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Tevlin: A book club like any other - except for where it meets

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN
  • Star Tribune
  • September 20, 2012 - 4:30 PM

The monthly book club met in a cheerful library on a sunny Saturday. Everyone had read the selection, "Gideon's Trumpet," and most had highlighted scores of important passages or marked them with Post-It Notes.

A sign on the wall read, "There is no thief like a bad book."

There was no wine, no finger foods matching the theme of the narrative. The meeting began and ended promptly and everyone was dressed casually, in prison-issue gray T-shirts and shorts, or jeans.

The gathering was held, as always, in the library of the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, the state prison for women.

The book was the nonfiction story of how an uneducated and serial petty criminal named Clarence Earl Gideon sat down in his Florida prison cell one day in 1962 and wrote a letter to the Supreme Court to argue that the U.S. Constitution promised him the right to a lawyer, even if he was too poor to pay for one.

At times, the book is heavy slogging, full of legalese, court procedure and impermeable jargon, and a few of the female inmates struggled with that.

But Melissa Heus quickly raised her hand. "This book really highlights conflict between federal and state powers that still goes on today," said Heus, who had studied some law before being sentenced to prison for killing a man while driving drunk.

And they were off, on a spirited critique of the book, prison, the criminal justice system, life and human nature.

Many of the women were particularly taken with Gideon's life story, a sad one of abandonment, unemployment, irresponsibility and crime.

"For me, I've been in prison all my life," said a woman named Candice, who has been in and out of prison on drug and theft charges. "His story, that's my story, too."

Many were shocked to learn that not all states allowed defendants lawyers to represent them.

"Wow," said one. "That was just 50 years ago. It just blows my mind he couldn't have a lawyer."

"It shows that the law is a living, breathing thing," said Andrea Smith, the facility librarian and moderator of the book club.

White has run the club since 2007, and between 10 and 20 women show up, depending on the book. The purpose is not just to get them to read, but "because it's a normal activity," she said. "Conversation is important, and it's hard to have here. This is practice. I want to know how they think, and it encourages them to ask questions."

White frequently invites guests. This day it was Judge Heidi Schellhas from the Fourth District Court of Appeals.

While many of the women sympathized with the wrenching biography that Gideon sent to the lawyer who was preparing his case to the Supreme Court -- including Schellhas and Smith -- some of the inmates recognized the tone as "self-serving" and "gaming the system."

"Isn't that why we're all here?" asked Candice. "Because we're self-serving?"

They nodded. Obviously tactics they'd heard, or used, before. It's difficult to con a con.

The book's topics brought out more emotion than other books, said White, who was surprised that more of them were not uplifted by the fact an uneducated criminal could change the country through determination. "It's about our human experiences, I guess."

"I had always thought court was this magical place where justice prevails," said Kelly Norgren, imprisoned for selling drugs. "I found out that wasn't always the case."

A couple of women took the opportunity to criticize the court system to the judge. She countered that many people who came before her when she was a district court judge were acquitted.

One woman asked Schellhas a simple but pertinent question: "How do you judge?"

"I think listening is the number one condition for a judge," she said. "No judge I know thinks defendants aren't human. Everybody has a story, just like Gideon."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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