While our thoughts may roam free, the author of this article cannot. The writer has been in and out of prison. On each stint inside, he worked in prison libraries, first in the Münster Correctional Facility, and now in the Fröndenberg Correctional Hospital.
I was always an avid reader, even as a child, and I liked to hang out in libraries. I got grounded a lot, and books helped me escape from my situation. I often read to my children, and generally have a book in my trouser pocket in case I have to wait around somewhere. So it is fitting that I work in the library here on the inside.
Entrance to the Fröndenberg Correctional Hospital. | Photo (detail): © Eva-Maria Verfürth
The first time I was incarcerated, back in 2011 in the Münster Correctional Facility, I applied to work in the prison library. You have to be a trustee to work in the library, because you are not locked in and often work unsupervised. Since I was enrolled in the methadone programme at the time, they were reluctant to give me the job. But I kept asking until I got it. I have been in and out of prison since 2011 and when I walk back into Münster, they say: “Hey, our library guy is back.”
I like the work. I have a lot of responsibility, which I have never had on the “outside”. And I can read when things are quiet. I really like literature, especially fiction, but I also read non-fiction about history or technology. I like challenging books that are a little off the wall. Thomas Pynchon is my favourite author of all time.
Working in the library | Photo (detail): © Eva-Maria Verfürth
At the moment I have so much work, I can hardly find the time to read. I was transferred to the Fröndenberg Correctional Hospital at the beginning of 2018 to rebuild the closed library there. I spend the whole day taking inventory, and the library can’t get up and running again until I’m done. Things won’t work quite the way I’m used to here. In Münster, the prison library was open to everyone and patrons could check the books out themselves. Here in the hospital, patrons won’t be able to come in person. They will have a catalogue of the holdings, so they can order the books they want and I’ll bring them to their ward.
In Fröndenberg our collection includes around 4.000 titles, including books, a lot of music CDs, board games, a few DVDs and even music cassette tapes. We have a lot of foreign language holdings in over 20 languages.
Fantasy was very popular in Münster; Game of Thrones and romantic fantasy novels like the Twilight series. Thrillers are also really popular, the bloodier the better, à la Cooley Macfarien – and stories about people trying to get out of the Hells Angels or mafia hitmen. It really depends on a prisoner’s nationality though. Russians often want to read their classics, like Pushkin, and Russian gangster penny dreadfuls. Polish and Turkish literature is sought after, as is the Koran in Arabic. There are a few illustrated books about foreign countries too, which allow you to travel, at least in your mind. Then there are the books that just sit around collecting dust. I’ve occasionally suggested we bring in a few classics like Moby Dick when we were looking at new acquisitions, but the books were generally ignored by the prisoners.
The entire holdings of the prison library at Fröndenberg fit into one tiny container room at the moment. | Photo (detail): © Eva-Maria Verfürth
In the Münster Correctional Facility, around 90 percent of prisoners used the library, and many came in regularly. Having access to a library in prison is really important, as it helps you pass the 23 hours in your cell. A lot of people never read on the outside, but they start in here. They might start with Walt Disney comics, then discover other things they want to read. Poor prisoners really need library access, since they can’t afford to buy their own reading materials.
Working in the library has really given me a lot. I would like to do something similar on the outside, but I probably won’t get that opportunity because of my past. And I doubt I would be given as much responsibility anyway. I took a one-euro job at the Aachen State Archives, and as a teenager I started a traineeship at a book store. But it wasn’t the same.
European correctional facility guidelines stipulate that every correctional facility in Europe has to have a library for the purposes of “entertainment and education”. Most German facilities have a library, though full-time librarians only coordinate work at the libraries in three German states. The size of the collection depends on the number of prisoners and varies from 1,000 to 30,000 titles. The library at the Münster Correctional Facility was one of the best, and was awarded the 2007 German Library Prize for “library of the year”. The library was started when the prison was founded in 1853, but was forced to close in 2016 because the building was deemed unsafe.