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City Paper's Captive Audience

It's said the best way to learn a language well is to join an army. The other way, it turns out, is to go to prison.

Meet Venda, Tõnu, and Marko. Prisoners, polyglots, and City Paper readers. Of course not only City Paper. If it's a word on a page, they read it.

Tõnu sorts through a stack of newspapers in the Tallinn prison library: USA Today, Daily Telegraph, Wall Street Journal Europe, Financial Times, La Gazzetta dello Sport, Svenska Dagbladet. And not to forget books: he and Venda are responsible, under the supervision of librarian Malle Arro, for 20,000 volumes.

Tõnu learned his English in school. He gets very little practice, but his English doesn't seem to suffer. He has little trouble expressing his thoughts, and his spoken English is better than most Estonians I know. This is not to belittle the English abilities of Estonians: it is to illustrate Tõnu's natural talent. He also speaks Estonian, Russian, and Spanish, which he learned living six years in Spain. He plans to go back to Spain when he's released. When will that be? I ask. "I don't know," he says. "Soon, I hope."

Venda learned his English in a prison cell. "In the next cell was a fairly notorious Scot," Venda says. "They caught him with about 20 kilos of narcotics and sent him to prison. The man spoke no Estonian, only a few words of Russian, so I learned English."

"Just by talking with him?" I ask. "Without books?"

"Just by talking with him. He was an interesting man. It was an interesting year."

Venda sits at a desk in the stacks of the library, tattered books in front of him. "People donate books, and I repair them." Venda opens a drawer full of binding tools. He hands me a freshly bound Russian-language volume. "85 percent of the prison population is Russian-speaking," he says, as if to footnote our conversation.

In the Tallinn prison on Magasini Street, there are close to 1,000 prisoners. Among the thousand, there are a couple of Italians, at least one Spaniard, and two Swedes. Part of the population is awaiting trial, some of them sitting out their sentences. Many live six to a cell with one hour of exercise per day and one hot shower per week. About one quarter of the population is estimated to be HIV positive: no one knows for sure, as the test is voluntary. Of new prisoners brought in each month, usually one tests positive for tuberculosis. He will be removed to the Patarei, the old prison by the sea, now vacant except for a prison hospital.

The prison seems caught in a world somewhere between the Soviet Union and the European Union. The physical facility leans closer to the Soviet world, which is perhaps one reason for the shortage of 60 guards at this prison alone. Poor salaries, I am told, are top among the reasons the state is unable to recruit new guards. We find ourselves locked in a corridor awaiting the return of a guard. "You see for yourself," says my prison host, "the result of not having enough guards." But he isn't worried, nor is Malle, the librarian, and so I stand in a corner, chatting quietly with Marko, who hasn't spoken to a native English speaker in six years.

"I learned English from some missionaries in Hungary. Then I played basketball regularly with a group of Canadians. Then I learned from some Irish. I used to say 'aye' instead of 'yes.'"

Marko is a poet and a translator. Of course, he's also a felon. A highly intelligent felon. "I wanted to learn Spanish, but there were no Spanish language guides in here," he says. "So I taught myself Latin. I figured that was the next best thing."

"Latin?" I confirm.

"I can read and write it fluently," he says. "Although that isn't of much use, except at the Vatican where the cash machines are in Latin."

Marko's English, not to mention his sense of humor, surprises me and I tell him so. "Well, you can imagine what my English was like six years ago." Marko plans to study philology in a university, if he can get the state to give him a day pass to do so. He was close once, but a guard was caught smuggling contraband to him, and this eliminated his chances. Still, he believes he may be allowed to study this year. He's taken the state exam. He'll take it again he says, because he knows he can do better.

"What do you miss?" I ask.

He is silent for a moment. "I miss sports," he says. "I miss good food. I miss the people who were close to me." He misses books, too, despite the fact that there are 20,000 volumes within reach. Most of these are old, not that there's anything wrong with old books, he says. But he likes fantasy and science fiction. Of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's read parts one and two. He'd very much like to know what happens in the third.

City Paper requests…if you or your organization has books or magazines in any language, consider donating them to the Tallinn prison. They're grateful to receive anything, but have particular interest in language texts, newer magazines, newer books, and crossword puzzles. (Children's crossword puzzles are the most useful for learning languages.) Contact malle.arro@just.ee