Jailhouse book: The woman who visits prison to read to Poland's hardest criminals

Every month Maria Majewska-Dąbrowska visits murderers, thugs and rapists in Warsaw’s Białołęka prison to read books with them. Fundacja Zmiana

Behind thick, yellow walls, surrounded by barbwire, searchlights and armed guards, sit some of Poland’s hardest criminals.

Serving sentences for GBH, armed robbery, murder and rape, for most of the over 1,000 male inmates Warsaw’s Białołęka prison is a joyless place. 

Except for once or twice a month. That’s when Maria Majewska-Dąbrowska visits with her books and gets together with small groups of volunteers and read. 

“One day they will be released and they have to be prepared for life back in society. So we read together, since there is nothing that can explain life and people’s relationships better than books,” the 62-year-old told TFN.

A pedagogue by profession, Dąbrowska (pictured centre right) has been running her project ‘Books in the Slammer’ for five years in association with The Foundation for Change (Fundacja Zmiana).Fundacja Zmiana

A pedagogue by profession, Dąbrowska has been running her project ‘Books in the Slammer’ for five years in association with The Foundation for Change (Fundacja Zmiana). 

Made up of volunteer prisoners, the groups meet inside the prison where they read and discuss various works, as if they were in a university seminar. 

From the works of Hanna Krall and Filip Springer through to poetry and even a volume of the Ringelblum Archive, Dąbrowska believes this can help the prisoners to reflect on their crimes and to become better people. 

Behind the thick, yellow walls, surrounded by barbwire, searchlights and armed guards, sit some of Poland’s hardest criminals.sw.gov.pl

She told TFN: “It is important to keep prisoners in the same groups, to show them how relationships work.

“They are afraid of confrontation with the outside world. They know that once they are free, their time in prison is going to be a stigma for their entire lives and coping with others won’t be easy. 

“Reading books, analysing the protagonists’ thoughts and motives, as banal as it sounds, helps them to prepare for their new life situations. 

"They are also keen to read tutorials and how-to-do books. They find help in any kind of literature.”

Made up of volunteer prisoners, the groups meet inside the prison where they read and discuss various works, as if they were in a university seminar.Fundacja Zmiana

She added: Thanks to books, you can gain a much greater reflection on your experiences.

"In our groups we have a social cross-section of the whole country - there is a professor and a semi-illiterate. 

“But most of them show sensitivity even if they are serving time for murder.

“Many of them committed their crime because they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs or acted in a heat of passion - they often cannot forgive themselves.”

Dąbrowska told TFN: “Reading books, analysing the protagonists’ thoughts and motives, as banal as it sounds, helps them to prepare for their new life situations.”Fundacja Zmiana

While the former teacher says she is aware that many in society feel serious offenders should not be allowed such luxuries, she remains defiant. 

She said: “I have to face such accusations. And I always have to explain that my job is not about forgiving or judging others. I do not deal with their past, but with their future.”

“They have to know how to cope in the outside world which is tough as well.

“The greatest success of the literature classes is that they will never come back behind bars again.”