Romanian Prison Poetry: How Books Bail out Corrupt Politicians

Behind bars, many prominent Romanian inmates discover the pen. Not in the name of science and art – but in their own interest. Because inmates who write books can hope for an early release.

The Romanian justice system has prepared two pieces of news for the political officials of the country. The bad news is that corruption has spread into the prisons. The good news is that using little tricks, it is possible to leave the cell quickly.

Numerous formerly and currently powerful people in Romania’s economic and political world have found themselves behind bars because of their corrupt machinations. In jail, they seemingly found a muse. Or self-interest: inmates that compose books can hope for a shortening of their sentence by 30 days per work, according to the law.

Last April, entrepreneur and former owner of the football club Rapid Bucharest, George Copos, was released ahead of time. He was sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud and the illegal transfer of players. In prison, Copos was able to reduce his sentence by 200 days by writing several books. The fact that he plagiarised at least one of these books does not jeopardise his freedom at the moment.

No less than three books were written behind bars by the social democrat and former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who was, among other things, convicted in 2014 for illegal funding of his political party and in 2014 for corruption. Behind bars the powerful businessman Sorin Ovidiu Vantu (convicted for blackmail) concerned himself with post-turnaround Romania, those lawless years that gave men like himself influence and power. And Gheorghe Becali, a kind of ultra-orthodox Rumpelstiltskin of Romanian politics, devoted himself to spiritual topics while serving his sentence for bribery.

Thanks to his creations, Nastase’s sentence is shortened by 105 days, Vantu’s by one month, and Becali was also released prematurely.

They are not the only ones. In 2012 the judicial authorities broke away from their political influence and spectacularly arrested Nastase, thereby beginning the process of quenching the bog of corruption. This process involves sending corrupt politicians to prison, which has caused the amount of publications there to skyrocket. In 2014, 76 books were published by inmates, saving themselves a total of 2,280 days behind bars. Until 2013, the prison administration had always reported an amount of less than ten volumes per year.

Many sheets of paper have been printed, but the quality of the works, which are meant to further the inmates’ education, has not improved. The law dictates that scientific works must be produced. However, the content of the works is never examined. For this reason, the anti-corruption agency DNA has petitioned the Justice Ministry against the principle of book production in order to reduce sentences. According to the agency, it is highly “unusual for the law to dictate a shortening of prison sentences in exchange for scientific works, but not dictate any criteria of content.” Such a provision is unique to Romania in Europe, according to the criticism of the DNA.

The Romanian audience cannot play a corrective‘s role either. 200 copies of Vantu’s books were printed, out of which 160 were acquired by the author himself, 30 remained at the publishing house and ten are currently collecting dust in the university library, according to the Romanian daily paper Romania Libera. This is the common fate of the convicts’ books. Becalis’ impressions of the Greek Mount Athos have been given two out of five stars on an online platform. Becalis’ oeuvre is available, something not every prison author can rightly claim.

At least Nastase took his second prison work – about transatlantic relationships – on a reading tour in the summer of 2013 before returning to his cell in 2014. While the average inmate, who is usually hardly literate, can profit little from the law in question, ex-Prime Minister Nastase, like many authors belonging to the ‘prison elite’, is once again out of prison.

Yet during his first prison sentence, Nastases introduced his prison primer at the largest book fair in the country in 2012, without his presence but to an illustrious audience. The title of the book? “Exercises in Freedom”.

Translation: Caprice Jussel. A German version of this article appeared in the Austrian daily Die Presse.

Cover photo credit: Adrian Nastase/media.rtv.net.

Eva Konzett

Eva is an Austrian journalist with the business daily Wirtschaftsblatt. She mostly covers the CEE/SEE-region, and was a correspondent in Romania from 2012-2013. She's written for publications in Austria, Germany, and Romania.

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