Mon, Nov 16, 2015 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Romanian inmates pick up pens to earn freedom


They might be athletes, businessmen or politicians, but the minute they are jailed, Romanian convicts often morph into “men of letters” thanks to a law allowing those who write a book while in prison to get out earlier. The latest big name to leave prison early was Romanian soccer great and former Barcelona team captain Gheorghe Popescu.

Jailed last year for three years over a soccer corruption scandal, he was released on Nov. 4, largely thanks to four books about soccer which he penned while in his cell.

Under Romanian law, convicts can claim 30 days off their sentence if they publish a work of literature or science while behind bars. The legislation, which was first enacted in 2006 then amended in 2013, has brought forth a growing number of literary works from the jails of one of the EU’s poorest nations, where corruption is rampant.

After humble beginnings — around 10 books were published between 2007 and 2010 — the literary production of Romania’s prisons has exploded with no less than 157 new books published between January last year and June this year, according to National Prison Administration (ANP) figures. The rise coincides with a two-year crackdown on corruption targeting the powerful and the wealthy.

One of the big fish to fall in this is former Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta, who resigned on Nov. 4 following a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest which killed 55 and left scores more seriously injured. His trial on charges of graft is due to start in coming weeks.

A prisoner who wants to make his mark in the world of letters must first receive a recommendation from a university professor who specializes in the area he wishes to cover. Then his request must be screened by a special committee inside the prison.

“If his demand is accepted by the prison committee, he will have access to the prison library and to a computer which is not connected to the Internet,” the ANP said.

The aspiring writer must then find a publishing house willing to print his opus — at the author’s expense.

According to editors, the publication of several hundred copies of a book costs around 1,000 euros (US$1,077), a modest expenditure for those described by the media as “high-end/luxury prisoners.”

However, the prisons authority said some of those who wrote books did not end up benefiting from the hoped-for shortening of their sentence, but the media have raised questions about the number of works approved by the prison authorities, not all of which are autobiographical and some of which have a decidedly eclectic subject matter.

Gigi Becali, the eccentric and outspoken owner of Romania’s top soccer club Steaua Bucuresti, penned four works of literature, including one called Mount Athos, Home of Orthodoxy. Sentenced in 2013 to four years on two counts of graft, he was released in April.

A handwritten letter from Becali — full of spelling mistakes — to the head of the prison nevertheless raised questions among skeptics about who actually wrote the book.

However, the record for speed writing behind bars looks set to go to Romania’s richest man, Ioan Niculae, who was sentenced in April to 30 months for illegal financing of the 2009 presidential campaign. The billionaire businessman has penned five works in less than five months.

“That makes one book every 29 days. And Balzac, well, have you ever counted how many books he wrote?” his lawyer Florin Surghie said when pressed by media.

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