An inmate at Bowden Institution was kind enough to share this report of their February meeting with us:
The Bowden Institution Book Club for Inmates met 21 February 2019. The Club consists of three volunteer visitors from the community, a CSC staff person (the librarian), and 15 inmates; we read and discussed In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff.
The institution itself is a community, currently home to over 600 inmates. We see each other regularly be it enjoying the amenities such as the gym, yard, chapel, dining hall, or the library to name a few; the latter, is my personal favourite. During the month between our previous gathering, members cross each other’s path going to eat, attending program and work assignments, enjoying the amenities, or just roaming around aimlessly.
Leading up to the February meeting, I spoke to our librarian, who is a member, and several inmates with respects to their feelings toward In Pharaoh’s Army. It appeared that the general vibe was a neutral one; nobody had anything negative to say yet nobody appeared to be very excited about the read. In my opinion, that certainly changed during and after our gathering.
In my experience, speaking about war, geo-politics, and ideology; all themes in the book, with a group of diverse inmate can be challenging and sometimes hostile and belligerent. This was not the case during our meet. Everyone was respectful towards one another and agreed to disagree when values and attitudes clashed. Having paid attention to everyone, I am happy to report that the meeting was a constructive and meaningful one. Only two inmates abstained from speaking; one was admittedly shy and he told me that he learned a lot listening to everyone and it made him want to read the book again. The other group member was extremely excited and grateful to have been part of the group and was looking forward to the next date. I am happy for this member of the group and proud of our group dynamic as he has a severe anxiety disorder and PTSD. I know him well and call him a friend of five years; in the time I have known him, I have never seen him that happy and energetic as he was after our meeting.
When discussing the book, be it the dysfunctional relationships, the author’s father being an ex-con, or the themes I previously mentioned, we all had our opinions, and we were all impacted differently when discussing quotes and events in the book. When reading In Pharaoh’s Army, reflect upon the challenges of the mud and rain in Vietnam, and contrast those thoughts with challenges faced by officers of Pharaoh and their experiences faced in several Biblical narratives. One of the volunteers used that analogy for which I was grateful when some of us inquired about the title.
On behalf of the inmates, thank you to the librarian for coordinating the group meetings; the visitors for coming inside the institution and dedicating their time, energy, efforts, knowledge, wisdom, kindness, and most importantly, sharing their spirit with us; and also those who fund the initiative, thus contributing to enhancing public safety. The communication skills we learn and hone will inevitably make us better people when we eventually return to the community.
P.S A correctional officer was conducting a routine cell search on my living unit recently. He left my cell, walked up towards me and said ‘I took a post-it note.’ He then showed it to me and it said In Pharaoh’s Army — Tobias Wolff. He went on to state that he was going to get the book for himself. I have over 30 books in my cell and he chose that title - interesting.