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A prisoner at Joyceville Institution takes a copy of The River, a novel by Peter Heller, at a monthly meeting of the federal prison's book club.Photography by Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The first two rules of prison book club are read the book and take part in the debate.

On this late November morning, there are a few violations.

More than 25 guys – they are not referred to as inmates or offenders in book club – signed up, but only eight have shown. Of those, just four have read this month’s selection, The River by Peter Heller.

When everyone is seated, the discussion leader lays out the first question: What word would you use to describe this month’s book? Silence fills the bright activity room deep within the bowels of Joyceville Institution, a federal prison near Kingston, Ont.

Several of the guys gaze downwards at their generic black sneakers and rolled-up blue jeans.

These book clubbers can’t help it if they’re out of practice.

For much of the last two-and-a-half years, COVID-19 forced prisons across Canada to cancel most outside visits.

Prisoners couldn’t meet with family or the many volunteer-led charities that offer tutoring, legal advice, religious studies and myriad other services to prisoners.

Among the groups barred from entry was Book Clubs for Inmates, a 14-year-old charity that operates in 36 federal penitentiaries, where it has become a literary lifeline to hundreds of prisoners.

Now, the clubs are re-launching. Sort of. The Joyceville book club had a session in September only to have its October date cancelled by another COVID-19 outbreak within the facility.

Book-club participants had been assigned to read The River a month earlier, and must now share what they thought of it.

At 9 a.m., the Joyceville club got rolling again with Peter Heller’s modern-day survival tale set in the Hudson Bay watershed. Just as the silence among the group begins to verge on awkward, a 37-year-old participant named Wick speaks up. “It was suspenseful?” he answers.

The nervousness evaporates.

“A wilderness thriller,” says Josh, another participant.

“A reflection of life,” says Kevin.

Then one of the guys snuffs the vibe. “It’s useless to be here if I haven’t read the book, eh?” says Jesse, arms crossed. “I’m not contributing anything.”

Rule four of book club – they’re actually called ‘norms’ rather than rules on club handouts – is to maintain a welcoming atmosphere. Kevin, the oldest participant at age 52, steps into the breach. “I can help with that,” he says, and perfectly summarizes the plot in five minutes flat, spoilers and all. The disruptor seems satisfied.

A sign at Joyceville tells prisoners how they can get involved in the book club.

Book Clubs for Inmates started in the late 2000s when retired Anglican priest Carol Finlay went to Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, intending to pray with segregated prisoners. She soon realized prisoners needed a sense of community more than they needed evangelizing.

With the consent of Correctional Service Canada, she launched the first book club with a dozen or so prisoners in 2008. By 2010, she was expanding the program to other penitentiaries.

The value is immediately apparent in the Joyceville activity room.

The book’s outdoor setting gives Kevin a chance to talk about the dangers he faced on his many canoeing trips, including one that required an escape from a wildfire, much like the characters in the book. “I’ve never told anyone here about that side of my life,” Kevin marvels later.

Wick opines that one of the protagonists secretly loves a secondary character. Margaret Ford, one of the volunteers facilitating the club, disagrees. But there are no hurt feelings. That’s rule six of book club – all views are to be respected. The approach instills the importance of civil debate, a practice that can be lacking in prison, where studies show half the population experienced violence and abuse in childhood.

“The book club offers an opportunity to have a discussion where you can agree or disagree,” says Ms. Ford. “That social aspect is so important for these guys because they will all be going back into society eventually.”

Volunteer Margaret Ford she says the book club helps participants build social skills they'll need when they are released.

Copies of the club's next assignment are piled up for them to read.

After a solid hour-and-a-half discussion, there’s little discord. All agree they would recommend the book to a friend. Those who haven’t read it scramble for spare copies. As the session breaks, the guys thank the volunteers, shake hands and pick up next month’s read: The Spy and the Traitor by Ben McIntyre.

The titles run from popular pot-boilers to challenging speculative fiction, written by the likes of Stephen King, Kazuo Ishiguro, Omar El Akkad and perennial favourite Richard Wagamese. One participant says he finishes each selection in a single sitting.

“I crush about 500 pages a day,” says Glen. “I didn’t used to read much but I got here and I blew through the Game of Thrones series and now another one called Red Rising. This gives us a chance to talk about it. It’s really helped.”

Several participants said the perpetual pandemic lockdowns kindled a love of books, the stories making up for the loss of mental stimulation. “I never used to read, but I’ve probably done 15 books the last five months,” says Wick.

The guys explain that the low attendance today doesn’t reflect a lack of enthusiasm. This part of the prison operates as a regional assessment unit. Guys generally spend a few months here before being shipped out. Many will sign up for book club only to be transferred before they can attend.

The club, say prisoners, cuts through the “con code” of prison life, where there’s a strict pecking order starting with guys on life sentences at the top and sex offenders at the very bottom. Within the four walls of the book club, they’re all equal for a couple hours.

If some dislike the book and others love it, it makes for a better discussion, says Ashley, who lives in Joyceville’s minimum-security confines and has attended book club for more than a decade. “You’re forced to see how someone else came to like the book and understand someone else’s point of view and how they came to it.”

An announcement comes over the intercom. Everyone has to return to their beds for noon count. Ashley heads for the door, then pauses to clarify his last statement. There are some viewpoints he will not tolerate, he says. “I hate Stephen King.”

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