Unique German library helps prisoners escape into a world of books

To help inmates pass the time in a more pleasant way, a library in Dortmund, Germany, delivers books to jails. It is the only one of its kind in the country.

Ronald, 46, would love to escape his everyday reality. He manages to do so for a few hours at a time with the book “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. The novel takes him to Afghanistan in the year 1975 – into the turbulent world of two teenagers in Kabul. He has already seen the film version of the story.

“In the book, everything has more depth than in the film,” said Ronald, adding that “switching off” and escaping into a different world is his main goal in reading.

But the harsh reality is that Ronald remains where he is: in his jail cell in the German city of Dortmund. It is seven square meters (75 square feet) in size and contains a sink, a toilet, a bed, a television and a barred window. A number of heavy doors separate him from the outside world.

Thousands of books

At the library across town where Ronal orders his books from, Helga Römer rummages through boxes of books that fill the corridor.

“New donations are due to arrive in a few days,” explained Römer, who manages the book lending program for prisoners, “That’s why I need to make some space.”

She puts the books that are of interest to her readers aside – these will become part of the library. The rest will be sold at a flea market and the money made on them will be used to purchase more books – “for, example, current legal literature and computer literature.” The library relies entirely on donations.

The long rows of shelves in the gray room are filled with books. Above, signs denote various non-fiction topic areas: Penal System, History, Politics, Technology, Religion and 19 others. There is also fiction – in German and in other languages. Altogether, there are around 41,000 titles on offer.

Each year, two thousand prisoners from Germany and abroad borrow books here remotely. The library complements the various jails’ own book collections.

Fulfilling a need to read

The Dortmund penitentiary has a library, too. It is bright and smells fresh following its recent renovation.

“The most frequently borrowed books are action, crime stories and historical novels,” said Yvonne Glowa, the library’s organizer. Some 4,000 books are available for check-out.

Every prisoner can visit the library once a week. Over a third of the jail’s inmates take advantage of this opportunity, including Ronald. Before ordering a book from the remote library, he checks whether it is available at his “home” library.

Ronald discovered his passion for reading in jail. Before his incarceration, he was a driver and member of a motorcycle club. Then he committed a serious robbery and was sentenced to four years.

Most of all, he misses his friends. His girlfriend and motorbike club “brothers” do come over sometimes, but only two visits per month are allowed. The deliveries from the library are an additional form of contact with the outside world.

“We include a postcard with every book we send out,” said Römer, adding that the library’s staff members always write a few friendly words to the prisoners.

The issues of crime, punishment, guilt and atonement do not interest her. “We try to help the prisoners. We know that they are in this situation, but we are not interested in the reasons.”

She is determined to help every inmate who wants to read a certain book but cannot get a hold of it. Her work is unpaid, though she has received a medal from the German government for her 25 years of involvement with the library. But the greatest reward, she says, are the countless thank-you letters she receives from the prisoners.

Author: Olga Kapustina / ew
Editor: Kate Bowen

(from Deutsche Welle)

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