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'Fear is judgment': Why an author joined a 'Prison Book Club'
When Ann Walmsley was approached about joining a book club in an Ontario prison, the Canadian journalist says she didn’t think she’d make it past the first visit.
A violent mugging in London years earlier had left Walmsley with post-traumatic stress symptoms, and she was uneasy with the idea of working alongside men convicted of assault, drug trafficking and armed robbery.
“I sort of had a maternal instinct that kicked in,” Walmsley told CTV’s Canada AM on Tuesday. “I started thinking about the mothers of these two guys who attacked me. They must be wondering what their sons are doing.”
Walmsley said through the book club she was able to move past her own mugging and overcome certain fears by getting to know the inmates.
Walmsley’s book about her experience on the inside, “The Prison Book Club”, was released on Tuesday.
“Initially I wasn’t sure of their literacy level and whether they’d be able to finish the books,” she said of the book club. “When I got there, they were reading Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’. They were reading significant works of literature.”
Walmsley visited the medium-security Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. and Beaver Creek Institution, a minimum and medium-security men’s prison in Gravenhurst, Ont. over 18 months in 2011 and 2012. The initiative was part of the ‘Book Clubs for Inmates’ program. Walmsley didn’t initially plan to write about the program, but it didn’t take her long to realize that a book could emerge from her experience.
“Their comments were as insightful as any university English class, as insightful as my women’s book club,” Walmsley said.
She said the book clubs helped the inmates connect to the outside world by introducing them to characters who are struggling and have obstacles to overcome.
“There’s something very elevating to being involved in a discussion with something that everyone is talking about.”
“The Prison Book Club” follows six of the book club members, who kept journals at Walmsley’s request and participated in candid one-on-one conversations about books and life.
Among the inmates in the book is a biker, a gunman, two drug dealers and two robbers. In the book, Walmsley follows their lives after prison.
She said getting to know the men on a deeper level helped her move past her role as a victim.
“Fear is judgment and I didn’t want to judge these men,” she said.