Interview with Mr. Jesse Doiron English Professor and Leader of Inmates Book Club

Image courtesy of http://www.bestcollegesonline.com/blog/2012/02/06/15-amazing-effects-of-prison-libraries/

I interviewed my colleague, Mr. Jesse Doiron who is an English professor at Lamar University in Beaumont, TX. For the past five years, he has led an interesting inmates’ book club. I asked him how he got the club started and how the inmates liked it. Implications for starting such book clubs for deaf inmates are also presented.

Biography of Mr. Jesse Doiron

Instructor of English

Department of English, Modern Languages, and Philosophy

Lamar University

Office O-38 Maes Building

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE

Jesse Doiron spent 13 years as an educator and consultant in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  His work experience ranges from the University of California at Berkeley to St. Louis University, from the Spanish High Command School in Madrid to the Saudi Naval Forces School at King Abdulaziz Naval Base in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In 1991, Jesse witnessed the fall of the USSR as a Soros Teaching Fellow in Kiev, Ukraine, where he taught English at Skola #145, a math and physics lyceum. Before that, he was caught up in “Desert Storm” as an instructor for the Institute of Public Administration in Saudi Arabia.

Jesse has served as director of the Lamar Language Institute at Lamar University.  He also wrote and managed the Joint Education Project, a $300,000-plus consortium effort linking Lamar University with the Beaumont Independent School District, the Greater Orange Area Literacy Program, the Port Arthur Literacy Service, and the Beaumont Library System – Literacy Depot.  Jesse is now a full-time instructor in the Department of English, Modern Languages and Philosophy at Lamar University and an adjunct instructor of English for Lamar State College – Port Arthur.

Jesse has taught courses in literature (World, British, and American) as well as courses in creative writing, composition, and English as a Second Language.  In 2008, Jesse developed an on-line freshman composition course which he continues to teach as part of the expanding on-line offerings of Lamar University.  In 2009, Jesse helped develop the Department’s first on-line, dual-credit version of Freshman English Composition.  In 2012, Jesse developed and taught an on-line British literature course for Lamar State College – Port Arthur.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE – RESTORATIVE JUSTICE

Most recently, Jesse has been focused on issues dealing with “Restorative Justice” and the rehabilitation of convicted felons.  In this area, Jesse has worked closely with Bridges to Life, a Christian outreach program that brings victims of violent crime face to face with convicted felons in prison.  He also volunteers with the Houston-based New Leaf prison rehabilitation program.

Jesse is a member of the Jefferson County Coalition for Victims of Crime and has served often as emcee for that group’s Candlelight Vigils as well as the Coalition’s Angel Tree Christmas events.

As a member of the Coalition for Victims of Crime, Jesse regularly volunteers with the Jefferson County Center for Victims Assistance in their training programs for police academy and sheriff academy cadets.

In 2007, Jesse began teaching English courses at state and federal prisons as an adjunct instructor for the Lamar State College, a position he continues to hold. He has taught composition, literature, and creative writing in a variety of prison environments from low-security to maximum-security penal institutions.  In addition to these college courses for inmates, Jesse also volunteers as a facilitator for an inmate book club at a local prison.

In 2008 and 2010, Jesse taught a multi-disciplinary Honors Seminar at Lamar University:

“Victims, Criminals, and Punishment.”  This 15-week seminar included the participation of guest speakers who were part of the criminal justice system, including victims of crime and perpetrators of crime.

AWARDS AND RECOGNITIONS

Jesse received a Soros Teaching Fellowship in 1991 and was awarded an educational travel grant by the International Renaissance Foundation the following year.  He has consulted a number of organizations around the world on educational matters ranging from developing kindergartens in Central Europe to language training of military officers in Spain and Saudi Arabia.

In 2004, Jesse received the Courage Award from the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty the TCADP annual conference in Dallas, Texas.  That same year, he was a recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service in Beaumont, Texas.

In 2007, Governor Rick Perry gave Jesse the Governor’s Award for Restorative Justice.  That same year, Jesse received the Julie and Ben Rogers Community Service Award from Lamar University.

In 2009, Jesse was featured on I Survived, a reality program of the A&E Biography Channel that reports on people who have faced death and lived to tell about it.  In Season Three of the series (Episode 24), Jesse tells of being attacked by two men wielding a three-pound shop hammer.  The savage assault happened in the badlands of north Texas during a freak snow storm in 1983.  Before this program, Jesse’s victimization was featured in three local newspapers — The Beaumont Journal, The Beaumont Enterprise, and The Examiner.

