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They Call Me Worm


Johannes J., an inmate at the Social Therapeutic Institute, Bochum prison, North Rhine-Westphalia, is one of the 11 winners of the first nationwide writing contest for prisoners in Germany.

More than 300 inmates from 80 prisons and five youth in juvenile detention participated in the contest, which was organized by the German Prison Library Support Group in cooperation with the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL), the Ministry of Justice of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the German reading project KonTEXT in Munich.

The jury selected 10 winning entries and presented an inmate in juvenile detention with an award for special recognition.

During the award ceremony, which took place at Bochum prison in November 2021, Johannes J. presented his winning entry, ‘They Call Me Worm’.

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‘Crammed with stories,  
verses, lines and poems,  
taken daily from real life,
what’s left is all that counts.’   

Graffiti, Worm’s prison cell
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I was sitting at the battered table in my cell cradling my head, heavy as lead, in my hands and sipping green tea from a cup. I let loose a ‘Damn!’ as the boiling water scalded my lips and pain coursed across my face like a wildfire in the Australian Outback. Annoyed, I donned a pair of sturdy shoes so I would be ready to start work.
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A new day had dawned. It had now been exactly 8 years, 3 months and 6 days since I’d been sent to prison. How could I be so sure? I’d always been a precise kind of person, fussy, even. A trait that eventually put paid to my career as a criminal, as I’d made a habit of painstakingly noting down the names of all the clients I regularly supplied with mind-expanding drugs, along with their monthly consignments of goods. My father always used to tell me: ‘Write and you’ll be remembered’. For at least 9.6 years of prison time in my case, according to the courts.
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So now I’d become the bloke they called Worm, always willing to lend an ear when other people wanted to talk. Except when they made the usual requests for tobacco or coffee, because I’d given up smoking a long time ago and green tea was my only hot drink of choice.
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I’d tired of prison life a good while back, that endless array of identical days, routines and conversations. I was just in the middle of writing a letter to one of my last remaining friends from the old days that described the situation perfectly. I always found it helpful to simply write down my feelings:
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‘What kind of a life is this? The people around me

only think what I think
when I think what they

only feel what I feel
when I feel what they

and only believe what I believe
when I believe what they

so nothing makes much sense any more!’

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I casually took a dose of the stuff I would usually brew for the others. Because that’s something else I was known for. Thinking up recipes for my fellow inmates to help them get through a crisis. A key rattled in the lock, the sound reminding me that it was time to get down to work.
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I stepped into the corridor to be greeted on the spot with a barrage of mysterious questions.
‘Hey, Worm, heard the news?’
‘Hey, Worm, you in the loop?’

People in prison don’t get to the point straight away. If someone has information to share, they always start with a lengthy introduction. Messages on the grapevine come through louder and clearer than Radio Gaga.

‘No, I’ve only been in the corridor for 14 seconds,’ I clarify.
‘Mecki tried to put himself away yesterday. But they found him just in time.’

In here, putting yourself away means committing suicide. So it seemed Mecki had tried to kill himself. Something like that always created an uproar.

‘Mecki literally still had skeletons in his cupboard!’
‘Mecki’s girlfriend cheated on him on the outside!’
‘Mecki owes the Ripper money!’
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The usual storm of totally unsubstantiated rumours rained down; the eventual winner would probably be the one spread by whoever managed to sell it best, dressing it up as a true crime podcast. But I wanted to know the truth, because that was the only way I might stand a chance of helping him.
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I suddenly noticed that Cem had sneaked up behind me. Not usually a good sign in prison, but Cem was in for holding up three cash vans with a rocket launcher, and quiet entrances weren’t generally his thing, so I was more surprised than scared.

‘Hey, Worm, let’s talk,’ he greeted me, charming as ever.
‘Cem, hi, afraid my mind’s elsewhere at the moment. This thing with Mecki’s really bothering me,’ I responded.

‘Aw, come on, bro.’ In here, you immediately became part of the family every time someone wanted something from you. ‘And I’ve got some information for you about Mecki. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,’ he continued.

I accepted the offer. ‘Ok, what’s on your mind?’
‘Keep this to yourself. The Mecki thing’s bothering me too. I’m just as close as him to having a meltdown. Giving up. I’ve even started writing poems. I feel like a Viking who’s suddenly taken to baking unicorn biscuits. Let me show you one of them:

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Papa was a Rolling Stone,
Mama was a doozer,
I couldn’t even learn a trade,
at best I was a loser,

Papa loved his vinyl records,
Mama loved a joke,
I only found this kind of love
when shooting up with coke.
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‘What a hopeless epitaph to life, eh?’
I could feel myself rolling my eyes as if in slow motion.

‘Cem, that’s really cool. I think you’ve found something you should definitely keep working at. I bet it makes you feel properly free, at least on the inside. Trust me, I’ll stop by tomorrow with a special brew from my lab. And then things will start to look rosier again. Just you wait.’
Cem turned up the corners of his mouth and agreed with a wink.

‘Great, that always helps. Ok, my turn now. Forget all the stupid rumours. Mecki was over at mine just yesterday. The kid had lost all hope. And now his dog has gone and died on the outside. His last link to freedom. Just imagine, Worm. Him wanting to put himself away because of something like that. How low can you get? You have to help him somehow!’

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I patted Cem on the shoulder, nodded and went back to my cell. I’d just remembered that Mecki had also slipped me a short poem a couple of days earlier. How could I have guessed that he was feeling so low? I reached into the bin under my bed and pulled out the piece of paper:
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-I’m looking for solutions, again I’ve none to hand,
the trust you get from love is a thing I’ve never found,
I’ve never walked an easy line between the couch and the bathroom,
everything’s been full of pain from the cradle to the tomb!-
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The words left a bitter taste in my mouth this time round. I had to find a way of getting to the infirmary so I could bring him proper medication, help him, but how?

First of all, I went to my lab to brew up a decent concoction for him. The results were good, I pulled myself together and when I turned my head briefly, I spotted a solution to my as-yet unresolved problem reflected in the mirror. A balloon-shaped blister had formed on my scalded lip, disgusting to behold. I urgently needed to get myself some ointment, and only the infirmary had it in stock. I had my green tea to thank for it.
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I pressed the button on the intercom.
A tinny voice shot back: ‘What’s up, Schneider?’
‘Mr Dorner, I’ve scalded my lip really badly and need to see a medic straight away,’ I croaked like a wounded crow.
‘Dear oh dear, Schneider, you dozy bookworm. Take your eyes off the page when you’re drinking. I’ll be right over.’

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My plan had worked, but unfortunately I was in quite a lot of pain by this stage. Now I’d be able to send something over to help Mecki. I stowed the medicine I’d prepared in my bag, left the lab and took another look at the sign above the door. I was grateful to have the chance to work in a place where I could still give prisoners some hope of freedom and life. The rust-coloured inscription read:

‘Prison library’.
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The UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning works with stakeholders from across the world to strengthen prison education and prison libraries.

Reading, writing and using a prison library can open up a world beyond prison bars, allowing prisoners to forget for a time the harsh reality of prison life. Literacy initiatives can benefit individuals of any age by increasing their self-awareness and their ability to discuss thoughts and feelings. This, in turn, improves coping and problem-solving abilities and thus represents a powerful transformative tool for personal development in the prison environment.

Learn more  Books beyond bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries
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