Books for Prisoners – Martin Schibbye

In protest at the ongoing restrictions on UK prisoners receiving books, we have asked former international cases of concern about the importance of reading in prison. Here Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye details his attempts to establish a prison library whilst detained in Kality Prison, Ethiopia, and the impact this had on his fellow prisoners

The Library

The security boss’s desk is covered in books and postal delivery notes of more shipments. There are sacks of letters piled up against the walls. It’s still unclear why we have been called, but when we look at the heavily laden table we realise that the library idea must have taken off in Sweden. On a couple of the postcards we read messages telling us to stand up for ourselves and be strong.

‘You have a right to receive letters, but we have the right to censor them, and we censored them all’, says the censor.

We nod. He seems more worried about the work load than any possible content. Anyway it does not matter that we are not allowed to read them. As prisoners of conscience the worst fear is to be forgotten and to see these censored letters is far more important than food and water.

The door of prison governor Abraham’s office opens, and when we are called in we see that his desk is also covered in books. They have been sorted into three piles: one with approved literature, one with impounded books and one with Swedish books that can’t be checked. After the obligatory painful handshake we are told to sit in the office chairs.

‘Why do you want to move to Zone 4?’ Abraham asks with curiosity.

‘We’ve heard that it’s better there, you can listen to the radio and read books and newspapers.’

Abraham shakes his head.

‘There is no zone like that.’

Although we just walked past Zone 4 and saw prisoners reading newspapers, we don’t protest. By now we know that when reality and the map don’t coincide, it’s important to stick to the map. Very firmly.

‘What are you doing in Zone 6?’ asks Abraham, sweeping his hand towards the table.

‘We’re starting a library,’ I say.

‘Not that. This.’

He holds up an editorial from the New York Times.

‘These things are not helping you,’ says Abraham and lets us read the text.

The piece by Nicholas Kristof is about the situation in Kality, and attacks Ethiopia’s lack of press freedom. The feeling of reading a newspaper text for the first time in eight months is indescribable, and I read as fast as I can, nervous that I won’t get to the end before Abraham snatches the newspaper out of my hands. I have time to read it three times before he grows impatient.

In the pile of approved books, surprisingly enough, are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Franz Kafka’s The Trial and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Either there’s a great sense of humour at work or pure incompetence.

At the top of the pile of censured books is the book by British journalist Robert Fisk, The Age of the Warrior.

‘You’ve been sentenced for terrorism,’ says Abraham.


‘And you want a book with the word “warrior” in the title?’

‘Yes, Robert Fisk is one of the most famous foreign correspondents in the world. He has interviewed Bin Laden’

Abraham puts back Robert Fisk among the banned literature with disgust.

‘Bin Laden. Very much illegal!’


Back in our zone, we put the piles of new books on our beds. The foreigners gather around us with curiosity. We start sharing out books which we think will appeal to certain prisoners. An ex-fisherman gets a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Chala gets To Have and Not to Have, for myself I lay claim to Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids and Johan takes Animal Farm. We give one of the children Astrid Lindgren’s Mio, My Mio.

We unpack a book of aerial photographs of Stockholm. I trace the line of Söder Mälarstrand with my fingertips. Talk about the restaurants Kvarnen and Carmen to people who have never been to Europe, explain that the blue expanse is water one can both swim in and drink. The touched-up, romantic nature photos are idyllic things for the home bookshelf, but here they build up my resilience. In one photo is a lighthouse in Stenshuvud National Park.

‘Is that the minaret of a mosque?’ asks one of the Ethiopians.

How does one explain the traffic lights of the sea to a prisoner in a land without a coastline?

Reading becomes almost a physical experience. Never again will I describe any book as rubbish. In a prison, all writing is great art.

The same police who usually brings drugs into the prison did not dare touch the impounded books like Robert Fisk’s. In a way that says something of the power of the written word, that a Federal prison is more afraid of ‘illegal’ books than drugs and weapons.

It is in a way hopeful.


I crawl into bed with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. It’s as I remember it. He walked in his cell in figures of eight. I scan the books for more prison strategies. I find an excerpt in the biography of Malcolm X where he talks about the Italian Communist leader Gramsci’s time in prison. The most important thing was to be ‘an organic intellectual’. Applying rock-hard discipline, reading, training and discussing politics in order to keep alert. Otherwise the prison slowly but surely degrades one’s mental capacities like a cancer.

I write in my diary that when Malcolm X is released he buys a suitcase, a watch and a new pair of glasses: to travel, make use of his time and see the world clearly.

For the first time I appreciate the fact that the fluorescent tubes are never switched off. The book’s place descriptions sharpen my senses. Suddenly I see our surroundings with new eyes. The hoisted-up sack of rice looks heavier. Caught in the hair brush I see all the hair I have dropped. There’s a layer of dust over everything. Next to me lies Johan in a yellow net singlet tucked into a pair of velour trousers.

