My First Prison Book Club

Originally posted 1/4/11

Last December I flew to snowy Billings, MT, to visit Montana State University at Billings, which had wonderfully chosen The Last Town on Earth for their inaugural First-Year Experience program. It’s always a pleasure when a school reads my book, so I was looking forward to the class visits and hearing what sorts of comments and issues the students wanted to bring up. And I love to travel and was curious about Billings (the largest city in Montana! Population 500,000) -- I've been to Missoula and Glacier National Park but had never seen the eastern side of the state.

But what I was most looking forward to—and was also kind of freaked out about—was my appointment with a prison book club.

The backstory: one of the classes at MSUB that would be reading the book had also partnered up with a reading group at Passages, a "residential facility" for women offenders, as their Web site terms it. Billings is the home of the Washington State prison, and just down the road from the prison, in a former Howard Johnson’s hotel, some female inmates live at Passages, from which they are often being transitioned back into the community or into different programs, like substance abuse or mental health.

One of the professors at MSUB led a discussion group of women at Passages, who read the book and talked about its themes of community and ethics, applying it to their own life experiences. The professor thought it had gone very well, that it helped the women draw parallels to their own lives and see how individual actions can affect a larger society, and vice versa.

A few months before I flew to Billings, the professor asked if I would visit the group. I figured, sure, when was the last time I was invited to a women’s correctional facility?

So on Dec. 2 I was given a tour of the building, all the while tracked by a small film crew that was making a documentary for an MSUB communications class. On the walls were fliers reminding inmates that if they had a work assignment (like shoveling snow from the walkway) they had to sign out by a certain time, and informational leaflets about how to avoid abusive relationships. I met a couple of "graduates" of the program who had come by again just to meet me, which was flattering -- you'd think it would take a lot to make a former inmate willing to drop by and visit their old "home."

Then I was taken to "the secure second floor," where my guides and I sat on the floor of a small, furnitureless, former hotel room. The book club was already assembled: ten women in prison scrubs. On the walls around us were the artwork they'd made. Through the lone window we could see the gray and icy roads, and the two tall buildings that constitute the Billings skyline, and beyond them the snowcapped rimrock that surrounds the city like the walls of a crater. We went around and introduced ourselves.

The professor mostly led the discussion, asking the women what they thought of the book and how it echoed or perhaps added new meaning to things in their own lives. People would make reference to "what I did" or "mistakes I’ve made" or "the people I've hurt." The women ranged in age from early twenties to maybe mid-fifties. Everyone was so friendly and happy to be there – if you closed your eyes and just listened, it wouldn’t have sounded any different from the other clubs I’ve attended or telephoned into. But then you’d open your eyes and see the stark, furniture-less room, and the people sitting on the floor, and the prison scrubs.

Women at the facility aren’t allowed to have any possessions, including basic cosmetics, and many are only allowed brief, weekly phone calls with family (including, in many cases, their kids). I couldn’t help wondering how the book’s exploration of family tensions felt, if those elements of the book hit home or did they maybe seem hopelessly minor to people who were living with real-life dislocation.

This also gave new meaning to the phrase "captive audience." The book clubbers said they were thrilled to read the book, but one can't help wondering whether that has less to do with the book's merits and more to do with the sheer monotony of prison life -- they probably would have been happy to read anything, to have any distraction from what they were already enduring. For that reason alone, I'm glad they were able to read the book and I hope that it helped them, whether as simply as by making the hours pass more quickly, or something more profound and meaningful.

There were things I was afraid to ask, of course. It's always slightly awkward to lead a talk about your own book -- you don't want to look like you're fishing for compliments or stifling anyone's criticism. But at this talk more than any other I wondered about who I was speaking with, what their own stories were, whether the stresses and misadventures of my characters paled before what they themselves have lived through. But I left most of these questions unasked, not wanting to seem a voyeur or make anyone uncomfortable.

I have some experience visiting people in prisons, unfortunately. So I was thinking about that too, during the days leading up to the visit. I know very well that people who find themselves in tough spots are often far from our stereotypical visions of criminals and ne-er-do-wells. There are a thousand different combinations of misfortune and poor judgement that can lead someone to a place like Passages. This too I thought about bringing up, but I decided against it, thinking it would have seemed too touchy-feely or like I was desperate to make a connection.

Only later did I remember that an undercurrent in the novel is how all the fear and paranoia about the flu, and the treatment of the quarantined citizens, seems to turn the town itself into a large prison, where everyone is either a guard or the guarded. The word "prison" is used quite frequently. This didn’t come up in my talk with the group, but I can’t help but wonder if they were thinking about it.

People circulate in and out of the facility, as sentences end or people are processed to a different facility. They made reference to a few people who had been in the group but no longer were, and even now, seven weeks later, I wonder which of them are still there and which have moved on to hopefully better places. And whether reading fiction seems like some luxury for the leisured or will it become something to turn to when they're in need of guidance or escape. And how charged even the word "escape" is to someone in prison scrubs.