Dukes County Jail, photo by Michael Cummo

Unlocking doors at the jail.

The Dukes County Jail sits inconspicuously at the top of Main Street in Edgartown: white clapboard with black shutters, a hip roof, gingerbread trim over the front stoop. It’s easy to mistake it for what it once was, a rather stately private residence, until you turn the corner onto Pine Street and see the several windowless, boxlike additions to the building, the exercise yard enclosed in chainlink, the county cars.

Sue Larsen is the education director at the jail, and she called me a couple of years ago, said the book club had been reading my Civil War novel Seen the Glory, and asked me if I would come in and talk about it. “With pleasure,” I said. In my youth I’d worked for a Boston agency devoted to prison reform, and the inside of a jail, and guys doing time, wouldn’t be new to me.

The book club meets in the “conference room,” which is on the second floor at the front of the building. Sue led me up a carpeted staircase, around a corner, and locked the two of us in the little room. She is a slender, attractive woman with a sunny disposition that seems wholly natural to her, a Vineyard Larsen by marriage. We sat down at the old wooden table, which fills the room. Traffic murmured by in the sunshine down on Main Street, and you could see the corner gas station through the other window, through the iron bars.

An officer opened a second door, and the men, seven or eight of them, filed in decorously and sat down around the table. The officer closed the door and locked it. The men nodded cordially, studying me. Several were very young, others were in their 40s. One looked to be in his 60s. Cotton shirts and jeans, T shirts. Some tattoos. They all had a copy of my book, gathered by Sue from libraries around the Island.

You might suppose that the first thing you’d wonder about, meeting inmates inside a prison, is what they’d done that landed them here. You don’t, though. Their crimes seem irrelevant, like events in a disconnected past. The present is what matters, and at present these men were courteous, attentive, and deeply interested in my novel. They asked me about my research, and whom certain characters were based on, and the intent of scenes that seemed ambiguous to them. It could have been any book club discussion, anywhere. A recidivist, whose picture I remembered from the newspaper, said, to my pleasure, that he was in love with my heroine.

After two hours the officer unlocked the door. The men thanked me for coming, rose and filed out. When the door was locked, Sue unlocked the second door, locked it behind us, and led me down the carpeted stairs to the front door. Another lock, then we were on the gingerbread porch, in the cool fall sunshine, the wide illimitable world.

The story doesn’t end here. I went back, at Sue’s suggestion, and held a workshop for three inmates who wanted to try their hand at writing fiction. Two were from the book club — the 60-year-old and a thoughtful, quiet kid in his early 20s. The third was even younger, and similarly earnest. We met every other week in the conference room. I would read their work aloud, deconstruct it gently — they were beginners — then open up a discussion.

No students of mine have ever worked harder. Their own prose was like music they’d never heard or even suspected existed, and they listened closely as I read, half pleased, half doubtful. I, of course, allayed the doubts and gave credit where it was due — the richly imagined world of a novel set in prehistoric Africa; the authentic feel of the Indian reservation and Native people in another; the honesty and moral clarity of a third, the story of a repentant housebreaker.

I like to think I unlocked a door for these three men. I don’t expect any of them to publish books anytime soon, but they’d discovered a latent, if tenuous, ability in themselves, and the courage to try it out on me, Sue Larsen, and their brother inmates. For a time, at least, they were writers. We met from late November into May, and then, one by one, they finished their bits and were gone.

Readers aren’t always numerous at the jail, and when I went back last fall to talk about my next novel, Little Bighorn, Sue’s book club had shrunk to three members. They seemed more diffident and had less to say than the larger group two years ago, perhaps because two of them were very young,

There was one sweet moment, though. There’s an epilogue in the novel in which the protagonist, named Allen and formerly 18, is an old man, living in a world that is becoming strange and confusing to him. He forgets where he’s going, he imagines his beloved wife is still alive. The young prisoner across the table from me — he was hardly more than a boy — asked me if it was really necessary to write Allen in this diminished state. I said it was, and explained why.

“Sad, huh?” the kid said.

“I hope so,” I said.

All three smiled. They got it.

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