Finding inspiration through prison's book club

Maryland's female inmates plow through some of the most demanding texts in the modern and classical canon, thanks to an unusual book club created by an administrative law judge for the SEC

  • Inmates (right to left) Wendi Scott, Ashley Davis and Violet Gaston, listen as Johns Hopkins University Senior Lecturer Pam Sheff, second left, and Loyola University instructor Karen Fish lead book discussion.
Inmates (right to left) Wendi Scott, Ashley Davis and Violet… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
September 18, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

When Pamela Griffith flipped open the book in her prison cell and began to read, she felt an immediate, visceral connection in an environment where personal bonds of any type are in notoriously short supply.

"It's funny. You feel a kinship in a certain way," Griffith, 53, told the other inmates participating in an unusual book club that's been running for nearly five years at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. She leaned forward, and the words flew out of her:

"Because her cells did what they did and the researchers did what they did, I'm sitting here today. Henrietta Lacks saved my life. It's almost like I was meeting my second mom. I think everyone who has survived cancer and read this book would feel the same way."

For Griffith, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" was a revelation that she might never have made had it not been for Brenda P. Murray, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.

Murray founded the book club in 2006 at the request of an inmate who told her that one of the hardest parts of being in prison was the intellectual deprivation.

In the past five years, book group members have plowed through some of the most demanding texts in the modern and classical canon. They've read Sophocles' "Antigone" and Shakespeare's "Othello." They've immersed themselves in works by William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Gabriel Garcia Márquez.

But, their response isn't only, or even primarily, intellectual. They also relate, at times emotionally and profoundly, to the women depicted in the pages they read.

Griffith wasn't merely learning about Henrietta Lacks, an impoverished Baltimore woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. The life Griffith was really discovering was her own.

She was raised in Dundalk; Lacks lived just a few blocks away, in Turners Station. And it was Lacks' cells — harvested from her body without her knowledge — that led to the development of cancer drugs that helped cure a desperately ill 14-year-old.

"For me," Griffith said, "this book was a tear-jerker. I know what she went through, and it was horrible. I was losing my hair. I was throwing up every day from the chemicals they gave me. I wanted to die. If I could have died, I would have."

She is in awe of the stoic fortitude that Lacks displayed. If Lacks persevered when her life was unimaginably bleak, perhaps Griffith can, as well.

"She didn't even tell anyone she was sick," Griffith said. "She just kept on taking care of her kids. For me, she is the hero of this story."

It's responses like this that motivate Murray to devote not just her time but her pocketbook to keep the book club running.

Given Murray's current job and background — she is the daughter of a high-ranking Massachusetts police officer — she might not be expected to have much sympathy for women convicted of such crimes as child abuse and first-degree homicide. (Griffith, formerly of Dundalk, was sentenced in 2009 to 15 years in prison — with 12 of those years suspended — for continuous theft of sums greater than $1,000.)

But Murray is involved in the National Association of Women Judges, and leads the group's committee on female inmates. It's worth noting that no taxpayer monies are used for the book club; Murray has kept the group going on a wing, a prayer and the occasional grant from a private foundation.

Many of the 15 college professors and lecturers she has recruited donate their services for free. And it was Murray herself who footed the $300 bill to provide copies of Rebecca Skloot's biography of Henrietta Lacks to the incarcerated women.

"There is a stereotype about women prisoners, and it's very difficult to overcome," Murray says.

"When we started, some people said that judges had no business getting involved with prisoners because the judicial branch shouldn't infringe on the executive branch. The public says, 'Why should I educate those women when I'm struggling to pay tuition for my own kids?'

"But all the studies show that inmates who get an education are less likely to go back to prison. These women are like sponges. It's a sight to behold. If you believe at all in redemption, you have to believe that some good can come out of what we're trying to do."

The book group's success has spawned other programs for the female inmates, including a writing workshop that meets once a month. Murray also helped put together a college curriculum at the institution that is thought to be one of just two degree-granting programs currently operating at women's prisons in the U.S. A member of the book group is just one course shy of earning an associate's degree from Anne Arundel Community College.

"I think a lot of times people miss the bigger picture, which is that more than 90 percent of inmates will get out some day," says Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for Maryland's prison system.

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