Prison Book Club: Goodbye

Reading Harry Potter in Maximum Security Prison, Week 8

For the past two months, my friend Carp and I have been holding a weekly prison book club, discussing Harry Potter and practicing creative writing with inmates in a maximum security prison. Today was our last day, and it was a bit of a letdown. Or more, I feel as though I let them down. Our previous week at book club had been a hit, and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to compete this week. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to leave them with, and I wasn’t sure how they would leave it with us.

Writings from the Hole

As usual, we meet the guys in the basement of the chow hall building, where their activities programs are held. Not many people had known we were going to be here for book club today, so only four guys show up, but they are the ones we have connected most with over the past few months: Jim and Lee are middle aged white men, and Anthony and Tyler are young black men our age.  We shake their hands, and all sit down around the circle table.

We begin the meeting by sharing their writings from the past week. They read poems they have written about us or for us, as a thank you for making book club a positive place for them. Jim hands over a few papers which Noah has written his writing assignments on, though he is not able to be here today because he is “in the hole.”

“The hole” is solitary confinement- and is used for punishment in the prison system. It’s now being looked at as a form of torture by modern day society, and certain states are beginning to place limits on how long you can hold a person in solitary confinement for. But at the prison we’ve currently been volunteering at, there is not limit. Jim tells us there are guys who have been in solitary and not spoken to anyone in 10 years. And then there are guys that come out for a day every once in awhile, and get straight back the moment they misbehave.

I say “shit” at some point, and Jim says he thought we were religious. We say, nah, at least not the kind of religion where you can’t call shit like you see it.

Harry Potter and the “Outside” 

We talk about the parallels between segregation in Harry Potter and segregation in current day society outside the prison walls. In Harry Potter, wizards and muggles (non wizard people) generally do not come in contact with one another, while in society white and black people do not generally interact, and prisoners and non-prisoners do not generally interact. In Harry Potter, Voldemort was able to mobilize wizards around an idea of “wizarding purity”, which allowed for hatred to grow toward those perceived to be different. We can see the same thing in society today, in regards to race, and how we think (or just don’t think) of people in prisons.

“Fear is the greatest manipulator. It comes out of lack of education, regardless of your political standing or your personal background,” Lee states.

He explains that society conditions us to react in certain ways to certain people and certain events, but we don’t have to react that way. He tells us anyone is capable of changing course, but people who think in new ways also tend to be silenced in some way, such as prison time.

“What was our country founded on?” Lee asks. No one wants to answer that question. “Violence,” Lee states. “Our country was founded on violence, and taking things away from the people who first inhabited this land, and then kidnapping people from Africa and enslaving them here.”

Voices To Be Heard

“If I could change anything about the criminal justice system right now, I would get the prisoners voices out of the prisons, and I would bring more civilians into the prisons to interact with the people living behind bars, and to see the conditions,” I stated.

The guys agree, and tell us that some of the volunteers who come to the prison place themselves on a pedestal above the inmates. They tell Carp and I that we don’t do that, and that is one of the reasons why they have been able to open up so much to us in the past few months, as we help one another learn.

“Thank you for continuing book club over the past few months, and for being our psychiatrists,” Jim tells us.

“Well, we’re pretty messed up ourselves,” Carp states. “We took an online test to see what House we would be in in Harry Potter, and Cecelia got Slytherin…”

We told them that we had copied the online Sorting Hat test down, and if they wanted to try it out, we had it with us. They tried it out. Jim got Slytherin, but Lee and Anthony got Hufflepuff.

“I’m not sure how I feel about that…” Anthony says, laughing. Lee is shaking his head and smiling.

Monsters of the Mind

Last week at Prison Book Club, some of the guys told us what they were in prison for. They spoke about triple homicides, about robbery, about drug use. Why doesn’t that change the way that we interact with them? I’m sure the people that were killed because of their potential actions didn’t deserve to be killed, though I try to comfort myself by thinking so.

The thing is, we’re not there to judge them, we’re there to give them a chance at being human again. They made choices, or were accused of making choices that allowed others to label them as monsters and lock them away. And now we’re shaking hands with those so called monsters, and providing them a chance to be called human again.

And it begs the question why this isn’t happening more often. Why was what we did such a rare occurrence? Do we want monsters to exist in our world? If we have a chance to see people as human and make our world a little less scary, why wouldn’t we want to do this?

I think a lot of it is less about the desires of people in the world, and more about the desires of the corporations and money makers of the world. It benefits them to have monsters- monsters to lock away in prisons and make money off of, monsters to go to war with and make money off of, monsters to distract from their own monstrous actions.

Goodbyes 

Anthony had bought Howard Zinn’s, “A People’s History of the US” at my suggestion. I told him it validated what I have always intuitively assumed about power and control, but inspired me to learn about people’s continual persistence for justice and equality. To know that there are other people out there thinking what you think and knowing what you know is enlightening, and then the key is to find them and collaborate.

I didn’t know how to tell the guys goodbye. How do you really do that? Tell them you hope to god they get out of this hell someday, tell them you will try to carry their words to the outside, tell them that the prison industrial complex in America is fucked and you’re sorry they’re a victim to it?

In the end, I smiled a lot and shook everyone’s hands one last time. I told Tyler he was going to be a lawyer someday, I told Anthony “We’ll see you later!” multiple times, and told Jim and Lee “thank you so, so much,” while looking straight into their eyes.

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