'Wings for the Soul' for Women Behind Bars

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A new book club called "Wings for the Soul" allows female prisoners to read and to discuss books by and about women. Steven Cuevas of member station KPCC reports.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

A new kind of book club just got started at the California Institution for Women. That's the state's largest women's prison. The sprawling facility sits near Southern California's high desert about 50 miles east of Los Angeles. KPCC's Steven Cuevas went behind the walls for the club's debut.

STEVEN CUEVAS reporting:

The story goes like this. Libertad Gonzalez is serving time in a Mexican prison for a series of brutal crimes. While inside, she starts up a book club. She also tells stories about her past and her path to the penitentiary.

Ms. LIBERTAD GONZALEZ: We finished our dinner and drove the long stretch of dark road all the way to Choppaloff(ph). At some point, he said, `No man in the world can take care of you as well as I do.'

CUEVAS: Here is where life begins to imitate art. After author Maria Amparo Escandon completed Libertad's story in her novel, "Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Company," she created a real women's prison book club called Wings for the Soul.

Ms. MARIA AMPARO ESCANDON (Author): Where women authors who write by and about women--that's the kind of books we want to bring, my book being the first one--the guinea pig. We can make all the mistakes with this book, and they will learn, right?

CUEVAS: As Escandon speaks, inmates start trickling in to the prison's large auditorium. Tonight is the book club's debut, but Escandon is at ease in this setting. She spent time here at the California Institution for Women researching her novel. Escandon discovered that many inmates thirst to make a meaningful connection with one another. She hopes the book club is a way to make that happen.

Ms. ESCANDON: So not only are they learning to really read a book, but they're also creating the community within the prison of women with similar interests.

Ms. VONDA WHITE(ph): Somehow, getting close to people, having that bond between people is very, very important.

CUEVAS: Vonda White is one of the older prisoners in the crowd. Her long salt-and-pepper hair is pulled back tightly. White speaks gently but with authority. She could be your third-grade elementary school teacher. White won't say what landed her in prison, but she speaks openly of Maria Escandon's novel.

Ms. WHITE: She brings that human need to share experiences, the intimacy that you have to live under in prison, and there's nothing that you don't know about people's personal habits--everything. And there has to come a deeper level in order for you to survive and not just kill each other--you know, emotionally kill each other. We need to get to a point where we can live intimately with one another and deeply.

CUEVAS: After White read it once, she read it again to her cell mate. Likewise, Escandon's main character, Libertad Gonzalez, spellbinds inmates with stories about growing up in the cab of an 18-wheeler driven by her father and the emotional and physical abuse she suffers as a consequence. Many of these women see their own lives woven into the book's pages.

Ms. KATHLEEN PEREZ (Inmate): It wasn't a Harlequin romance, that's for sure.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Ms. PEREZ: And even though it was fictional, it seemed more real than unreal.

CUEVAS: Inmate Kathleen Perez is serving 18 months for selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop.

Ms. PEREZ: It was so real that they could take you out of the spot that you were sitting in--a jail cell or a prison cell. And that's the whole point of the book, is to, I think, take you somewhere else.

Ms. ESCANDON: (Reading) `"Are you going to stop staring at my daughter, or are you going to make me break those glasses of yours?" he asked.'

CUEVAS: Maria Escandon reads several passages from "Gonzalez and Daughter Trucking Company," then she engages the 40 or so prisoners in a dialogue about the book's real-life themes.

Ms. ESCANDON: Who is forgiveness for, for the one forgiving or for the one being forgiven?

Unidentified Woman #2: Really it's for both.

Ms. ESCANDON: For both why?

Unidentified Woman #2: Because I feel that when you forgive somebody, they feel good that you forgave them and then you feel good that you forgave them.

CUEVAS: Escandon and the inmates talk about love, relationships, guilt and the eventual redemption of the novel's main character. One inmate breaks down in tears, telling Escandon that the book is helping her forgive her own abusive father. Another woman says the same thing about her ex-husband. After two hours of readings and emotional discussion, the prisoners give Maria Escandon a tearful but joyful standing ovation.

Unidentified Woman #3: How about a standing ovation for Maria?

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #4: Yeah! Yeah!

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #5: We love you!

CUEVAS: Again, Maria Escandon.

Ms. ESCANDON: I think--wow. I mean, that's maybe one of the reasons why I intuitively named the book club Wings for the Soul. If you are locked up in a prison, you know, and you're reading a book and your mind is soaring, it can't get any better, you know.

CUEVAS: There will be three more Wings for the Soul events at the California Women's Institution in the coming year. After that, Escandon hopes to expand the book club program to include more authors and more prisons. For NPR News, I'm Steven Cuevas in Corona, California.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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