In 2012, Jesse was recognized as Volunteer of the Year by the Bureau of Prisons –

Federal Correctional Complex in Beaumont, Texas for his educational and religious work in their Medium Security Institution.

Image courtesy of http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/27/memoir-prisoners-book-choices

Interview with Mr. Jesse Doiron

May, 2012

How would you describe your “inmate book club”?

It’s a book club first.  Just as any book club in the “free world” it functions as a social activity through which people who enjoy reading can talk about what it is that they are reading.  The “inmate” part of the “inmate book club” is, of course, intriguing to most people who hear about the group.  For me, it is the only book club with which I have been associated.

In fact, when the prison administration first asked me to facilitate the book club, I called my big sister for advice.  She’s a librarian in the Dallas area.  The best bit she gave me was to let the book club be what it wants to be – don’t try too hard to make it what you want it to be.  She was wise in her warning.

While my book club is significantly different from the ones my sister facilitates as part of her job, it works the same in many ways. We select a book to read.  We read the book.  We talk about the book.  And just like the various book clubs my big sister has organized, mine often gets way off topic in our conversations.

How did you come up with this idea?

The inmates had already been meeting to talk books long before I got involved with them.  I suppose the prison administration wanted to organize their approach so as to better monitor their activities and to better focus their efforts – no one ever really explained what it was that I was supposed to do other than the rather vague concept of “facilitate.”  My first night was awkward because as soon as I walked in, there was an undeserved deference to me as some sort of “book club expert.”  Even after I explained to them that I had never been in a book club, they found it difficult to “suspend disbelief,” as we say in literary analysis.

I became the only “free-world” member of the club.  This distinction brought with it another responsibility that wasn’t clear until the charming educational officer introduced me to the inmates. Her demeanor and that of the inmates told me that I was not just going to talk about books; I was going to somehow represent the books.

How have the inmates responded to you?

I’ve been in the inmate book club for more than five years, now.  This year, the prison complex gave me one of four “Volunteer of the Year” awards.  Many of the inmates I met that first night have been released or transferred.  Over the years, some of the men have seen me gain weight and lose hair.  They have read a hundred books with me.  They have invited their best friends to visit the club, and many of them have joined it.  Every time I leave, they are flipping through a novel, smiling, waving good-bye, and trying to pin me down on a date for the next meeting.

How do you choose the books that the club reads?

Over the years, we have tried a number of systems to select our titles.  None of the methods have ever been bad, some have been chaotic, but most of the time consensus works.

The first year, I received a list of books that the administration had approved for use.  It was a wildly eclectic selection of novels that ranged from sci-fi series to New York Times bestsellers.  There wasn’t any Dickens.  No Hemingway.  Nothing bad.  Nothing old.

Once accepted as part of the club, I found the inmates asking me what I thought they should be reading.  It was the “free-world” mystic acting, as if I should know what was au courant in the world of belle letters.  The inmates and I started drawing up our suggestions for the administration, and, as I said, consensus works.  For us, it was never a problem selecting a title.  The problem was acquiring the title.  Funding is always difficult for this kind of a prison rehabilitation/recreation program.  We were lucky to get three copies of a book to share among us.  The system worked, but it often slowed us down in our reading.

One night – a particularly slow night, since the copies of the book had never arrived – we hit upon the idea of having multiple titles available for our discussion.  That way, if there were any prison glitches in getting a book, we’d always have a couple of fallback novels on hand.  Once we met and everyone just gave individual reports on whatever book he was reading that week.

Sometimes we focus on a genre.  For example, June is juvenile dystopia month for us – inspired by the buzz that The Hunger Games is getting.  The men know that I have kids in elementary and middle school, so they were interested in seeing what it is that young people have in their hands.  Many of the men are fathers, too.  I think this selection will be a great way to connect them with their children over the summer, and share some heavy philosophical ideas.  Even the fellows who don’t have sons or daughters were quite happy to join in on this idea. They all have family connections.  They all have some heavy philosophy hanging on the bars of their cells.  I knew the idea was a good one when I saw them arguing over the three copies of the book that we were allotted.

Do the inmates have preferences for genres – like fiction versus nonfiction?

