November 07

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Walls Within Walls: A visit to Calgary’s Remand Centre

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Yesterday, as part of the library’s ‘One Book One Calgary’ programming, I visited the Calgary Remand Centre where a group of around twenty inmates had been assigned to read Walls for their book club. I didn’t know what to expect from the men and felt nervous. I wondered about what their level of engagement might be. I wondered about their literacy, both in terms of actual reading ability and in terms of the geopolitics Walls addresses. How familiar would they be, say, with the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Troubles in Belfast? I wondered, too, if they had any sincere interest in the book at all. Would they see Walls as a welcome diversion, or an imposition?

My anxiety, as it turns out, was utterly unjustified. With all due respect to the other book clubs I’ve visited over the years, I can’t remember a more engaged and enthusiastic group of readers.

After I spoke for a while about the book and told a few stories about the people I met during the research, I invited the men to ask questions or make comments. We talked for nearly an hour. Many had experience in parts of the world I wrote about. One man, who spoke passionately about Israel’s wall around the West Bank, was an immigrant from Sudan. Another man, from Egypt, had lived for a time along the US-Mexico border in El Paso. Many inmates, including one who bore an uncanny resemblance to Lian Neeson, were especially interested in the bonfires and riots I’d witnessed in Belfast. These ‘dangerous’ men seemed rather concerned for my safety.

The conversation eventually led to a discussion of the walls of the Remand Centre. I’d hoped this would happen. The men spoke about the Centre’s ‘walls within walls’ and how inmates of rival gangs are kept physically separated. They spoke of the divisions between newer inmates and those than have been there for a longer period of time. They spoke of how some of their cells have no sunlight due to the walls that stand outside their windows. When I asked about the impressive barbed wire fence that surrounds the building, one man told me that the fence used to be half the size. Before he was an inmate himself, he jumped the fence to deliver money to a friend incarcerated inside. The fence’s main purpose is to keep people like him out rather than keep prisoners in.

At then end of the session, just before the men lined up to have me sign their books and shake their hands, one of the inmates shared a line from the book that resonated with him: “There is courage in patience.” The quote was from Malainin Lakhal, a refugee I met in the desert camps in Algeria, who was referring to the Saharawi’s long wait for statehood. The line, though, could just as easily be attributed to the men I met yesterday morning who wait, patient and brave, for their chance at another life.

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