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A Tale of Two Libraries: Prison inmates raise funds for a slum library for girls in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, with a sponsored 700 km static row

15 prisoners at HMP The Mount, Bovingdon, a British prison, rowed for 12 hours straight from 7 am onwards on Monday 24th April this year raising over £1200 (1 lakh) for the Gyan Azhar Library.

Sean, the prisoner who organised the row, says: “The girls in the slums in Kolkata only want the opportunity to educate themselves so they can better their lives.  It made me think that it is a shame that the place you are born can dictate how your life will be. Having been in jail a long time myself I have had the benefit of educating myself and gaining skills which will help me on release.  So I thought it would be good to raise some money to help the girls better themselves.  These small but worthwhile charities need support as they really make a difference to people’s lives.”

Sean and the other prisoners and staff have been inspired by Helen , the prison librarian. Helen has worked at The Mount for 18 years, providing educational support to prisoners and guiding them through Open University degrees as well as encouraging recreational reading. Helen went to India on holiday in January this year and visited the library run by NGO, Tiljala SHED. She met some of the 700 girls who use the library and was invited into some of their homes in the slum afterwards.

Helen says, “In January this year I was privileged to visit a pretty amazing library.  The Gyan Azhar library was set up in 2008 in one of the poorest slums in Kolkata by a local charity, Tiljala SHED, to provide a safe place for girls to go to study, borrow books, use computers, take part in activities such as health education and crafts and to meet their friends.  One of the charity’s main aims is to help girls to stay in education to give themselves the best chance of avoiding a life of extreme poverty and early marriage.  With a good education girls can gain financial independence and support themselves and their families and the library plays a big part in this. 

The girls I met at Gyan Azhar were so proud of their library and really enjoyed showing me around.  It’s not big by any means – the library is in a room measuring about 12 feet square – but it has 700 members from the ages of five to twenty!  The library is desperately short of books, computers and craft materials and I came back from my trip determined to raise some money to buy some more.

The girls in the slum are trapped in poverty, living in rooms no bigger than a typical prison cell, often with five or six family members. Like the prisoners at The Mount, the girls know that education and skills are their best hope of a better life.  I was amazed when Sean said he wanted to organise this fundraiser: I was only telling them about my holiday.  As manager of the library at the Mount I know what a difference libraries can make. As well as being vital for learning, books can offer a real release from the problems of everyday life.  We can all escape with a book!” 

The funds the prisoners have raised  will be used to supply books, computers and craft materials for girls to use when they visit the library.

Donations are being collected here   www. justgiving.com/crowdfunding/helen-bratchell