jim. “These are insights that we can share with you that you don’t know. In prison, it’s all politics. When you see things on TV, probably only 3% of that is true.

“When two inmates get in a fight over ketchup and mustard in chow (the dining hall), it’s almost never about ketchup and mustard.

“It’s about you and him, then it turns into the motorcycle crew against the Italian mob. And there’s no way to stop it. It’s politics.”

Lee goes on to explain that you’ve got to watch your back, because you’re living with real killers. And, he says, now that funding for the mental health institution is gone, you’re living with killers living our reality, but also killers who are unstable and living in another reality.

It was a clunky hour and a half. We spent some time playing Harry Potter Pictionary with grown men, and had our intentions as writers, and as people questioned. The more I go to book club in the prison, the more invested I get. When we first started this project, the volunteer coordinator, Lila, told us that we would either run away scared, or else get addicted to the work. I’d like to think that it’s been a mix of both, but overall, I know this is something that is impacting me for the rest of my life, and I won’t just be able to forget about it.

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