Inmates Find a Legal Means of Escape in Prison Libraries

TAKHMAO, Kandal province – With novels, agriculture books and magazines in hand, 13 inmates sat around a longish table in Kandal provincial prison this week, flipping through pages, studiously staring at pictures of cows and advertisements for pizza at a fast food chain.

Inmates pose with books for photographers at Kandal provincial prison's new library this week. (Denise Hruby/The Cambodia Daily)
Inmates pose with books for photographers at Kandal provincial prison’s new library this week. (Denise Hruby/The Cambodia Daily)

The men, dressed in dark-blue in­mate uniforms, were obviously on their best behavior for the visit of journalists to their new prison library. On a normal day, the scene would probably have looked quite different. Nonetheless, the enjoyment the inmates get from their little library of about 2,500 books is real. “This library is teaching me a lot,” said 38-year-old inmate Thung Sopheap, who has served more than seven years of his nine-year-sentence for attempting to murder his aunt. His favorite books, he said, are about agriculture and raising chickens.

“I plan to run a chicken farm when I leave here…. I’m trying to read books related to agriculture so I can support my family,” he said.

About 50 percent of the books are novels, mostly romantic or traditional Cambodian stories, while 40 percent are non-fiction, including books on self-development and vocational training, said Beatrice Montariol, consultant for Sipar, the NGO who inaugurated seven new prison libraries across the country this week.

Many prisoners, she said, arrive without being able to read or write. But once they spend most of their days in cramped cells with nothing to do, better-educated inmates try to teach them. “For about 100 new prisoners, I would say the number of illiterates is 50 or 60 percent, and it’s generally lower for men than women because boys stay in school longer,” Ms. Montariol said.

Encouraged by other inmates, the majority of new arrivals make an effort to learn how to read and write in jail. “After six months, they are at a primary school level and the illiterate [rate] is down to only around 10 percent,” she said, noting that the figure is less than the country’s average of about 23 percent illiteracy, according to the most recent census.

The seven libraries already opened and the 10 that will open later this year are funded with a $500,000 grant by the European Union, whose ambassador, Jean-Francois Cautain, said that besides providing education, the books open a window to the world.

“If you live in this kind of environment—which is not an easy one—there are many people in the same cell and for many, it’s a way to escape this environment,” Mr. Cautain said.

A legal escape was also what the Kandal prison library offers to in­mate Mr. Sopheap, who gets a new book every two days. “I see it as an entertainment, and when I read I forget about the past…it helps me with my loneliness,” he said.

Kandal provincial prison director Chab Sineang said the library was an important addition to his jail, though a little censorship is applied, as publications with erotic or violent content are not permitted.

“We have observed that before opening the library, there was a lot of violence, now it has reduced,” Mr. Sineang said, explaining that fistfights used to break out frequently as inmates were both uneducated and bored.

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