A group of nine inmates at the Wakulla Corrections Institution, a state prison just south of Woodville, and I meet each week as a book group. The group recently finished George Orwell’s 1984, a depressing novel written in 1948 describing what life might be like in 1984 if it followed the path of the Communist Party after World War II.
It’s not an easy read. The general theme is about totalitarianism, brainwashing, and government surveillance where “Big Brother is Always Watching.” When we first discussed the book, I suspected it would closely relate to life in prison, where decisions are made for inmates, all activities are controlled, and someone in uniform is “always watching.” However, the inmates in our group pointed out that, unlike the book, there is no “thought police” or efforts to change history or lie to them. They acknowledged the Department of Corrections doesn’t try to control inmate thinking, but frequently encourages stimulating discussions and betterment.
Our book club is a diverse group of sincere thinkers. They talked about power and how it is gained, used and abused, the dangers of government-controlled media, technology and privacy, and the risk of some individuals taking a stand against oppression while others choose to participate in it.
The inmates commented on the how parts of government control described in Orwell’s book can be more common to society at our national level than to life in prison. We hear terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” on a regular basis. The “Party” in Orwell’s book rewrites history to its liking and convinces the general population that it was never any different. The people are brainwashed to accept contradictions as fact in a concept Orwell calls “doublethink.” The group identified several examples in current politics.
One inmate pointed out that to know the truth, we need to know who to trust. In the past, we generally relied on parents, teachers and often government and the media, to tell us the truth. An example was inmate Mark’s statement that since he’s never seen Greenland, how does he know it exists other than believing someone he trusts. When we go to school, we place considerable trust in our teachers. When we hear the media reporting news, should we believe it? Lately, we hear statements from elected officials that ideally, we should trust, but now aren’t quite so sure. That question wasn’t resolved in our group, but it encouraged discussion and thought.
It’s worthy to note that Orwell’s 1984 rose to the best seller lists shortly after the 2016 election and was the third most checked out book in the 125- year history of the New York Public Library.
Our next book is Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe it will be a bit lighter reading.
Bob McVety is a volunteer at Florida State Prison in Wakulla County. He received permission from the warden to form a book club with inmates named Bill, Darwin, David, Edwin, Jason, Jose, Ken, Mark and Ronnie.