Inmates read freely behind prison bars

Prison has the effect of magnifying everything: time, problems and hopes of release. What outlets are there from the harsh everyday realities of life behind bars? One of the most effective is reading, according to psychologists and sociologists we met on a visit to the women’s detention center at Elaionas in Thebes. «The relationship the inmates have with books is not occasional – it’s a relationship in which they live,» one explained. «A single book might change their lives; that has happened.» «I had found some discarded books and I retrieved them from the trash, because there’s a great need for them at the prison,» psychologist Vangelis Kosmatos told Kathimerini. «Then last summer I sent an e-mail to friends and acquaintances, begging them to send their books to us rather than throwing them away.» The recipients forwarded his e-mail to their friends and a few months later someone posted it on the Internet, where it was read by thousands of people. «Out of the blue,» he said, «I started receiving scores of books from all over Greece, even from Greeks abroad.» By late November, the detention center’s library had 6,000 books. Another 500 have been catalogued since then and several thousand are still in their wrapping, waiting to be catalogued. «We’ve already started sending books to other prisons which have launched an effort to build up their libraries,» said an official at the detention center. Now prison libraries at Grevena, Katerini and elsewhere are being organized along similar lines. A window Overcoming the misgivings that employees of correctional centers usually feel toward the media, Kosmatos decided to approach them to promote the libraries. «Books are of immense significance here,» he said. «Some inmates have realized through reading a book how they ended up here; it’s changed their view of the world. In prison, a book is not a consumer item; it’s a window. That’s why we need to get more books in prisons.» Workers at the detention center described the inmates as demanding readers who know their stuff. «On the list of books they asked us to get, the majority of titles were among the most contemporary and best known in Greek literature,» said social worker Georgia Psaraki. The most popular genres are historical fiction and psychology. The inmates are fond of novels that deal with love, human relationships, separation and loss. Reading is an opportunity to let their mind travel beyond the bars, which is reflected in the most popular titles including most of Paulo Coelho’s work, books by Irvin Yalom, Richard Bach’s «Jonathan Livingston Seagull,» Marlon Morgan’s «Mutant Message Down Under» and Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s «The Little Prince.» Some of the detainees started to read at the suggestion of the social worker. Others entered the library to deal with some document and started to read when some book caught their eye. The librarians are detainees themselves. Their selection «is a very important matter,» said Kosmatos, «because they must possess certain skills, from knowing about books to being polite and patient with the other prisoners.» Following the spontaneous response of the public, the prison has largely met its need for books. Now it is seeking titles in Albanian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Russian. Many of the books that arrive contain messages of sympathy and solidarity: «Thought cannot be imprisoned,» said one.

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