Prison Literacy and the Maple Tree

Prison is a land without trees. Perhaps for reasons of security, the authorities fear that a tree might hide a prisoner, or serve as a hiding place for drugs and weapons.

But we have one tree, a young maple about thirty feet high, alone in a corner of our prison yard, near the barbed wire fencing that marks the limits of our little universe.

By Colin McGregor

Each week I sit below that tree, at a picnic table, with one of my fellow inmates. He is 65. He has run companies, has been married twice, is the father of several children, some of whom are still very young.

But he doesn’t know how to read. We sit with little exercise books. He always insists that we sit underneath this lonely tree. He calls it his lucky tree, because that is where he learned to read.

Illiteracy and Prison

There is no link more direct than that between illiteracy and criminality. In federal penitentiaries, only one inmate in 25 has set foot in a post-secondary institution; 7 out of 10 prisoners are functionally illiterate. This causes frustration. Illiterate, they cannot find a job, or make themselves understood in writing. So they slip: they steal, they become violent. They drink and take drugs. Dropping out of school and crime are Siamese twins.

An illiterate prisoner cannot read the judge’s decision that sent him to jail, or the correctional evaluations that determine if and when he will be one day released. We have long hours to spend all alone in our cells. Reading fills up those hours. It’s a way of escaping mentally.

The Ancient Romans called the world of literature “the land of shadows.”  It’s a world that we as prisoners can access when the rest of the world is barred to us.

Learning to Read in Prison

My fellow inmate wants to be able to read stories to his children and grandchildren when he gets out. I am a university graduate. I was a writer and a teacher before my incarceration. I am not a saint: I am bored, and want to use my education somehow.  

That’s why we find ourselves under his lucky tree. Hesitantly, he reads a few words. He looks up, at leaves turning red. “Thank you God,” he says quietly, “I never thought I’d be able to read.” I see a tear forming on the corner of his eye. That salty globule of water is all the pay I need.

Learning to read is a challenge behind bars. There is a prison school full of devoted teachers. But with all its rules, school frightens people who had problems with rules when they were young. There is also a library. But that intimidates people who have trouble reading. Each shelf full of books represents their own weakness. And prison is no place to show weakness.

We are not allowed to receive books through the mail, as they may contain drugs, we are told. There is no internet, and the few computers we have fill up as soon as they are available.

Volunteer Teachers

A literacy group from Cowansville, composed mostly of retired teachers, the Yamaska Literacy Council, comes to see us at the prison chapel two Fridays a month. The chaplain, himself a former teacher, offers up his space and makes coffee. These teachers train inmate tutors – we are 4 as of this moment – and work with students. They give out certificates. It’s important to mark and to celebrate successes. It’s a motivator.

A gray, windy Saturday, and the prison factory has no work for me today. So I am under the maple tree. My 65-year-old fellow inmate is emotional: “When I get out,” he says, “I’ll be able to read to my grandkids, you know. I won’t have to tell them I’m busy, go see your mother. They’ll be surprised!”

He is smiling. When you’re a strong man, one with responsibilities and pride, you hide your illiteracy. It’s a secret that gnaws at you from the inside.


It begins to rain. Droplets fall on the open pages of our books, forming Rorschach inkblots. Inside, the rec rooms are packed with poker players. We have no place to go to continue our reading.

My fellow inmate rubs his shoulder. “We can come back tomorrow, can’t we?” he asks “As long as my shoulder isn’t acting up.” He shows me where it hurts.

He doesn’t seem hurt. Perhaps he is just afraid that one day he will stop making progress. That suddenly, he won’t be able to read. I am incapable of calming his fears.

Tomorrow, he may come. If not, I will bring a novel. I will read alone, under the maple tree, with the breeze as my companion.  

For a moment I will not be in prison. I will be in the land of shadows.

First seen on Raymond Viger’s blog, January 12th, 2011

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