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College students, inmates and a nun: A unique book club meets at one of America's largest jails

Detainees, DePaul students, and Sister Helen Prejean attend a book club at Department Of Corrections Division 11 in Chicago, Monday, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) Detainees, DePaul students, and Sister Helen Prejean attend a book club at Department Of Corrections Division 11 in Chicago, Monday, April 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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CHICAGO -

For college senior Nana Ampofo, an unconventional book club inside one of America's largest jails has transformed her career ambitions.

Each week, the 22-year-old drives a van of her DePaul University peers to Cook County Jail to discuss books with inmates and recently, the well-known activist Sister Helen Prejean. Ampofo comes prepared with thought-provoking questions to launch the conversations at the Chicago jail about the most recent books they've been reading together.

One club rule is clear: Discussions about personal lives are encouraged, but no questions are permitted about why other members are in jail.

"That's part of dehumanizing people. You want people to tell you their own story and have their own autonomy," Ampofo said. "When you go in with an open mind, you see how similar people are to you."

The student-led volunteer effort started years ago as an offshoot of a DePaul program offering college credit classes at the jail on the city's southwest side for students and detainees. The book club, with a new cohort each academic quarter, tackles books that resonate personally with group members who are nearly all Black or Latino.

Associated Press journalists were allowed into the jail Monday to observe the current club's final meeting to discuss Prejean's book "Dead Man Walking," where the Louisiana anti-death penalty activist made a special appearance. The book, which was also adapted into a movie and an opera, is about her experiences as a spiritual adviser to a pair of men on death row in the 1980s.

Sitting in a circle inside a window-filled jail chapel, 10 inmates in tan jail-issued uniforms sat among four college students and Prejean, who visits the Catholic university in Chicago each year.

Ampofo, who advocated for Prejean's visit, cried when she talked about how important the group members and their discussions are to her. Laughter erupted when Prejean told a vulgar joke involving Louisiana bayou folk characters. And there were fierce nods when Steven Hayer, a detainee, discussed why many inmates return to jail.

"Our society doesn't invest in solutions," he said. "And when they get out, they will go back to what they know."

Book club members seized the chance to ask Prejean questions, including differences between the book and movie and what it's like to watch people die.

The 85-year-old nun has been present for seven executions. Her archival papers are housed at DePaul, including script notes for the 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon.

After witnessing her first execution, Prejean said she threw up, but decided that being with people in their final moments was a privilege.

"When you've been a witness to something then that fire begins to burn in your heart for justice that we've got to change this," she said.

As a white woman who grew up in the South, Prejean said her prison work opened her eyes about racism.

Most of the detained members of the book club are Black, mirroring demographics of the jail, which houses nearly 5,000 detainees. Roughly 70 per cent of inmates are involved in some type of educational programming like the book club, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

But having college student participation sets the book club apart from other activities.

"When you all of a sudden have students from the outside, sitting next to you, you start thinking of yourself different," said Dart. "It changes mentalities."

Detainees are invited to participate based on their interests, he said. Their behaviour on the inside determines their ability to join, not what they are serving time for, he added. Health issues are also taken into consideration.

The jail's wait list to get into the club has been up to 40 people.

Jarvis Wright, who has been detained at Cook County for two years, said he's a reader but had never been in a book club before. The 30-year-old reads at night when it's quiet at the jail. The other book club picks included "The Color of Law," which delves into housing segregation.

"Even though we're sitting in here incarcerated doing time, awaiting trial for our cases, this gives us something positive to look forward to," Wright said. "We're not in here just wasting time."

DePaul has offered college classes through a national program called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange since 2012. Classes are held at both the Cook County Jail and the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men's prison about 40 miles (64 kilometres) from Chicago.

During book club, security guards are present, but no one is shackled.

Helen Damon-Moore, who oversees the jail education programs at DePaul, says there has never been a security issue.

"They are all equal when they're inside," Damon-Moore said.

Stanley Allen, a 36-year-old detainee, said he was drawn to the club because it was linked to a college. He hopes to take classes for credit in the future. For him, the most surprising part of the club was meeting the college students and Prejean.

"There's really good people out there," he said.

Other book club members say the experience has brought them close.

"I feel like I'm talking to a bunch of my brothers," Seven Clark, a DePaul sophomore from Chicago, told the group. "They way you talk is so familiar. It feels like home."

Ampofo will return to the jail by week's end when a new club focusing on Black women's writing begins. It's a topic that resonates with her as the American-born daughter of a Ghanian immigrant mom.

The first to graduate high school in her family, Ampofo is planning on graduate school to further pursue museum studies. She dreams of improving access to museums for incarcerated people and their families.

"I want to take care of people," she said. "And I found the people I want to take care of."

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