When Romanian inmates pick up the pen to earn freedom
Bucharest (AFP) –
They may 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 inside to get out quicker.
The latest big name to leave prison early was the former Romania football great and Barcelona captain Gheorghe Popescu.
Jailed in 2014 for three years over a football corruption scandal, he was released on November 4, largely thanks to four books about the beautiful game which he penned 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 European Union'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 2014 and June 2015, according to figures provided to AFP by the National Prison Administration (ANP).
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 prime minister Victor Ponta, who resigned on November 4 following a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest which killed 55 and left scores more badly wounded.
His trial on charges of graft is due to start in the coming weeks.
- Writing-down a sentence -
A prisoner who wants to make his mark in the world of letters must first receive a recommendation from a university professor who specialises 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 explained.
The aspiring writer must then find a publishing house willing to print his opus -- at the author's expense.
According to editors consulted by AFP, the publication of several hundred copies of a book costs around a thousand euros (about $1,073), a modest expenditure for those described by the press as "high-end/luxury prisoners".
The prisons authority, however, said some of those who wrote books did not end up benefiting from the hoped-for shortening of their sentence.
But the press 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.
George Copos, former head of Rapid Bucarest football club, produced five literary works while in custody, noticeably shortening his four-year sentence for fraud and tax evasion.
One of them, entitled "Marital Alliances As Policy Among the Romanian Princes of Wallachia and Moldavia in the 14th-16th Century", earned him allegations of plagiarism from a historian who had submitted his 2005 doctorate on the same theme.
Gigi Becali, the eccentric and outspoken owner of Romania's top football 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 sceptics about who actually wrote the book.
- A Romanian Balzac? -
But the record for speed writing behind bars looks set to go to Ioan Niculae, Romania's richest man 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?" responded his lawyer Florin Surghie when pressed by journalists.
Sorin Apostu, former mayor of Romania's second city Cluj who was sentenced to four-and-a-half years for corruption, has likewise enriched specialist literature with an opus called: "The Production of Meat Derivatives".
Fearing abuse of the system, Romania's Superior Council of Magistracy (CSM), a judicial body separate from the executive branch, has called for more restrictive legislation.
"The big Romanian writers are being dwarfed in comparison to the classics being penned nowadays, from prison," remarked a wry editorial in the Adevarul daily.
For now, many of these works remain absent from libraries and bookshops.
© 2015 AFP