Port Moody high school student aims to give inmates life skills through literacy

·3 min read
Chloe Chen, Fair Books founder, sorts through prison book donations (Martin Diotte/CBC - image credit)
Chloe Chen, Fair Books founder, sorts through prison book donations (Martin Diotte/CBC - image credit)

A Port Moody high school student aims to improve inmates' prospects for success when released from prison by providing them with books.

Chloe Chen's initiative, Fair Books, has donation boxes in Port Moody and Coquitlam, with the books destined for libraries in correctional facilities around the country.

"I've noticed that prisoners are a very underrepresented part of our community. People just kind of ignore the fact that they're there," said Chen.

Chen says she was inspired by her love of reading and an interest in criminal law.

After being encouraged by her peers on the Coquitlam Youth Council and receiving support from Coastal Bookstore and the Pinetree Youth Centre, she decided to take her initiative public. Fair Books is mainly advertised through an Instagram account and has been accepting donations since the end of June.

Martin Diotte/CBC
Martin Diotte/CBC

Book Clubs for Inmates (BCFI) is another organization that says books — and the life skills that come with reading —should be prioritized in prisons to reduce the odds of released inmates falling back into crime.

BCFI runs volunteer-led book clubs where inmates meet monthly to discuss books. It began in 2008 in a small Ontario penitentiary and has spread to facilities across the country, including five chapters in B.C.

Joanie McEwen, a BCFI board member, says that reading alleviates some of the pressure of being incarcerated.

"It not only helps your literacy skills, but it expands your knowledge, your imagination. You get to see the possibilities of your life not behind bars," she said.

Twenty-three per cent of offenders in Canada in 2011 and 2012 reoffended within two years of being released, according to a federal study from 2019. But when inmates have mentorship and productive pastimes, McEwen said they're better able to rehabilitate to life outside prison.

"If those men and women in prison are reading books, they're less likely to reoffend when they get out,'' she said.

Submitted by Book Clubs for Inmates
Submitted by Book Clubs for Inmates

During McEwen's time volunteering for BCFI, she met Kevin Milley, who served 25 years in prison beginning in the early 1980s.

"I wasn't a very nice guy for decades, and rightfully so that they had me locked up," said Milley.

But when he started reading, an activity he thought would be just a way to kill time, he says he experienced a lifestyle shift.

"I think I really discovered the joy of reading when I finally started to kick my heroin habit, my drug addiction. When I knew that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Milley says he was inspired by the community of readers he built and by authors like Stephen Reid, who also served prison time.

He remembers how every day for over a decade, his cellmate gave him a complex word of the day that Milley would use in his creative writing exercises before handing it back to his neighbour to read.

Milley says books also connect inmates with the outside world.

One of the functions of BCFI is to help inmates work toward reintegration into society by developing reading comprehension and pro-social skills. He says access to books that inmates can relate to and enjoy is important.

"To get up-to-date books and books that you're interested in is a big thing in there. It keeps people out of trouble, and it educates guys."

Prison security standards mean that new books must be searched for contraband and restricted themes like violence and racism which can be time-consuming.

Chen says initiatives like Fair Books meet that need by sorting books beforehand.

"It's really important to establish a love for reading and literature and education in everybody, and why not help these prisoners who one day are going to come back to our community."