Bookish inmates turn over new leaf

Last updated 05:00 21/08/2011

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New Zealand's prisoners are voracious readers, Victoria Robinson reports.

Plowing through Harry Potter and New Age self-help books by Deepak Chopra, the 9000 prisoners in New Zealand jails are finding their only escape is through the written word.

Barbara Austin, librarian at Auckland Regional Prison, also known as Paremoremo, said the inmates are some of the most prolific readers she has encountered.

"They will get six to eight to 10 books out at a time to get through them in their two weeks. That's a lot of reading.

"One of the most rewarding things is to notice an increased pleasure in reading. You might start with quite an ambivalent person standing by the grill, and gradually they're drawn in to the title or the discussion that goes on around the trolley."

The titles the prisoners enjoy would not be out of place on any Kiwi bookshelf. They devour modern classics such as Lord of the Flies, but also love new fiction by authors like Martina Cole.

"One thing they really love is heroic fantasy work by Conn Iggulden and David Gemmell. They love to get a series and some of them are bitterly disappointed and refuse to read a series if it's not all there," Austin said.

One of the most popular genres among inmates is love poetry. "They often want to write to their partners and they want to use a bit of poetry."

Austin said self-help books were in hot demand at Paremoremo.

"They're quite interested in How To Think Like a Billionaire by Donald Trump. A lot of these men will have to be self-employed when they get out if they want to work because they'll find finding a job difficult.

"They like Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. It's about all the things that middle class parents teach their kids that some working class people have never been taught. For them it's an eye-opener on how money works in the world and how you can be independent. Those sorts of things really touch something in them and they will read those books over and over again."

The Harry Potter series, some of the most popular books ever written, also have a strong following in prison.

"It will be the men who were teenagers when Harry Potter hit. They remember it from school and they remember their mates reading it and things like that. It's quite a little cluster of men of a certain age that would ask for it because they never got to read it."

Like other prison libraries around the country, Paremoremo is stocked solely with book donations from the public.

Austin said the library's job was to encourage reading, which means donated books need to be current and fresh to grab prisoners' attention.

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Porirua city councillor Wayne Poutoa knows the value of books in prison. A former Mongrel Mob member, he turned around his life after he discovered reading while locked up.

"I grabbed the books with pictures first because that's what attracted me. I grabbed all those ones and had a look at great pictures of people rock climbing and all sorts of stuff. Eventually I started reading them. When I was a young fella at school I was really smart but I had just turned a wrong corner. It was reliving that and getting back into it – it was awesome."

Poutoa said reading has the power to turn lives around.

"If you go to Cannons Creek in Porirua at three o'clock in the morning, what you'll see is a whole lot of dairies covered by garage doors for security. When you look at the library there'll be no garage door to protect it, and that's because people don't want to steal education. They don't see it as a value. But once you start getting a whole lot of people that start visiting the library and start looking at those things, they'll then understand that the library is the most precious shop on that corner."

- Sunday Star Times

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