Yes.  Individuals are individuals in prison or in the free world.  Our book club has rarely selected nonfiction.  The last one I recall was The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller. All of the men read more than I do.  They read everything.  I have learned their individual preferences, and I try to spread the focus so that each man gets a bit of what he most enjoys in literature.  One fellow could pass for a professor of philosophy at any academic conference.  Our youngest member, who taught himself to read in prison, loves anything that has mythology in it – Norse, Roman, German, Hindu – myths.  Many of the inmates are into sci-fi series or fantasy series.  Not many romance novels get suggested, but they do like love stories and family stories.  My western-novel guy got out a few years ago.

How long do your sessions last?

The inmate book club meets in the evenings from 6:00 p.m. to “call back.”  The actual hours depend on the daylight available – a security concern.  Usually we have at least two solid hours together; although, not everyone can make it on time because of prison schedules – feeding, work, recreation, religious services.  The men are not allowed to roam freely around the grounds, so one has to be flexible in starting and finishing a session.  Some months, I get out to the prison three or four times.  Some months, there are lockdowns that prevent our meeting at all.

Do you ever read books that have been adapted for the motion pictures?

Often we purposely select a book that has been made into a movie, or will be made into a movie, with the idea of viewing the film version for comparison.  A bit of self-censorship is needed here, because there are multiple restrictions on showing movies in prisons.  Some inmates have already seen a motion-picture adaptation of a book, and these inmates like to share their views of how successful screenwriters were in adapting the work for the cinema.  These discussions are particularly erudite on the levels of both film and literature.

Can men who have low reading levels participate in the inmate book club?

No inmate is excluded from joining the book club, but there is a territoriality that one can sense.  Book clubs usually are not big.  Usually they are made up of a few people who know one another well and enjoy getting together for other reasons to begin with.  Here, I am talking about a “free-world” book club.  Again, the same holds true in prison.  These men were together before I joined them.  They are the book club, really.  While a few inmates pop in from time to time to visit, the ones who stay seem to have another kind of established relationship with one of the men already in the book club.  That said, the inmates are surprisingly tolerant of those who want to try out the book club.  One year, we had a fellow who rarely read anything that we were discussing.  He came to the meetings, and he often made interesting comments – rarely about the books.  That said, none of the inmates ever suggested to me or to administration that the fellow be excluded from the book club.  And in the discussions, I never felt a need to monitor the inmate’s participation because the other inmates were able to do so with effortless charm.  It worked out well for the non-reader and the readers.

Could your inmate book club be adapted for deaf inmates who typically read below a third-grade level?

My experience in English as a Second Language leads me to answer, emphatically, “Yes.”

The book club is about people and their experiences with books.  A person’s experience can be profound even if the book is simple in structure.  I have seen this in ESL classes here in America and across the globe – Saudi Arabia, Spain, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Republic of Georgia.

As a father, I remember having tearful reactions to the books I read to my children.

Good literature does not necessarily mean literature that is difficult to read.  A good book club does not necessarily mean everyone in it has to read a book that is difficult. Add to the written word the technical opportunities afforded by multimedia presentations, and you can easily unloose a great deal of potential for the non-native speaker or for the hearing-impaired.  Book clubs with enthusiastic participants and skilled facilitators can accomplish much in difficult environments like prisons and with individuals who are challenged socially, culturally, physically, or mentally.

Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist with a knack for psychological observation, has a new book out called Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. He is not a Freudian at all, but he does note that people often act on impulses that are buried beneath their conscious understanding of situations.  “Blind sight,” for example, is when a damaged brain can still transmit enough peripheral information to allow for a kind of visual interpretation when there should be no capability for vision.

In a similar manner, readers understand much more than they read – sometimes by way of psychological osmosis or subliminal absorption.  Their understanding doesn’t necessarily come across at the conscious level, but there is obvious evidence of some level of comprehension because of the way they participate in discussion of the material.

An idea in a book might slip right by until another fellow mentions it in passing, then the idea bubbles up again and loses its ephemeral quality, becoming instead monumental. Suddenly the overlooked idea is important; the book is understandable.

In the inmate book club, our discussions help us all get our minds around ideas, words, actions, and beliefs.  I have never left the prison without a more intense feeling, if not a better understanding, for what we have discussed that night.  These discussions make the inmate book club invigorating, enjoyable, and inspiring.  The books make it a book club.

Image courtesy of http://www.pagestoprisoners.org/node/76

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