For a little more than a year, Vancouver Island Regional Library librarian Jennifer Seper has been the leader of a prison book club for a small group of incarcerated individuals at the Nanaimo Correctional Centre.
The book club, which meets once a month at the correctional centre’s Guthrie Therapeutic Centre, is not only an opportunity for Seper to share her love for reading but also a chance for the inmates to express themselves and improve their literacy skills.
“Some people try it and it is not really for them and that is fine,” Seper said. “A couple people popped by and never read the book but just want to hang out and chat about books that they like and a lot of [inmates] are just starting to get back into reading.”
Recently, Seper and her book club were awarded a 2016 American Library Association Presidential Citation for Innovative International Library Projects. The association is presenting five awards this year, two of them in Nanaimo.
The idea for a book club originally began as a plan to improve the correctional centre’s library.
“I wanted to go in and help them organize it and help them improve the materials that were in it,” she said. “We used donations that people had given here and some discarded books and filled up their library again.”
However, Seper thought the prison would benefit from having a book club of its own.
“I thought it would be a great thing for the inmates to access it because they would get so much out of it,” Seper said.
Book clubs inside prisons are becoming more common in the United States and some correctional institutions in Eastern Canada have also implemented the idea, according to Seper, who said there are many advantages for inmates who get involved in prison book clubs.
“Being able to disagree with each other and being able to express your opinions in this setting is really transformative for a lot of them,” Seper said. “Just to be heard and have your opinion really matter in a group of your peers is a really powerful thing.”
Seper said running a prison book club is no different from any other book club – just that those who are members of the prison club have a unique bond.
“There is this added dimension of they come from different families, they come from different parts of the country, but they have this shared experience and they also have the experience living day-to-day in these confined living spaces with strangers and they have to make it work,” she said.
Seper has learned plenty since she began hosting the book club back in April of 2015. She said that the conversations she has with inmates are some of the most in-depth she’s ever had at a book club.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” she said.
The branch is working on a pending agreement to allow inmates to request specific materials from the library.
Meanwhile, VIRL radio program Librarians on the Radio, which is co-hosted by Justin Unrau, Emily Orr and Patrick Siebold also picked up an award from the American Library Association.