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With DMK big on reading culture, it's time to improve TN prison libraries

Libraries for convicts are filled with crime fiction, and the titles are at least 10 years old; the libraries lack ventilation and lighting

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“He who opens a library, closes a prison”. This adage paraphrases Victor Hugo’s famous quote, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”. And, the Tamil Nadu government, it appears, is following the saying in both letter and spirit.

The DMK for long has been known as a party that grew not only because of its strong cadre base, but also because it made its cadres better-informed through its numerous padippagams (reading centres).

Taking forward this legacy, the current government announced in the Budget that a high-level committee has been formed to monitor the public libraries in the state. It had also formed a panel to select and recommend journals and magazines to be subscribed to, for these libraries.

Besides these measures, a public library, similar to the Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, is being set up in Madurai. It will be named after the party’s patriarch M Karunanidhi. Also, it has been decided to conduct book fairs in all districts of the state on par with Chennai Book Fair, and Chief Minister MK Stalin has announced that a permanent book park would be established in the state. The CM himself has requested that when people and officials meet him, they should gift books instead of presenting shawls and bouquets.

While all these efforts are commendable, it seems that the government has neglected the libraries set up in the state’s nine central prisons.

Prison libraries filled with crime fiction

“The basic objective of the prisons should be to rehabilitate the convicts. Encouraging them to read books, besides other activities like sports and yoga, is one way of rehabilitation,”  Anburaj, a former convict who spent about 20 years in Salem central jail for his alleged links with the forest brigand Veerappan, told The Federal.

“But, in most prisons, the libraries are stacked with crime fiction that are published every month and priced at Rs 10 or Rs 20. A convict cannot find a book which has a good literary value because the officials of the police department fear that the serious literature would turn the prisoners into rebels,” he added.

In prisons, the seriousness of the crime matters. The respect meted out to an inmate depends on what kind of crime he or she has committed, claimed Anburaj. Hence, for some years, he was regarded highly by fellow prisoners and he spent those years happily.

“It was at that time that I got introduced to reading by two of my guides. One, Thangavel, a fellow inmate who follows the Leftist ideology, and the other, Nedunchezhiyan, a Tamil teacher who looked after the library in the prison. At first, I too was introduced to crime novels. Gradually, I yearned to read serious literature. But the prison rules are such that we cannot even read Kuraloviyam, a book of explanations on Thirukkural, a moral text, penned by the former Chief Minister Karunanidhi (even when the DMK was in power). It was difficult to find books that would make an inmate a better person,” said Anburaj.

The teacher responsible for looking after the prison library would go to the district central public library from time to time and get books for the inmates. He was given orders by the prison officials on the kind of books and authors to be brought in, Anburaj added.

“Knowing my interest in serious literature, the teacher used to bring the books hidden in his underwear and that was how I had the opportunity of reading masterpieces of Tamil literature. The first book I obtained was Pattaampoochi (Papillon) by Ra Ki Rangarajan,” he said.

No new books for 10 years

Speaking to The Federal, S Nallathambi, Madurai central prison’s former assistant jailor, said the libraries in prisons have not been updated with new titles. “There were no new books bought for a decade,” he said.

“The prison libraries lack sufficient infrastructure like separate buildings and the existing ones don’t have proper ventilation or lighting. There are no racks to stack the books. The books are kept in bundles tied with twine. Also, there are not enough copies of the same title. If there are 1,500 inmates in a prison, at least half of them would be voracious readers. If a single copy is being borrowed and read by many inmates in the prison, it would definitely get damaged,” he added.

“While some prisoners are able to get new books from outside with their own money, many others don’t have that kind of luxury. There is not enough budget allocated for these libraries. The library department is also not sending a sufficient number of books,” said Nallathambi, who recently authored Siraiyil Olirum Natchathirangal (‘Stars Shining in Prison’), his work-life memoir.

Agreeing with Anburaj on the censoring of books that are distributed, Nallathambi said that most of the time the books related to prison literature get banned inside prison libraries.

“In such a scenario, even my book would not be permitted inside these libraries. However, some books would get slipped into the prisons because the officer who censors the books there would lack knowledge about the subject of a particular title,” he added.

Librarians, not teachers, are needed

The school education department, under which the library department operates, should take steps to appoint librarians for prison libraries instead of entrusting the job to teachers. It should also think of roping in more volunteers to stack the libraries with used books or to donate new books,  writer Imayam told The Federal.

Imayam, a teacher and writer who is known for his works on many social issues, recently raised this issue with the concerned officials. He took up the matter of prison libraries following his meeting with a life convict.

“Recently, a life convict from Cuddalore central prison came to meet me on parole. He has been awarded a life sentence for his involvement in a murder case. He asked me to release his poetry collection inside the prison. Taken aback, I asked him why he had chosen me. He said that he had read one of my works, Koveru Kazhuthaigal (‘Donkeys’), and that inspired him to read more books and pen poems.

“It was he who said that after 2011 there were no new books added to the prison libraries. So, I thought about taking up the issue with the prison, school and libraries department. They have promised to take the necessary steps. Hope better sense prevails,” Imayam said.

A highly placed source in the government said that there are plans to introduce new schemes like taking mobile libraries into prisons. But it requires coordination and support from the prisons, the source said.

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