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Prisoners read at a Sipar library in Kandal prison
Prisoners read at a Sipar library in Kandal prison in March. Editor’s note: subjects’ faces have been blurred to protect their identities. Sipar

Plan helps cons dream

A few strokes of a pen symbolised a reintroduction to the written word for thousands of Cambodian inmates yesterday.

At a signing ceremony at the Ministry of Interior, Kuy Bunsorn, director general of the General Department of Prisons, approved a budget amendment that added about $250,000 in funds over two years – donated by the French government – to a program that puts libraries into prisons.

“This is good for the prisoners to have chance to read . . . even though they are in jail,” Bunsorn said.

Sipar, a French literacy NGO, began the program as a pilot in 2004, when they put set up a library in Battambang Prison, said Beatrice Montariol, a Sipar consultant who monitors the project. Based on that success, the prison department asked them to continue starting prison libraries across the country.

By the end of next year, Montariol said, Sipar hopes to have a library in all Cambodia’s 26 prisons. If accomplished, it would make the Kingdom more compliant with its own 2011 Laws on Prisons, which states jails “shall have facilities for practising religion, a library and vocational training.”

Short on space, however, some prison libraries amount to boxes of books held in a cell.

Prisoners show a wide range in tastes when borrowing books, Montariol observed. Those looking to improve their lives upon release seem inclined to books on self-help or ones that teach skills in fields such as agriculture. Those in for a longer stay tend to look for a mental escape.

“If they’re going to be in prison for a long time, they’re not very interested in self-development,” Montariol said. “But they need to dream.”

Spines on the libraries’ love novels wear out the quickest, while more somber books remain on the shelves, Montariol said. Stories with happy endings are always in demand.

In the past, the European Union has granted Cambodia’s program almost $390,000, Montariol said.

Bunsorn said his expectations were modest – “about 30 to 40 per cent [of inmates] will get it and use the knowledge from reading in their lives.”

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