Book Clubs for Inmates and the Pandemic

We had a visit here at The Social Eyes from the Reverend Tim Smart, who works in the prison system as well as having his own outside church to run. Tim was one of my chaplains in jail. Tim brought me a copy of the latest Isabel Allende novel, A Long Petal of the Sea.

By Colin McGregor

A devotee of literature, he helps run an English language book club at Cowansville Institution, distributing literature to inmates who, pre-pandemic, would have read the book then come to the chapel to discuss it.

However, due to Covid 19, reading has become a solitary practice in prisons. Jails internally are at a standstill as cautious correctional service administrators have understandably placed the emphasis on fighting the spread of the coronavirus behind prison walls.

The population of each federal prison in Quebec, indeed in Canada, is divided up into smaller groups, called “cohorts.” Each cohort gets a few hours of yard time per day in a section of the yard set aside for them. These rules ebb and flow as regional alert levels are raised and lowered. But cohorts never mingle with each other. They are kept apart, to stop the spread of the virus.

Activities everywhere inside Canada’s federal prison system are at a halt. Visitors are not allowed in; work and social development furloughs out of jail have been cancelled since March of 2020; and the results are difficult to deal with for those who want to help prisoners as well as for the prisoners themselves. The chaplains can visit prisoners one-on-one, but no groups can meet.

Medical staff inside prisons are vigilant. Covid tests are available just for the asking. Showing symptoms of the disease means a quick quarantine. A new mask is distributed to each inmate every two days. Signs mandating hand-washing and social distancing are everywhere. All to protect lives.

I spent ten months of my life under these strictures, having been released from jail in January of 2021.

I can tell you that as your body and mind become less active, you slow down, rather like a sloth. It takes you hours to decide when to go to the bathroom. You spent much if not most of your day lying in front of the television, staring at the screen.

Near the end I was working in a warehouse near the prison, one of a few inmates with a job. That was wonderful. But if the virus ever makes a return, such jobs will disappear.

One casualty of the Covid crisis has been the organization Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI). They’re a registered charity headquartered in Toronto that helps supply books and volunteers for federal prison book clubs in both French and English.

Before the pandemic, BCFI were facilitating 35 book clubs from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Book clubs were usually made up of 10-18 members who meet once a month to discuss books, both fiction and non-fiction of literary merit. Every month, hundreds of inmates participated in book clubs across the country and each year thousands of brand new books were purchased, read, and discussed. Including Tim’s inmates in Cowansville.

Since, BCFI has had to let go of staff. But they have kept up their correspondence programs with inmates in some prisons. And, says the Reverend Tim, “BCFI still sent me boxes of books to pass to the inmates during this long period of lockdown.”  

Tim says that as of the time this is being written on June 17, 2021, visits may soon come back to prisons as early as next week, and yard times are to be increased. This is good news. May the world’s thaw help our incarcerated.   

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