The Scribblings of Convicts

The most infamous of books written by jailbirds is almost certainly Mein Kampf, Hitler’s torrent of crackpot history and racist nonsense, written whilst he languished in jail after the failed Munich putsch of 1923. It has recently emerged from copyright and was republished in an annotated scholarly edition a week or two ago.

But there’s a respectable tradition too, including John Bunyan’s late 17th century spiritual allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, begun in Bedfordshire County Prison. Other literary luminaries of the prison cell include Cervantes, Oscar Wilde  Nelson Mandela, e e cummings, Jean Genet, and Martin Luther King.


Perhaps in the hope of contributing to this tradition (though not, I trust, in the vein of Mein Kampf) the Romanian legal system allowed, under a law passed in 2006, a reduction of 30 days from a prisoner’s sentence for each academic book written and published whilst in jail.

The incentive worked. Some 300 books were published by prisoners last year, one of them, a 213-page work, written in under seven hours.

Sadly, Justice Minister Raluca Pruna recently announced that the law would be annulled by emergency decree.

“According to prison administration figures, the number of books published by detainees went from one a year between 2007 and 2010, to 90 in 2014, and 340 last year,” Ms Pruna told a news conference. 

“Given that the phenomenon has spiralled out of control, I have proposed that the government repeal this arrangement via emergency decree,” she added.

Romania’s jails have recently been filled with the great, the good, and the rich, as a result of a large-scale drive against corruption, and whilst there is much that these prisoners might write about, and they certainly have time on their hands, it is widely suspected that some of their works may not be entirely their own. Romania’s anti-corruption prosecutors are investigating.

Businessmen Dan Voiculescu and Dinel Staicu top the list of literary prisoners with ten books each. Voiculescu’s record is especially impressive, given that his sentence only began in August 2014.

Another jailbird on the list is businessman Gheorghe Copos, who was sentenced to four years incarceration. According to The Guardian, Copos was accused of plagiarism for a book entitled Matrimonial Alliances as a Policy of Romanian Kings in the XIV-XVIth Centuries, a subject in which he had shown no previous expertise. Catalin Parfene, a journalist who wrote a thesis on this subject for his master’s degree at the University of Bucharest, told The Guardian that the book had a structure identical to his own work, and repeated his arguments and ideas. Nevertheless, Copos was released from jail, and will presumably devote the rest of his life to further historical research.

Sadly, if this enlightened law is repealed by decree, Victor Ponta, Romania’s former prime minister, to whom a prison cell might yet one day be allocated, must set aside his academic ambitions and the chance to atone for plundering others’ texts for his doctoral thesis.

You are nothing in Romania unless you have an academic treatise to your name. Even Elena Ceausescu, the largely uneducated wife of the Communist dictator who ruled the country until 1989, had the time to pen a work on polymer chemistry. It didn’t save her, though, from getting shot with her husband after a travesty of a trial on Christmas Day 1989.

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