UNITED STATES NEWS

College students, inmates and a nun: A unique book club meets at one of the nation’s largest jails

Apr 23, 2024, 1:13 PM | Updated: 1:46 pm

CHICAGO (AP) — For college senior Nana Ampofo, an unconventional book club inside one of the nation’s largest jails has transformed her career ambitions.

Each week, the 22-year-old drives a van of her DePaul University peers to Cook County Jail to discuss books with inmates and recently, the well-known activist Sister Helen Prejean. Ampofo comes prepared with thought-provoking questions to launch the conversations at the Chicago jail about the most recent books they’ve been reading together.

One club rule is clear: Discussions about personal lives are encouraged, but no questions are permitted about why other members are in jail.

“That’s part of dehumanizing people. You want people to tell you their own story and have their own autonomy,” Ampofo said. “When you go in with an open mind, you see how similar people are to you.”

The student-led volunteer effort started years ago as an offshoot of a DePaul program offering college credit classes at the jail on the city’s southwest side for students and detainees. The book club, with a new cohort each academic quarter, tackles books that resonate personally with group members who are nearly all Black or Latino.

Associated Press journalists were allowed into the jail Monday to observe the current club’s final meeting to discuss Prejean’s book “Dead Man Walking,” where the Louisiana anti-death penalty activist made a special appearance. The book, which was also adapted into a movie and an opera, is about her experiences as a spiritual adviser to a pair of men on death row in the 1980s.

Sitting in a circle inside a window-filled jail chapel, 10 inmates in tan jail-issued uniforms sat among four college students and Prejean, who visits the Catholic university in Chicago each year.

Ampofo, who advocated for Prejean’s visit, cried when she talked about how important the group members and their discussions are to her. Laughter erupted when Prejean told a vulgar joke involving Louisiana bayou folk characters. And there were fierce nods when Steven Hayer, a detainee, discussed why many inmates return to jail.

“Our society doesn’t invest in solutions,” he said. “And when they get out, they will go back to what they know.”

Book club members seized the chance to ask Prejean questions, including differences between the book and movie and what it’s like to watch people die.

The 85-year-old nun has been present for seven executions. Her archival papers are housed at DePaul, including script notes for the 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon.

After witnessing her first execution, Prejean said she threw up, but decided that being with people in their final moments was a privilege.

“When you’ve been a witness to something then that fire begins to burn in your heart for justice that we’ve got to change this,” she said.

As a white woman who grew up in the South, Prejean said her prison work opened her eyes about racism.

Most of the detained members of the book club are Black, mirroring demographics of the jail, which houses nearly 5,000 detainees. Roughly 70% of inmates are involved in some type of educational programming like the book club, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

But having college student participation sets the book club apart from other activities.

“When you all of a sudden have students from the outside, sitting next to you, you start thinking of yourself different,” said Dart. “It changes mentalities.”

Detainees are invited to participate based on their interests, he said. Their behavior on the inside determines their ability to join, not what they are serving time for, he added. Health issues are also taken into consideration.

The jail’s wait list to get into the club has been up to 40 people.

Jarvis Wright, who has been detained at Cook County for two years, said he’s a reader but had never been in a book club before. The 30-year-old reads at night when it’s quiet at the jail. The other book club picks included “The Color of Law,” which delves into housing segregation.

“Even though we’re sitting in here incarcerated doing time, awaiting trial for our cases, this gives us something positive to look forward to,” Wright said. “We’re not in here just wasting time.”

DePaul has offered college classes through a national program called the Inside-Out Prison Exchange since 2012. Classes are held at both the Cook County Jail and the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security men’s prison about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Chicago.

During book club, security guards are present, but no one is shackled.

Helen Damon-Moore, who oversees the jail education programs at DePaul, says there has never been a security issue.

“They are all equal when they’re inside,” Damon-Moore said.

Stanley Allen, a 36-year-old detainee, said he was drawn to the club because it was linked to a college. He hopes to take classes for credit in the future. For him, the most surprising part of the club was meeting the college students and Prejean.

“There’s really good people out there,” he said.

Other book club members say the experience has brought them close.

“I feel like I’m talking to a bunch of my brothers,” Seven Clark, a DePaul sophomore from Chicago, told the group. “They way you talk is so familiar. It feels like home.”

Ampofo will return to the jail by week’s end when a new club focusing on Black women’s writing begins. It’s a topic that resonates with her as the American-born daughter of a Ghanian immigrant mom.

The first to graduate high school in her family, Ampofo is planning on graduate school to further pursue museum studies. She dreams of improving access to museums for incarcerated people and their families.

“I want to take care of people,” she said. “And I found the people I want to take care of.”

United States News

Associated Press

Jury in Trump’s hush money case to begin deliberations after hearing instructions from judge

NEW YORK (AP) — Jurors in Donald Trump’s hush money trial are expected to begin deliberations Wednesday after receiving instructions from the judge on the law and the factors they may consider as they strive to reach a verdict in the first criminal case against a former American president. The deliberations follow a marathon day […]

46 minutes ago

Associated Press

Appeals court won’t halt upcoming Alabama execution

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday declined to halt the upcoming execution of an Alabama man convicted in the beating deaths of an elderly couple during a 2004 robbery. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied two separate requests for an execution stay for Jamie Ray Mills, 50. Mills is […]

2 hours ago

Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives to court during his trial for allegedly covering up ...

Associated Press

Trump prosecutor focuses on ‘cover-up’ in closing arguments while defense attacks key witness

Donald Trump engaged in “a conspiracy and a cover-up,” a prosecutor told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday in the former president's hush money trial.

3 hours ago

Associated Press

A driver with an Oregon-based medical care nonprofit is fatally shot in Ethiopia while in a convoy

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A staff member with an Oregon medical care nonprofit was killed when the team he was traveling with in a convoy was fired upon in Ethiopia, officials said Monday. Mustefa Alkisim was a Medical Teams International driver traveling in the insecure Amhara region of Ethiopia Friday when men fired at the […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

European-Japanese climate research satellite launched from California aboard SpaceX rocket

VANDENBERG SPACE FORCE BASE, Calif. (AP) — A European-Japanese climate research satellite designed to study Earth’s temperature balance was launched into orbit from California on Tuesday. The EarthCARE satellite lifted off from coastal Vandenberg Space Force Base atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 3:20 p.m. The satellite was successfully deployed about 10 minutes later, […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Former California water official pleads guilty to conspiring to steal water from irrigation canal

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A former California water official has pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal water in a deal with federal prosecutors in the state’s crop-rich Central Valley. The Los Angeles Times reports Tuesday that 78-year-old Dennis Falaschi, who used to head the Panoche Water District, entered the plea in federal court in Fresno. […]

6 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

...

DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.

College students, inmates and a nun: A unique book club meets at one of the nation’s largest jails