The essay's author speaks with book club participants during a meeting.
The essay's author speaks with book club participants during a meeting. (Gustavo Huerta)

Why I Started a Book Club in the Harris County Jail

Education programs make jails safer and reduce rates of recidivism when people reenter society.


A version of this story ran in the November / December 2019 issue.

I felt my blood pressure rising, heard my heartbeat in my ears, and tasted my mouth drying out as the heavy jail door slammed shut behind me. It was my first time in 4J2, a maximum-security women’s pod in the Harris County Jail. The stale air pulsed with the sound of women talking, metal clanging, and a TV blaring. The pod was divided into a large open area with a staircase in the center, a few metal tables bolted to the floor, and 24 single-woman cells lining the walls. Each cell contained a low cot, a shower, a toilet, a small nightstand, and a few personal belongings. The guard on duty was encased in a glass booth on the second floor. Though the guard could close the cell doors, they were always open when I visited, the women permitted to move relatively freely through what everyone called “the tank.”

That first day in August 2018, I walked in with a chaplaincy case manager to meet the women locked up in the pod and see if they would be interested in forming a twice-monthly book club. We arrived right as lunch was being passed out. A woman standing in front of me on the stairs started screaming at the guards behind the glass. Apparently, she was unhappy with her meal, and as she shouted, she started throwing her food against the glass with impressive aim. The women around her moved away nervously, while others sought shelter from the falling food. Guards rushed into the tank, and I was swiftly shepherded out.

Back in the hallway, the caseworker locked eyes with me, as if to gauge whether I was freaked out. I kept my face calm. After all, I had insisted on working with only the highest security prisoners—people who weren’t getting any other educational resources or programming. “You want to find a different pod?” the caseworker asked. “Nope, I’m good with this one,” I replied. My real job is as a public defender, but I was going to be moonlighting as a volunteer to start a book club in this maximum security pod—an idea the caseworker and others seemed to think was a bit nuts.

“What kind of books are you going to bring in? You know their reading level is not great, right? And you’re comfortable going in by yourself?”

After Amalia Beckner started a women's book club in the Harris County Jail, staff noted a decline in disciplinary incidents.
After Amalia Beckner started a women’s book club in the Harris County Jail, staff noted a decline in disciplinary incidents.  Gustavo Huerta

As a lawyer, I’d been giving my clients reading material for the past three years, and I saw how escaping into a story could lift their moods. A month before my first day in 4J2, the Houston Chronicle’s Keri Blakinger wrote an article about my starting a crowdfunding campaign to buy more books, and the piece led to an outpouring of support for the program. Soon after, the head chaplain at the jail reached out to me about partnering on a formal book club. As a public defender, I’m not usually aligned with law enforcement agents. But I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no, and I figured that an insider understanding of how the jail functions might help me better represent my clients. I agreed, on the condition that we would focus on people facing the most serious charges and highest security classifications that bar them from participating in the GED or other educational programs.

The day after the one-woman food fight, the caseworker and I returned to 4J2, where I introduced myself and our idea. The women would read a new book every two weeks, and then we would discuss its themes as a group. “How many of you have your high school diploma or a GED?” I asked. About half of the women raised their hands. “How many of you would like to be taking classes or doing something productive while you’re in here?” This time, every hand went up.

Guards never joined me inside the cell, and we never needed them. The women’s charges varied: Some were charged with capital murder, a few with aggravated robbery or aggravated assault, and a handful were charged with violating a condition of their probation. You might not expect it, but the women charged with the most serious crimes were frequently the most committed to the book club. The majority of the women I met are mothers. Many have been victims of domestic or sexual violence. One woman had an intellectual disability but enthusiastically added to the discussion every time. One day she pulled me aside when we were finished and, crying, told me she was struggling after the death of a close friend.

Respect is a luxury in a place where dignity is so often denied.

I dutifully passed out sign-in sheets at every meeting, so the women could show their lawyers and judges they had participated in the only programming available to them. One woman, who spoke up in the group every time, never asked me to sign her sheet. I asked her about it once, and she explained she simply loved reading. The book club was something she did just for her. This woman had a calming presence, a quiet voice, and always added something thoughtful to the discussion. She was also very pregnant. One day, when she was full-term, we talked about her plans for how to get the guard’s attention when it was time to go to the hospital. The next time I went to the pod, she had had her baby. It was the first book club she sat out, sitting in her cell, separated from her newborn. The pain on her face was all I could think about for days afterward. As I passed out copies of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, that day, I set one aside for her. At the end of our discussion, I knocked on her cell door, gave her the book, and told her I was thinking of her.

The months went on, and the women stayed engaged in the reading and the discussions. We would nominate a different discussion leader each time. The women read The Mothers by Brit Bennett, American Street by Ibi Zoboi, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and many, many others—all donated by friends, local lawyers, and people who followed the project on Twitter. Meanwhile, the sergeant on duty for the women’s floor noted a decline in disciplinary incidents in our pod.

The book club became something I looked forward to, a balm for my day-to-day work. I’m proud of my work as a public defender, but it’s hard to watch clients get years or even decades in prison because the system is stacked against them. When I listened and spoke with the women in the jail, I was reminded that each day my clients spend there is another day away from their families, pets, jobs, and homes, and of the many ways that the jail and the criminal justice system strip them of their dignity, autonomy, and freedom. I always left feeling ready and eager to get back in the fight the next day.

Book club members submitted thoughts and notes on The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds.
Book club members submitted thoughts and notes on The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds.  Gustavo Huerta

One day in December, I arrived at the jail with my heart pounding anew. Walking alongside me, with a long stride, was Brian Stolarz, the lawyer who helped free Anthony Dewayne Brown from death row. Brian wrote a book about the fight, Grace and Justice on Death Row: The Race Against Time and Texas to Free an Innocent Man, and was there to do a reading in 4J2. He hung his suit jacket on the door to one woman’s cell, and the group gathered around, excited to hear from the visitor I’d brought. Brian spoke passionately about his work and read a section from the book. Afterward, he asked each of the women to sign his book. You could see in their eyes how meaningful it was that this elite lawyer asked them to give him something of themselves. Respect is a luxury in a place where dignity is so often denied.

A few months ago, a friend and colleague, Drew Willey, started up a book club for men in one of the sex offender pods. These men are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual assault, and their movements are highly restricted. As a result, they are ineligible for any other educational programming in jail.

Currently, most of this educational programming takes place in partnership with Houston Community College, but it is limited to specific “education pods” or “reentry pods” where the prisoners are deemed low-security enough to merit these resources. The GED classes pull people classified as lower security from different pods. People with charges like aggravated robbery or higher security classifications are ineligible. The security classifications seem arbitrary at times, related more to the type of charge, without regard to the particular person’s disciplinary history within the jail.

4J2 was shut down in April of this year for a routine cleaning, and the women were all dispersed. But we’ve started up a new book club in another of the maximum security women’s pods and continue to meet every two weeks. In our last meeting, the women discussed The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds and The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. What I thought would be lighter reading provoked intense discussions about grief and loss, anxiety, substance abuse, and the long-term consequences of our actions.

The book clubs Drew and I started demonstrate that people in every pod in the jail have the capacity for education and enrichment, and they have an interest in learning. The clubs also improved the disciplinary climate in the pod. A high security classification should not bar participation in GED classes or other rehabilitative services. We know these programs make jails safer and reduce rates of recidivism when people reenter society. A 2018 RAND analysis found that prisoners participating in correctional education programs were 28 percent less likely to reoffend. Almost everyone locked in a cage in Harris County will someday be back in our community. We must stop purposely throwing away the key to their rehabilitation.

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