A few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined walking into HMP Wandsworth, the UK’s largest prison. But one October morning this fall, there I was, standing in front of the dark 1850s brick fortress, eyeing a gated maw in the façade that appeared to be the sally port for prison transports. ‘Wanno’, as it’s known within the prison population, was to be the final stop on my UK book tour. English PEN had facilitated an opportunity for 18 of the facility’s male prisoners to gather in the prison library to hear me talk about my memoir, The Prison Book Club, and to receive a copy of the book, donated by my publisher Oneworld. Inside, the librarian led the way across the prison’s octagonal hub, past the four-storey cellblock wings that radiate from it and up curving flights of stairs to the library, her keys jingling at the end of a heavy chain.
The Prison Book Club tells the story of the 18 months that I spent participating in a monthly book club in a men’s medium security prison in Canada called Collin’s Bay Institution, as well as another book club in a minimum security prison there. Like the Prison Reading Groups that have been running in UK prisons for more than 15 years, the Canadian book clubs discussed good literary fiction and non-fiction from around the world. Collins Bay Book Club members read titles including Andrea Levy’s Small Island, Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Canadian correctional authorities granted me permission to bring in a digital voice recorder so that I could capture the men’s comments verbatim for my book. What a testament to freedom of expression in Canadian prisons! That freedom helped me tell the story of how liberating it can be in a place of confinement to share great literature.
But as I told the inmates in the Wandsworth library, many of whom appeared to be keen readers, my decision to take part in the prison book clubs was a difficult one because I had been the victim of a violent attack in 2002 when I was living in England. One evening that fall, two men ran at me in the lane outside our house in Hampstead, strangled me in a chokehold until I was unconscious, then ran off with my cell phone. The attack left me with damaged vocal cords, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and a fear of walking alone in London at night.
People often ask me how I summoned up the courage to take part in the prison book clubs back in Canada, given that trauma. I explain that it was to help a friend who had started the project and asked me to help her with book selection. It was only after I agreed, that she said I needed to attend some prison book club discussions to properly choose books for inmates. As it turned out, my journey through books with the Canadian prisoners became a vehicle of change for both them and me. It was humanizing for us all.
Several of the Wandsworth inmates looked away or at the floor as I described what had happened to me in Hampstead. ‘How long did it take for you to forgive the men who attacked you?’ asked one man seated to my left. ‘I forgave them immediately,’ I said. I told him that in the hours after the attack, my instincts were strangely maternal. I kept thinking about how distressed the mothers of my assailants would be to know what their sons were doing. But while that forgiveness was immediate, I explained that my fear lasted for the remaining three years that I was in England. Forgiveness and fear are two different things.
Another man to my left then asked whether I had undertaken a restorative justice process with my attackers. Restorative justice is a reconciliation process for victims and offenders, facilitated in safe setting. Victims typically express to offenders how the crime impacted them. Offenders, in turn, may accept responsibility for their actions and offer to made amends. I said that I had thought about a form of restorative justice in which I would send books to the men who attacked me, if they were still in prison. But only one of the two men had been arrested and convicted and his sentence had already expired. I mentioned a memoir by David Harris-Gershon called What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?.
To my right, another hand was raised. A man with a broad smile asked a question that spoke to why book clubs are so important in prisons. He said he would like to read more but didn’t know how to choose a book. An inmate from the prison book club who was present immediately invited him to join the club. Indeed, that’s what book clubs have done for me and for so many: provided us with a reading list.
We talked on and I signed copies of my book for the men in the library and answered questions from inmates representing Radio Wanno, the prison radio station. I am hoping to hear through the prison librarian what the prisoners think of the book. On the Tube back to Central London I realized that the visit was actually a step in restorative justice for me – to hear the intelligent questions of the men in a UK prison, men who were about to read my book about men in a prison book club. That encounter was more than the highlight of my UK book tour. It brought my experience full circle.
Find out more about English PEN’s work with UK prisoners and young offenders here.
The Prison Reading Groups project supports the spread of prison reading groups and encourages links between formal and informal education in prisons. Find out more here.