Book Clubs for Inmates is a national charity that promotes reading and the sharing of opinions through book clubs within federal penitentiaries, giving inmates a “second chance” one book at a time. New York Times Bestselling author, Colin Campbell, shares his experience of visiting Bath Institution in Ontario.
The waves of Lake Ontario crashed on a cold windy day as we headed for the small community of Millhaven, home to Bath Institution, a federal penitentiary where I would be speaking with inmates in the prison’s book club. Beside me was Carol Finlay, the founder of Book Clubs for Inmates, a registered Canadian charity. Occasionally, they will arrange for a personal visit by the authors of the favorite books of each prison’s book club. Some of Canada’s leading authors such as Lawrence Hill and Marina Nemat have supported the charity and have donated their time meeting and discussing their books with inmates in person.
During our drive, Carol enthusiastically explained the history and purpose of the book club, and the profound impact the opportunity to read books on a regular basis has had on many of the prisoners. Carol was an insightful, wonderful, warm person – the weather outside as we drove was anything but. I couldn’t decide if it was the thought of entering a prison that houses some of Canada’s most violent prisoners or just the dark sky that was creating the cautious anxiety I felt as we drove.
We had another passenger with us in the car who would also be meeting with the inmates in the book club - George.
George is a 140lb Newfoundland dog and the subject of my book – Free Days with George. Free Days with George is a non-fiction account of my experience adopting George, an abandoned, homeless dog who was in desperate need of a home and someone to love and look after him. It became a Globe and Mail non-fiction best seller in Canada, and a New York Times bestseller in the United States. A book about second chances, love and redemption - it resonated with the members of the prison book club. I have had many opportunities to speak with fans of Free Days with George across the United States and Canada, but this was different. I had no idea what to expect.
When we pulled off the road and headed away from the lake, the prison came into view. Tall double fences, the tops lined with video cameras and coiled rows of razor wire surrounded a huge “campus” of ominous buildings. Originally opened in 1972, the penitentiary holds over 500 prisoners, many of them carrying out life sentences. We were about to meet 14 of them, all members of the Book Clubs for Inmates program.
After going through two separate gates, we entered the prison. I felt claustrophobic and cautious as we signed in, relinquished our keys, wallets and cell phones, then went through a metal detector. Even George, who normally is excited and wags his tail when we go to book signings and other events, seemed pensive and unsure. Once processed, we met the volunteers and the prison librarian, Doug Mason, who would be escorting us inside. Doug was a very friendly, helpful person who had made most of the logistics of today’s visit come together, including getting permission and the paperwork for George to meet the inmates who had read about him. I was the first author to visit the prison in over a year.
I was a bit apprehensive as we made our way through the prison yard, watching the prisoners watch us, as we walked towards the library. We entered the library, a small single room with a low ceiling that was filled with rows of well worn, used books. There was a small front desk by the entrance and an area at the side of the room that was filled with about 20 plastic chairs arranged in a circle.
Some of the prisoners were already there and quickly came over to meet George and extended their hand to me with a warm hello. Others slowly entered the library over the next 15 minutes. Their faces seemed to soften and relax when they saw the big calm dog, who I am sure might be the first ever Newfoundland dog to go inside a Canadian federal prison.
Ed, an inmate and leader of the book club, led the discussion. Sitting beside me, moments earlier, he leaned over and quietly but proudly shared with me that he had just been approved for parole and would be leaving the prison in a few weeks. Ed was very bright and enthusiastic, going around the room and asking each inmate what part of the book had most impacted them. The conversation was very open, passionate and eye opening.
An inmate in the group commented that the book had made him cry at the sadness and despair he felt George had experienced before being adopted. He said he could relate to those same feelings as a kid. He had lived in foster homes, hoping to be adopted like George had, but gave up that hope as he got older. He finished by saying that he was happy that George had gone on to live a happier life after being rescued. It was a quick review, but it will remain with me for a long time.
There were many other observations, however most of the prisoners’ focus and feedback centered around the emotional journey with George - his quest for love, acceptance and happiness when given a second chance at a home and relationship with a human who cared and loved him. As the author, I was impressed with their detailed perception of this theme of the book, but more profoundly, I found myself deeply moved to hear their personal observations of being broken and unwanted as my homeless dog once was. While I had no real expectations before the visit, I can say with certainty that I didn’t expect this type of reaction - from the inmates, or myself.
After 30 minutes or so, I was starting to forget where George and I were. These were just people – readers who had meaningful opinions about my book. They openly shared insight to their feelings, something not always possible to do in a prison environment. Aside from some of the very personal observations of what they absorbed from the book, what struck me most was the normality and humanity in the room.
The final inmate to speak made a point in thanking me for coming to the prison, and thanked the volunteers who help make the book club possible. He said each time they meet as a group, to talk about the books they had read, they are “treated as human beings” and that it gave him hope for his future which meant more to him than anything. Before leaving, I signed their books, happily shook their hands and wished them luck, watching as George slowly wagged his tail, received head rubs and gave a few wet kisses to the backs of hands as the inmates returned to their cells.
I was happy to leave the penitentiary, but grateful to have had the opportunity to share in the observations and conversation with the inmates. I am hopeful that it may help them in some small way in their rehabilitation and opportunity to return as contributing members of society. In one of the most difficult environments imaginable, with men whose lives are largely disregarded or ignored, I was humbled the words within my book had made an impression with them. The openness and grace of our society to give second chances is something, to a person, we all need in life. I am encouraged that even in these extreme circumstances, these men are receiving theirs, one book at a time.
Colin Campbell is the author of New York Times bestseller, Free Days With George (Penguin Random House) and is on the Board of Directors for the Ontario Veterinary College Pet Trust Twitter: @ccampbellwrites