Imagine if one day I write a book about everything I am seeing now. The thought makes my head spin. Until the day I die I will be able to describe exactly what I have before me. A book separates the present from the past. And just think if one day our book will be found in a prison library in Kality.

When that day comes we’ll be finished with this bloody country.


In the days that follow those who have finished reading their books come back and want to borrow more. The former fisherman returns with Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

‘This was a very bad fisherman,’ he says.

A Tanzanian who has finished Forget that You Have a Daughter is deeply touched. He explains that it’s about a British women locked up for possession of drugs, first in Bangkok and then in England.

‘Thank you so much for this story,’ he says. ‘I never thought it was so terrible being in prison in England, all alone in a cell. Here in Kality we are free by comparison, we have each other. I never thought about that before.’

‘Do you want to read another book?’

‘No, this was a lot to take in. I have to think about it for a while.’


Rumours of our library plans are already making the rounds that same afternoon. An ex-teacher jailed on corruption charges makes a 16-page list of books on everything from arithmetic to zoology. There’s a general eruption of longing for literature. Children and young people especially want study aids and reference books on subjects such as computer programming. The elderly want English classics. Johan and I spend the evening drafting a new wish list for our families.

In the kitchen, Richard Dowden’s Africa is the most popular book. Every chapter is about a different country south of the Sahara, and everyone wants to read what is said of their own countries. Already by lunchtime the cover is stained with cooking oil and the pages smudged with soot. Puzzle pieces fall into place.

One of the Nigerians reads the chapter on his country. Suddenly he understands that China has grown strong by its investments in Africa.

‘I read about the root, cassava. I have seen how all the cassava is exported to China, but I never thought what they do with it. I would like to travel to China and find out and then do the same thing in Nigeria.’

Suddenly he has a plan for his freedom. For the first time he has read about his country and seen words such as ‘corruption’ and ‘civil war’ written down. That the struggle in the oil delta in Nigeria is mentioned at all makes him happy.

His image of the world is sharpened.

He and his country are important.

Johnson, wearing his black pilot sunshades, sits down to read the chapter on the Sudan. In his sack-like jeans and hooded brown top he looks utterly engrossed. Suddenly he yells out when he reads the name of the rebel leader, John Garang, on a page. He starts talking about what it was like joining the SPLA as a 13-year-old, and about his meetings with Garang in the jungle. All in the kitchen listen to him as he runs through ethnic groupings, battles and peace accords. He seems a bit less deranged, all of a sudden. He’s just in the wrong environment, far from the everyday life of war and the jungle.


During the next night I get out Ingrid Betancourt’s Even Silence Has an End about her time as a prisoner in the Colombian jungle.  I eagerly leaf through it in search of practical tips on how to cope with captivity. But however carefully I scan it, I find nothing useful in a practical sense, just a lot of gnawing of raw fish, escape attempts down Amazonian tributaries and religious musings about the difference between praying to God for one’s freedom and praying to God to know when freedom will come.

So she was imprisoned for six years. The time perspective is frightening. What are the effects of so many years of captivity on a human being?

I put the book away and just want to sleep, to disappear into darkness and dreams.

Then it strikes me that maybe I am looking for the wrong things. I pick up the book again and quickly find a passage that I skipped earlier:

I was chained to a tree, robbed of my freedom, the freedom to move, to sit, to rise, the freedom to talk or to be silent, the freedom to drink or eat and even deprived of the most basic human needs. I was after all these years still aware that you still have it in you, to keep the most valuable, the freedom that nobody can take from you, the freedom to determine who you want to be



The most difficult part in Ethiopia’s Kality Federal Prison was not the diseases, the torture, or the sentencing of innocent: it was the fear of speaking. It’s not the guards or the barbed wire that keep the prison population calm, it’s the geography of fear.

People who speak politics are taken away. They disappear. This conduct eats its way into your soul in a way I would never have imagined. Your mind crumbles. The discussions turn rudimentary.  I could wake up at night afraid I had said something negative about the government in my dreams.  It gets under your skin. To stay sane we decided to start a library in prison.


About the author

Martin Schibbye is a Swedish journalist who together with the photographer Johan Persson was sentenced to 11 years for covering the conflict in the closed Ogaden region by entering Ethiopia illegally. Their reportage about oil was transformed into a story about ink, and their daily lives turned into a fight for survival inside the notorious Kality prison in Addis Ababa. Both were pardoned after 14 months of confinement. Schibbye and Persson have recently published a book about their prison experience, 438 Days, which was shortlisted for the 2013 August Prize.


About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

View all posts by Cat Lucas →

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