Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bringing Books to Inmates

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Stack of Books

Over the last three years, Carol Finlay has become immune to the clang of steel doors locking behind her as she passes through Ontario’s penitentiaries.

It wasn’t always the case.

It was 2009 when Book Clubs for Inmates began at the Collins Bay Institute in Kingston, Ontario. With a copy of Angela’s Ashes, Finlay nervously stepped toward her first book club session.

“Oh, I was scared. I couldn’t even stand up. My knees locked,” she said. “I looked around and they were tattooed and muscled. They were very scary for me to look at. And after the second or third time, they’re just so normal. They’re like my kids.”

Finlay is a woman of faith who taught at the Toronto School of Theology, became an ordained priest in 1992 and is often called to care for people on the “margins of life.” One long summer, she started to think about the striking number of penal institutions in and around Kingston.

“Every sort of faith, stripe and denomination goes into the prisons and they do wonderful work,” she said. “I thought maybe there was something else I could do.”

Having heard about two English professors from Roehampton University who were starting book clubs in prisons, Finlay decided to get in touch. The professors handed her a template to get started. Finding a prison willing to take the risk, a challenge. That’s when she approached the chaplain at Collins Bay. Her idea was deemed crazy, but worth trying.

Finlay met with more than 25 inmates to see what kind of books they were interested in reading.

“They all said they wanted to do sci-fi and true crime, but I wasn’t going to do that,” she said. “I really wanted to make these book clubs circles of civil discourse. And that’s what I’ve always called them.” 

Finlay has been involved in book clubs for most of her life. At one time, she was juggling five. She also grew up in environment where a love of literature was fostered. Her mother studied English at Oxford University in the 1920s and a handful of her five siblings pursued English degrees.

“We’re all book worms,” she said.

Her love of the written word is bred in the bone and bringing books beyond the bars was a perfect fit.

“Inmates and former inmates are really on the margins of life, so this is where I should be. And this is what I should be doing. It just clicked,” she said.

Finlay has started a book club in every federal penitentiary in Ontario. An achievement made possible with the help of volunteers like broadcaster and writer Eric Friesen.

When Finlay approached Friesen about Book Clubs for Inmates, he was intrigued. Living in the Kingston area spurred mixed feelings about penitentiaries. 

“I’m surrounded by federal prisons,” he said. “And I’ve been both curious about them and kind of put off by them. I mean, you drive by these places and you just imagine what they’re like. I thought to myself one day, I really got to get over this. I’ve got to find out what goes on there. I’m afraid, but why am I afraid.”

Understanding life on the inside was only half of Friesen’s intrigue. The other half was fueled by a deep-rooted belief in the potency of a book.

Friesen is in his third year of volunteering at Collins Bay and his fear is long gone. In the prison’s chapel, he sees how the inmates are affected by the book club.

“It gives them hope that their lives are not an endless cycle of where they’ve been. From abused childhoods, neglected childhoods, to not having any kind of proper parenting. To all of the troubles that have followed them,” he said. “In reading the right kind of books, they can see where it’s possible for them to break the cycle.”

Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes is one of the more popular reads in the book club. Finlay went to Hill’s home in Hamilton to speak with him about joining the advisory committee. Hill said he knew it was something too important to say no to.

“I think we have a misplaced notion that literature is for people who have everything; great jobs, stable families, prestige and status in society. That literature is sort of for those on their feet in life,” he said. “But I think that some of the people who need it the most and are enriched by it, are people who have the least in society. People who really need a hand and encouragement.”

Hill has made a number of author visits to three institutions. He’ll give a reading and answer the pointed, thoughtful questions inmates have about his work.

“When people come in and meet those inmates and show them some love, some attention, some interest, some conversation. Share some hours with them, converse and talk about things that are important to them. Allow them to live in their minds and escape the walls of their imprisonment. It’s incredibly uplifting to them,” he said.

Finlay is currently looking for ways to expand Book Clubs for Inmates beyond Ontario’s boarders.

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Women's Post, Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire,, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.