The Rev. Dr. Carol Finlay, a retired educator, has always had a passion for helping others and giving back to the community. In 2008, while searching for life’s purpose, she found herself reaching out to Correctional Service Canada (CSC) Collins Bay Institution in Ontario, to propose a new program: a book club for inmates. Carol got the idea from scholars she met online in London, England who had started book clubs in their local penitentiaries.
What Carol saw is that while books can develop reading proficiency and impart knowledge, book clubs foster critical thinking, communication skills and create a sense of community. Collins Bay Institution welcomed her proposal. By August of that year, 15 inmates had signed up, and the Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI) was founded.
Over the years, the project has grown by approximately three book clubs each year including the first francophone book club, which was established in Quebec in 2014. Today, BCFI is a volunteer-led organization facilitating French and English-speaking clubs inside 36 of CSC's institutions across Canada, with over 100 volunteers. Book clubs are usually made up of 10-18 members that discuss both fiction and non-fiction books. “Anyone can join,” says Carol.
Through Carol’s tremendous fundraising efforts, BCFI is able to purchase thousands of brand-new books each year, which are then generously donated to the institutions. Choosing books for the clubs, however, comes with its own set of parameters and guidelines. BCFI has 15 volunteer readers who pre-read books, and carefully scan the content before selecting them as potential reads. Inmates then work with book club volunteers to build their own club’s list from the pre-selected books.
Lorna Watkinson Zimmer, a volunteer at Bowden Institution shares that “members are given the right to select 11 books each year by a majority of votes. They own the list, the variety and style.” Giving book club members the autonomy to select books allows them to identify as part of a community. “This is their book club,” says Carol. Inmates also get to keep the books after the book club finishes, allowing them to build their own personal library, which becomes a source of pride.
Members and volunteers meet once a month to discuss one of their chosen books. Although the volunteers lead the conversation, everyone is given the opportunity to express their opinions and thoughts about the book, and what emotions were felt while reading. They also take the time to discuss the books’ themes such as identity and resilience, and how they relate to their own lives.
“If the book has been well received, the conversation can take right off! If, however, the book has been a struggle, we can talk about why…because there is trust within the group. Some will let their feelings show and will share why a particular book was difficult for them,” says Lorna.
Carroll Calder, Librarian at Grand Valley Institution for Women, recounts her first night at the book club. “For that hour, the members forgot about their compound rivalries and instead shared personal experiences evoked by the stories they had read. The volunteers were impressed by the thoughtfulness of their comments”.
BCFI promotes a pro-social environment where members learn how to listen and speak respectfully, formulate thoughts and opinions, and develop their communication skills to express their thoughts and feelings. Cultivating these skills assists with the members’ reintegration back into society. “We have found members to be absolutely polite, patient and hold glimmers of empathy towards each other in discussions”, says Lorna.
“Members are joining for the discussions. Everyone likes to be heard and listened to,” adds Carol. “All ideas are acceptable, and we encourage them to debate both sides of any issue that comes up.”
Staff notice the positive impact of book clubs as well. “The book club has really opened up a great communication chain not only between volunteers and inmates, but between staff and inmates as well. It gives our book club members something to look forward to each month, and receiving a new book is always so exciting for them,” says Katie Iberg, Programs Assistant, at Mountain Institution.
Carroll Calder adds, “For the staff of Grand Valley Institution, the book club has provided inspiration to explore new authors. Staff read along with the members, which opens up conversation between them”.
Volunteers describe their involvement with the book clubs as a rich and rewarding experience. “It honestly warms our hearts! That may sound cliché but it is so true. There is enormous satisfaction that we are doing good things for our members and the institution in the long term,” says Lorna.
Through the pandemic, CSC staff made it possible for book clubs to continue with BCFI volunteers at both Mountain and Grand Valley Institutions through correspondence. “At Grand Valley Institution for Women, when COVID protocols took effect, two of our volunteers became a lifeline for the women,” says Carroll. “Even with this substantial change, the book club’s popularity continued to grow.”
The impact BCFI has had on inmates is tremendous. “The literal value of a book is secondary to teasing out main themes and relating that to their lives,” Carol Finlay says. Inmates are able to use the book club to redefine themselves, build a sense of pride and ownership and to participate in moments of self-reflection. This paves a way for successful rehabilitation and reintegration back into their communities.
Furthermore, inmates have had nothing but positive reviews on the program:
“The Book Club is an enormous source of intellectual and social – sometimes even spiritual – inspiration to both myself and the many others who attend. It is an oasis we get one day a month. I have watched men in that group realize their potential to analyze and reflect that I don’t know if they even realized they had.”
- Member at Collins Bay Medium Institution
“The book club has opened me to a whole new world of reading and taken me out of my comfort zone. It even inspired me to start writing again.”
- Member at Bowden Institution
“The book club is deeply humanizing.”
- Member at Beaver Creek Medium Institution
CSC is grateful for Carol’s vision in 2008, her passion and leadership. Inmates in our care and custody have benefited greatly from this 13-year partnership with BCFI . Thanks also to the many talented BCFI volunteers who have given their valued skills and time, and for the thousands of books generously purchased and donated.
For more information on Book Clubs for Inmates: