Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI) is a registered charity that organizes volunteer-led book clubs within federal penitentiaries across Canada. The book clubs help inmates develop a love of reading, improve their literacy, listening, and verbal communication skills, and expose them to heroes and heroines whom they can emulate. The book clubs offer inmates hope and encouragement for a life beyond prison and crime.
As any Book Club for Inmates (BCFI) volunteer will tell you, it can be a painful experience to hear inmates tell their stories of violence, substance abuse, and dysfunctional families. CSC staff hear those stories every day, and many find them overwhelming, but they are also committed to helping the inmates.
“It’s our job to see that Canadians are safe, and so it’s our job to believe that people can change,” says Marlene Wells, who started working as a correctional officer in 1985 and today is a national trainer for women offender correctional programs. As Marlene says, “we all make mistakes. I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, and I wouldn’t want to be judged by those actions. I don’t judge the women by their crimes. I try to look beyond the ‘what they did’ to ‘why are they here?’”
Marlene’s compassion, coupled with a love of reading, led her to go beyond her professional role of training CSC staff across Canada, to take on a volunteer position with BCFI. She started a book club in the minimum security unit at Nova Institution, a multi-level women’s penitentiary near her home in Truro, Nova Scotia. Marlene doesn’t know why the women in her book club are incarcerated, and she doesn’t ask. Instead, she helps them focus on positive attributes in themselves and others, creating an environment of trust and mutual respect.
The inaugural book club opened with a discussion about the Seven Sacred Teachings in Aboriginal tradition: love, respect, courage, honesty, wisdom, humility, and truth. Marlene also read members a children’s story - Cathie Brown’s Warm Fuzzies. In book club meetings, ‘warm fuzzies’ represent the positive attributes that members see in themselves and others. Members write ‘warm fuzzies’ to each other, short notes with comments such as “you have a good sense of humour” and “you are kind,” which they collect in their own bag. Book club meetings typically end with an activity – a favourite is when members create their own bookmarks. Marlene also asks each member to write a letter to themselves about their hopes and dreams. When the women are released from Nova, they take home their bag of warm fuzzies, a healing stone, their bookmark, and the books they have read in the club. A few months after their release, Marlene mails them the letter they wrote to themselves.
The club means so much to the women that they have asked to meet every other week, rather than monthly, as is typical of most other book clubs. Another volunteer, retired CSC employee Diane Yetman, has also joined the group. Diane and Marlene take turns leading the women through different group activities. For all of them, it’s a safe place. For some, it’s their first chance to discover the thrill of reading. Hits have included a book by one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous authors, Richard Wagamese’s Dream Wheels, as well as Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, Bradley Somer’s Fishbowl and Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus, a graphic novel based on the experiences of Spiegelman’s father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.
Marlene is proud of the impact the book club has had on the women who participate.
“The book club and my professional role with CSC help these women reintegrate successfully into the community, and that benefits them and Canadian society,” she says. “We can make a difference. I believe that the women offenders we work with have the capacity to change. When they see that they can change, that’s huge.”