BY: ELIJAH BASSETT
When you think of prison, the first image that comes to mind probably isn’t a book club. But some Canadian prisons are doing just that, with the help of an organization called Book Clubs for Inmates. So far, they’ve started book clubs in 28 different prisons across Canada, including every women’s facility, and they hope to set one up in every federal prison in the country. Although the idea of prison book clubs may seem inconsequential, they have some very good reasons for initiating the program.
As Book Clubs for Inmates points out, most inmates end up going back into society at some point, and encouraging them to read and discuss literature with others can equip them with soft skills that often prove indispensable, such as improved empathy and communication skills. Skills like these can help inmates better adapt to society once they get released, which ideally reduces recidivism and keeps them and their communities healthier.
While this can clearly benefit society, inmates also report personal benefits to their participation in the book club, saying that it is “deeply humanizing,” and “an enormous source of intellectual and social – sometimes even spiritual – inspiration.” Science backs these claims up, with various studies demonstrating the positive effects that reading – especially literary fiction – has on emotional intelligence. Many successful business people also attribute their success partly to their reading habits and empathy, so inmates who cultivate these skills can help set themselves up for professional success upon release, even if they don’t go into business specifically.
These book clubs are also noteworthy for how rehabilitation-focused they are due to their positivity. Many people still think of prison as punishment, and it is to an extent, but it also needs to have an eye towards preventing repeat offenses by helping inmates learn how to function more adaptively in society. Although a monthly book club is nice, and clearly helpful, it’s still nothing compared to Norway’s prison system, which has taken an even more radical approach to rehabilitative incarceration, with a surprisingly comfortable living environment where they are also expected to work and prepare most of their own meals. While Norwegian prisons take these principles much farther than Canadian ones, these book clubs follow a similar model by providing opportunities to develop skills in a pro-social way.
There hasn’t been any research on the long term effect of programs like this on recidivism (although one survey by Book Clubs for Inmates showed that 93 per cent of participants think it will help), but considering the immensely positive results of Norway’s approach, and the testimonies of participants in Book Clubs for Inmates, we can at least be optimistic that these programs will continue to improve inmates’ quality of life both during and after their prison sentences.