Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Maximum Security Book Club


This was a book I was curious to read the moment I heard of it, and at the same time hesitant to get into. Fortunately, getting it through interlibrary loan and having a time limit really helps with my motivation. I work in a prison library, and I make an effort to separate myself from anything work-related in my regular life. (That's why after all these years I still haven't gotten into Orange is the New Black or bothered to watch Shawshank Redemption. Too much prison!) But I did choose to read Maximum Security Book Club by Mikita Brottman. It felt like a professional obligation.

First, the good: I love any book about books, about discussions about books, etc. And I am truly grateful to the people who give up their time to enter a prison to provide programming. Volunteers can be like a breath of fresh air, giving an outside perspective into a difficult environment. They provide pro-social opportunities for men who sometimes have trouble with polite interaction with others. They show people who have been send "away" by society that someone still cares for their well-being. They give opportunities for people with few options to learn and grow.

And now the caveats.

Brottman has very few good things to say about prison staff, and that offends me as a corrections professional. (Full disclosure: I am proud to work in an extremely well-run prison.) Volunteers come in once a week, a month, or a year and often hear the complaints of the incarcerated. What they don't get to see is the dailiness of life in a prison - the 24/7/365 cycle. There is no such thing as a prison snow day, or a holiday, or any day when everything shuts down. That is never an option. Letting down your guard and overlooking security procedures, which often feel pointless and burdensome (I hear management staff say "good security is not convenient"), is also not an option. Corrections staff deal with incarcerated people who are frequently unlikable, rude, and self-absorbed - not to mention violent, manipulative, and litigious. But no volunteer gets to see that side of the people they deal with - they will see an offender on his or her best behavior.

In short, please cut corrections professionals some slack. In a single day their job may go from boring to frustrating to dangerous and back, and they truly don't get enough credit for what they do in dealing with people that society has decreed need to "go away." (Just look at rates of divorce and early death among corrections professionals to gauge the level of stress that is part of the profession.)

Brottman has a Ph.D. in English from Oxford, and brings in books for her group that are very challenging. She doesn't mention using questionnaires or other methods to assess the education level or reading tastes of the men she works with. Many in prison have not even finished grade school, much less high school. Reading Heart of Darkness may not have been the best choice. Though I am a believer in not underestimating what texts people are capable of dealing with, a little more research and preparation on Brottman's part may have netted her better conversations in her reading group.

Then there is using Lolita as a text. This is an area where more research and better judgment definitely would have helped her. The stigma against child molesters ("cho-mos") and sex offenders ("SOs") in prison is a daily source of conflict. SOs are often targets for violent retribution, extortion, and daily bullying. A book like Lolita (though it is a work of genius, and beautifully written), brings up issues that are taboo in a correctional setting for very good reason.

Finally, Brottman commits an error so great I am amazed that she is still able to continue her group: she has personal contact with the men after their release. In a book group it is natural to feel close to people you are sharing time and ideas with, but every man in a prison is a convicted criminal. It is unprofessional and potentially dangerous to put yourself into compromising situation with an ex-con if you are still volunteering at a prison.

Brottman does get many details of prison life right, and think that she comes into some great insights on human nature. I just think that she could have approached her group differently and gotten greater results.

All this to say: if you are looking for an extraordinary memoir about leading a book club in a repressive setting, try Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. If you want one that is only average, settle for Maximum Security Book Club.


"Prisoners aren't supposed to have any secrets. Everything is supposed to be open and transparent. Private tastes and preferences are a luxury of the free." - 83

"Over time, however, what was once mysterious and alluring became difficult and confusing, and while I continued to sympathize instinctively with the men, their suffering began to exhaust me, and I realized that rather than learning more about them, I was simply learning how little I'm able to know." - 217

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