Inmates gather for Stillwater prison’s inaugural book club

By Star Tribune

 

Shawn Benson rested his hands beside the novel in a classroom with bars outside its window.

Nine inmates sat in a circle, taking turns dissecting “The Alchemist” — a story about discovering one’s destiny.

“The book really spoke to me,” said Benson, who’d remained silent for nearly 90 minutes as others drew parallels between the plot and the twists and turns of their own lives.

“You’re gonna figure out who you are and who you really want to be,” he recalled someone telling him about prison. “The journey he’s on is the journey I’m on right now.”

There was no wine to sip on that night. No cheese to spread. For this was no ordinary book club. It marked one of the first inside a Minnesota penitentiary, and a rare chance for offenders to convene with community members as equals over literature.

Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell organized the inaugural event at Stillwater prison in Bayport this month, inviting a handful of friends and neighbors for a wide-ranging discussion with the incarcerated men, most of whom are serving life sentences for murder.

“You would never in a million years guess that they have taken someone’s life,” said Schnell, who hand-picked the book in hopes of triggering some self-reflection about each individual’s chosen path.

“It gives perspective to people that all of us are more than one single story.”

“The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho chronicles the adventures of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy whose quest to find buried treasure helps uncover his true “Personal Legend.”

In a room peppered with posters advocating loyalty, respect and perseverance, the men allowed themselves to be vulnerable in front of perfect strangers about their own journeys — each of which has included unexpected detours.

Michael Medin, who started penning novels while imprisoned, pointed to omens in the book that helped guide the protagonist. Real life offers fortuitous warnings, too, he said, but not everyone chooses to take notice.

 

“I believe God put a lot of people in my path that I didn’t listen to,” Medin said. “I listened to the wrong people. My heart was set on the wrong treasure.”

Amid their spirited critiques, prisoners spent time analyzing one of the book’s most recognizable passages: “When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.”

David Brom took that line to heart. He found comfort in the idea that some greater power might be aiding him in achieving his goals.

“When I look back, there have been some dark and difficult moments,” said Brom, who’s been locked up for 30 years. “But I’ve encountered the right person at the right time — an opportunity came up that I didn’t think would ever exist and transformed who I was.”