Book Club Tackles Prison Problem

rachel jin, lifestyle editor

Juniors from Lisa Herzig, Molly Kerr, Lindsay Webb-Peploe, and Tom Renno’s AP US History and US History classes gathered in the library on May 23 for a book club discussion of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

Just Mercy details Stevenson’s fight against racial inequality, after being illegally searched by police for sitting in his car for 15 minutes outside his own home, and the challenges he faced in the 90’s while defending Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murder and sentenced to die, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The selected reading received positive responses from students. “I really liked it,” said junior Riley Felt. “It was hard to get into, but I thought it was really interesting. It wasn’t just focused on 1 case of his; it was focused on a lot of different cases, with a lot of different demographics of people who were incarcerated that are struggling. There were children who were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles after being tried in adult courts unfairly. There were people who were tried by juries who were appointed illegally and unfairly. I thought it was cool because it addressed a lot of different issues in our whole court and justice system.”

Prior to the book club, participants were asked to purchase, read, and annotate their own copy of the book. “We were asked to do some form of note taking, whether it was Post -Its or highlighting or whatever,” explained Felt. “I underlined and cornered some pages I thought were important.”

Junior Mariel Rossi deVries chose to fill her book “with large numbers of sticky notes, with as much notes as I can fit on them. I also did a separate page of notes.”

The book club kicked off with a short video detailing Stevenson’s work and his ideas. “I thought the most striking part of that was him saying that we can remove and cut down the amount of prisoners significantly from what it is now. We can cut down to either 2,000 or 20,000 people–it was a large number. A lot of the people aren’t very dangerous in prison and are perfectly capable of returning to society.”

After the video, students separated into different assigned discussion groups, each led by a teacher. “We compared the book to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and talked about the significance of Walter in the book. Although he’s a real person, he kind of symbolized to me the innocence that ends up becoming part of the prison system and is destroyed by that system,” said deVries. “I liked that most of our discussion had to do with how we can make a difference now as teenagers in the Bay Area, and as people who are not in the South who can take action because we are outsiders,” she added.

Both deVries and Felt recommend the book to peers.

For Felt, the book targeted the central ideas behind the societal ignorance and lack of compassion faced by the incarcerated. “A lot of people deny that there’s any problem with race in society or even in our community,” said Felt. “People can’t just read something like that and still be saying that there’s no problem with race in our country.”