Prison Book Club: Who Was in the Room

Reading Harry Potter in Maximum Security (Follow Up)

My teaching partner and I were told at volunteer orientation not to ask inmates what they were in prison for. Later, our prison mentor told us the same thing.

“Once you know something about someone, you can’t un-know it,” Lila told us over coffee. 

But, after eight weeks of building friendships with people who had been locked up because of crimes deemed by society to be unacceptable, we felt like the reasons why the guys were in there in the first place was still an important part of the story. While we didn’t want their past actions to define their story, we wanted to see if knowing those past actions would change our perspectives of our new friends. When it is all said and done, who was in the room?

There was someone convicted of triple homicide for killing a mother and her two children who were under 18. There was a man who was tried for murder as an adult at the age of 17, and was just finishing up his 8 years in prison. There was a man in prison for three counts of rape and kidnapping, with a case of murder opened up against him while in prison. There was a child rapist.There was a kid our age doing life in prison for a gang street shooting. There were a couple people accused of robbery.

One day later

So, here I am the day after our last Prison Book Club. I’ve been wondering what their life stories were all along, why they ended up in prison, and now I know one version.

All the worst things a person can imagine, they had convictions for them. Surprisingly, none of the guys in book club were drug offenders. I had just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and I was expecting most of them to be in because of drug related felonies. But none were- all of their felonies had to do with a violent and sexual nature. Non violent drug offenses generally land you in minimum security, not maximum.

I’m not going to say that it didn’t hurt to read up on the public histories of the people we have spent the past few months hanging out with. A few them had told us why they were in prison, but I still wanted to believe that these were just mistakes, or that whoever they killed probably had it coming anyways. Reading their convictions online I felt somewhat betrayed. But then again, what did I expect?

It seems like most of the people in the room were probably what we would call “bad people” by society’s standards. And it’s weird. Because on the one hand they’re still my friends, and they’re still people who welcomed us into their world, and slowly told us about it. They were people who thanked us every week that we showed up, and told us they would really miss us and the way we helped them feel human. And they are still victims to the prison system, a system which I believe has far too many flaws, but I also definitely can’t sugar coat what they did and say I think it’s right.

A lot of them raped and killed quite a few people. How do I stomach that?

This is why we were told not to ask the men what they were in prison for, not because we would judge them without giving them a chance, but because of the fact that once you know some things, you can’t ever un-know them.


I have always wondered if I would know a violent person or a serial killer if I met one. Well, I have met one, or maybe a couple, and probably shook hands with a few just yesterday. I was not able to clearly see them as someone to avoid- they sucked me in like everyone else, they were smooth talkers. I wanted to like them and I wanted them to know that they were liked. It grosses me out a bit in reflecting on this, because I think of the women who got the same smiles from men like this, and then were killed.


And then reverse. Earlier today I was listening to a piece about inmates in a prison who put on Hamlet by Shakespeare. And I thought back to my last words with the guys, and I thought about how I could have said more. I didn’t have to walk away from them that fast after the hour and a half was over. I could have supported them in a better way.

What are humans, really? I don’t have a good answer right now. People die routinely, and people also kill others pretty often I now find out. Are there different grades of killers? Can a person who kills ever be accepted into society again? Was it only okay for my book club leader and I to interact with these men because they were behind bars, because we were “safe”?

One Week After

Labels are constricting, and using the word “inmate” and “not an inmate” are two things that I think I am going to try to stop using. When we hype up the difference between us and them, we are unable to see the person right in front of us as clearly. Preconceived notions are not helpful in a lot of instances, but then again they can keep you a little more aware and safe.

I have been continually reminded over the past week that the line between “good” and “bad” is not black and white. Everyone on Earth does things that they are not proud of, and everyone on Earth is probably secretly or not so secretly proud of things that they probably shouldn’t be. I’m reminded that the world’s ethics are on a spectrum, and they vary from person to person, how you grow up, who you meet and also what your brain chemistry is set up as. I am reaffirmed that the world’s perception of the “good” and “bad” dichotomy can be thrown to the wind if we only get to know people. But I also think that protecting yourself is an important component of this as well. Everyone is at different levels, and everyone has different comfort zones.

Where is my comfort zone? I think part of my comfort zone is trying to understand the stranger. Trying to figure out why we demonize certain people, and if it has to be that way or not. I don’t think that I came to any conclusive decisions this week as to what to do with “dangerous” people in society. I feel that prison is not making society more safe, but I also think that not having a system with repercussions for people who cross certain lines along the societal norm is also not an option. We need to focus on the people who deviate, and discover why they choose these paths. Maybe then rehabilitation will be possible, or maybe we’ll discover that we agree with them, and what they did wasn’t so bad at all. But what happens if we find their actions to be inherently wrong after much consideration, and they are unable or unwilling to rehabilitate and conform? Do we just keep locking people up? And if so, where is that line?

Two Weeks After

I’m feeling bad about judging the people I met in prison. That was not why we were there. We were there to witness, and to learn about a perspective that is not being shared: their perspectives. And who am I to judge if a person can change or not? They opened up to us, and they let us into their world for eight weeks. And that is amazing, regardless of what they’ve done in their lives, or their willingness to change courses.

I think it’s fear that pushed me away from them most when I first found out their pasts. When I first met them, I knew they had probably done violent things in their lives. However, since I didn’t know the specifics it was easy to overlook their past and see the person in front of me. But now that fear is more front and center. It’s that fear that you don’t really know a person, and you can’t anticipate their moves. That they might be deceiving you. But you can’t really anticipate anyone’s moves.

We told them that they would be getting real writing teachers coming in to take our places probably, and the guys were excited. But they also said, “but we like YOU both!” They said that they liked our casual approach to the class, and how we didn’t speak with authority, we spoke with a desire to learn. What I learned from prison book club was that those guys, regardless of what they had done in a past life, had spent a lot of time figuring out how to have appropriate and productive human relationships.

Whether they still have it in them to repeat what they did again, that’s not something I can say. I can’t say that of anyone. But what I can say is that I learned so much about authenticity from them. And they might have been hiding a lot, and they might have been putting on an act for us, but then again, we might have been putting on a similar act for them. Humans are humans, man. We hurt one another. And I think we hurt them by leaving them so suddenly, just when they were starting to get used to us and expect us every week. If there’s something I feel really guilty about, it’s that we had to leave so soon. But no one can ever promise they will be able to stay somewhere.

I just want to let it be known that they showed me an aspect of community I had never known. They showed me what it was like. And I don’t quite have words for it right now, but I hope I will continue to find words in the future. And so is it fair for me to judge in this situation? It’s not fair for me to judge. I was there to be a friend for a time. And I was. We all were, together.

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2 thoughts on “Prison Book Club: Who Was in the Room

  1. Excellent insights. This experience can also be extrapolated to the societal, and global arenas…and, particularly, to the political arena. I struggle with finding common ground where we can agree, regardless of whether we are “blue” or “red” or conservative or liberal. If we could all meet in an empty room and be forbidden to talk about politics, maybe we could get to know each other without labels — and maybe understand each other just a bit.


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