So, what should I wear to prison tomorrow?
Trust me, it wasn’t a question I ever thought I’d be asking, but I found myself emailing that inquiry to my good friend, Sara, a few short days ago.
Her response: I should wear something I’d wear to a casual business interview. Dark jeans or slacks were good. Minimal jewelry. And I might consider wearing a sports bra, because underwire has the annoying habit of tripping the metal detectors at the entrance. Beyond that, the only things I would need were my driver’s license and my copy of The Book Thief.
You see, I wasn’t going to prison because I was in trouble. I was going to prison as a volunteer, a book club volunteer.
When Sara approached me about volunteering alongside her at Perryville Women’s Prison, there was an instant tug in my belly. Half of that tug was nervousness, because let’s face it, I’d be going into a prison to interact with inmates. (And you might as well nickname me Ms. Paranoid—just ask my boyfriend.)
But the other half of that tug was instinct, something in me that said, “Yes, this would be a good thing. It’s something you have to give. Share your love for the written word. And do something that challenges you.”
Last week, I got the email from Sara letting me know that my background check had cleared, they were meeting next week, and the group was reading The Book Thief, would I come?
Last night, it smelled like a petting zoo when we got out of Sara’s car, because Perryville is situated just down the road from a dairy farm on the west, west side of town. The sun was setting, painting the horizon pink over the coils of barbed wire around us. Little squat buildings sat behind gates and uniforms. And there were women on the yard, walking around in bright orange clothing, probably enjoying the cooler weather.
We made it through the metal detectors without issue (go sports bras!), got our temporary badges, and walked into the cafeteria.
What came next was not the scene from a horror film. It was not an episode of Orange is the New Black. It was pretty, well, normal.
It was a regular book club, a collection of women who genuinely love the written word, who pine for it. Women who are intelligent and have opinions. Women who smiled at me even though they knew absolutely nothing about me. Women who I had an easier time picturing as mothers, sisters, and daughters than hardened criminals.
As we dissected the love letter to the written word that is The Book Thief and pontificated on the healing power of books, the women of Perryville shared with us that books help them to escape. The book club is something they look forward to. It’s a spot of hope in a blanket of bleakness.
And I realized that these women each have a story that led them to Perryville. Some are stories of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some are stories of terrible mistakes, the stuff of nightmares. Some are stories of struggle, addiction, and abuse. Some are about the women they used to be or the side of themselves they are fighting to overcome.
And I decided that we can’t let their stories end there. Prison shouldn’t result in blank pages for them.
So that’s what Sara and I and all the other Perryville volunteers are doing. We’re coloring these women’s pages with words and feelings and reminders of what it’s like outside the barbed wire. We’re making sure their stories continue to breathe and develop—so that when they get out, they can confidently continue to tell their stories and perhaps rewrite themselves into new, rehabilitated lives.
Last night, I went to prison. It won’t be the last time.