What Prisoners Are Reading at Gitmo

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Arabic translations of the Harry Potter book series are one of the most popular items requested from the library for detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

There's not a lot to look forward to if you're one of the 176 prisoners held in the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay — no visits from loved ones; no parole or release date; and for many, no prospect even of a day in court to answer charges. Still, at least there's Harry Potter. He may not come riding in on the back of a hippogriff to free his favorite captives from their own version of Azkaban, but he shows up once a week on a cart of books from the prison library, offering an escape of the imagination treasured by many. Indeed, the Harry Potter series has been one the most popular titles among the 18,000 books, magazines, DVDs and newspapers on offer from the prison library at Guantánamo.

Other offerings in the library started in 2003 include the The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Twilight series and a self-help book called Don't Be Sad. Prisoners don't browse the shelves of this particular library; instead, they wait for a weekly visit by a cart of books prison officers think they might be interested in. There are mysteries and books of poems, copies of National Geographic magazine (a favorite), dictionaries and science textbooks. If the prisoners see something they like they are allowed to check it out for 30 days.

The library's offerings now span some 18 languages including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Pashto, Russian, French and English. Officers scan newspapers to stay up on the latest titles and try to meet requests from prisoners — though finding books in their native languages can sometimes be a challenge. "I tell ya, Dan Brown's been beating me up lately," says Navy Lt. Robert Collett, who as the officer-in-charge of detainee programs, is known as 'Dean of Gitmo U'. "All his books are very popular, but we don't have all of them in Arabic." When the military has trouble finding a title in a certain language, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) sometimes steps in. Martin De Boer, ICRC's deputy head of the regional delegation in D.C., says his group sometimes sends its representatives in far-flung places to local stores in order to answer requests for novels in Uzbek or magazines in Bahasa (the language of Indonesia). "Access to books and news from the outside is very important to the prisoners mental state," says De Boer.

Despite offering a wide range of titles, Guantánamo's library is carefully screened to prevent prisoners from getting access to books by religious or political extremists that could create controversy or teach them methods of resistance. The library also bans books that have excessive graphic violence, military topics, travel offers, classified advertisements (which could be used to send coded messages to the detainees) and physical geography, such as maps of buildings or subway systems that could provide targets for potential attacks. Sexual content is also prohibited, although that rule came from the prisoners themselves. Current favorites include Islamic texts and books by John Grisham, Agatha Christie and the Harry Potter series, as well as travel books that feature large colorful photos of the outside world. The ocean, in particular, is always a hit. President Barack Obama's books are also in-stock, and though the detainees aren't exactly fighting one another to read them, Collett says they do get checked out periodically.

Candace Gorman, a Chicago civil rights lawyer who represents Abdul Al-Ghizzawi, a Libyan national detained at Guantánamo since June 2002, says her client told her during a 2007 visit that the Harry Potter series was his favorite. At the time, Gorman said the library didn't have an Arabic edition of one of the six volumes. "The guards were telling him things that had happened in the book, but he didn't know if it was true or not," she explains. Gorman herself donated a copy of the missing volume to the library in the hope that Al-Ghizzawi would be able to read it. The prisoner likened his own plight to the inmates of Azkaban, she says, while then U.S. President George W. Bush was his own version of Voldemort.

Officers at the facility say that, over time, the library has improved rapport between the guards and the detainees, and has made the inmates more cooperative. "It has eased the environment a bit," Collett told TIME from the converted double-wide trailer on the Guantánamo compound that houses the library. "It's not fancy," he said of the space. "This is not the New York Public Library — there are no big lions out front." But the detainees aren't looking for grandeur. "When you live in the kind of environment they live in, change is what you look forward to every day," Collett said. "When the library comes on the block it's exciting, especially if you've got a book they requested — then you are the hero of the day."