Inmates at Canadian federal penitentiaries, including the Grand Valley Institute for Women in Kitchener, are participating in book clubs to help develop literacy and other skills to help with their post-release lives.
Book Clubs for Inmates was founded in 2008 and currently operates 36 volunteer-led book clubs across the country. They aim to establish book clubs in every federal institution to help inmates prepare for reentering society after serving their sentences.
Tom Best, executive director at Book Clubs for Inmates, said the charitable organization began with a visit by Carol Finlay, the organization’s founder, at the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston. Finlay was visiting the institution as part of her ministry work when the idea for organizing a book club came to her.
“Carol Finlay was a remarkable woman and a former Anglican minister. Part of her ministry work was working in prisons, and she thought setting up a book club might be a great way of getting the guys to talk and to openly communicate about each other to each other,” Best said.
Best worked in the publishing industry for over 30 years and supported Book Clubs for Inmates’ efforts to build relationships with publishers. He served as executive director at First Book Canada for ten years before becoming executive director at Books Clubs for Inmates. It was First Book Canada where Best connected with Finlay.
“I got a call almost in the first couple of weeks after I’d started there. Carol was very interested in talking to me about how to source books. I got hooked in about five minutes talking to her about what they were doing,” Best said.
Best said they see the benefits from group discussions—especially helping the inmates to build empathy with each other and those on the outside.
“[The volunteers] are not there to teach the book, but rather to make sure every voice is heard around the table and bring different perspectives,” Best said.
“I think [the inmates] also find that useful in terms of connecting with the outside community for when they ultimately get released,” he said.
Emily O’Brien participated in a book club at the Grand Valley Institute for Women in 2018 while serving a sentence for a drug-related offence.
She said she wanted to rebuild her life after being released, and the book club provided an opportunity to focus on self-improvement.
“People could have good discussions, give their perspective on things and share in a safe space,” O’Brien said.
“You talked about more than just the book. It was a chance to chat with people outside your pod,” she said.
O’Brien had a strong support network and said she spent her time at Grand Valley preparing to rebuild her life on the outside with a purpose.
During a Super Bowl gathering at the institute, O’Brien made special seasoning for popcorn, and feedback from her fellow inmates inspired her to start her company Comeback Snacks after being released.
“It helped me really believe in Comeback Snacks because I knew that everyone had the exact same worries that I did about reintegrating—but the same desire to do better,” O’Brien said.
Today, Comeback Snacks are available in retailers across Canada and in the U.S.
O’Brien said the company is committed to helping former inmates rebuild their lives after serving their sentences. She added the province is encouraging more employers to hire former inmates as part of its Skills Development Fund announced last September.
Best said O’Brien’s story exemplifies how building empathy and community through reading can benefit inmates, the justice system, and communities across Canada. He added that many former inmates have said the book clubs were an essential part of their experience in prison.
“I think it is that connection with literature that books bring to all of us in some form or another that helps them. For those that are interested in it, the book club can be a bit of a lifesaver during a rather bleak period for a lot of these individuals’ lives when they really have a lot of not very much else going on,” Best said.
Book Clubs for Inmates is open to new volunteers to help run books at Grand Valley and other institutions.
Alex Kinsella is a freelance content marketer and writer based in Waterloo Region, Ontario. He's behind the TL;WR newsletter–Waterloo Region's weekly events newsletter. He's worked with some of Canada's most well known tech companies in roles including customer success, development, product management, PR, social media and marketing. Alex has contributed to publications including BetaKit, Grand Magazine and more.