11th Jun 2023


Are Italy's picturesque prison islands a rehab blueprint?

  • Pianosa's inmates hotel (Photo: Giulia Manca)
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Italy's two successful 'prison islands' prove that life behind bars never in itself leads to rehabilitation.

As Italy's new government eyes plans for more humane jails aimed at rehabilitating convicts, there are two unconventional spots that are successful case studies.

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  • The beautiful prison island of Pianosa (Photo: Giulia Manca)

The paradise-like prison islands of Pianosa and Gorgona, part of Tuscany's pristine archipelago marine park, stand out as unique rehab models.

The newly-appointed justice minister Carlo Nordio has pledged to boost alternative non-jail penalties and jobs to rehabilitate prisoners. Talking at an university conference last week in Rome, Nordio said "jail-system reforming is my top priority, sentences should not be served only behind bars and new less harsh prisons must be built, while improving those already existing".

Even though so far no specific plans have yet been defined on how to do this by the rightist government just sworn into office, Nordio, a former judge, added that the ruling government's programme includes an upgrading of jails to improve inmates conditions.

"Above all, we don't want cruel and inhumane prisons that would be against the Italian constitution and Christian principles", he said.

"The detainee must be helped in his recovery path" or "at least not to make him worse than when he entered jail", said Nordio.

For Nordio, a lot can be done by enhancing sports and work activities for inmates.

It is very likely that the centre-right ruling coalition will adopt improvements in Italy's jail system, particularly due to pressures from the key League party ally that has always supported such reform.

On Pianosa offenders spend days out in the open air, working and learning new skills for when they'll return to society.

They also mingle with visitors and locals. Six supervised convicts are employed at Hotel Milena, the island's only accommodation structure, where they run the visitors' facilities including cleaning the 11 rooms, running the beach bar and restaurant, and keeping the patio clean.

Some cook meals and prepare breakfasts, others work as waiters, dishwashers and gardeners.

"They've been convicted for serious crimes but have passed psychological tests to ascertian they're no longer dangerous and willing to undergo a rehab project. They have already served at least one third of their term behind bars and are now on probation. The first bad thing they do, they go back to jail", says Giulia Manca, runner of the hotel and a member of Arnera Association that co-handles the rehab project with Tuscany's prison authorities.

Manca is aware that even though these convicts "haven't just stolen apples or daisies nor committed petty offences", they should be given the opportunity to recycle their lives. At the hotel they can serve up to the remaining part of their term.

"The key to a jail door should never be thrown away, and we have seen how beneficial the supervised detention is; relapse into crime is down to 0.01 percent for inmates at Hotel Pianosa", adds Manca.

The hotel staff are all paid around €1,000 per month, which incentivises them to look ahead with hope.

From murderer to counsellor

Franco (his full name cannot be disclosed) was convicted for murder and spent the last five years of his detention working at the hotel as a 'team leader' to the other convicts.

"It totally changed my life, thanks to my cleansing experience on Pianosa I now have a full-time job at a jail on the nearby Elba island where I help and support prisoners in facing everyday challenges of living behind bars. I like helping them because I know exactly what they're going through and how tough it can be", says Franco.

For the last three years Giuseppe is a 55-year-old hotel chef-convict, who enjoys cooking Neapolitan and Tuscan pasta and fish meals for guests. He attended cooking lessons at Volterra's prison before being selected for Pianosa's rehab project and is grateful for this lucky opportunity to start a new life.

"I'm doing an incredible progress on my inner self and in communicating with fellow inmates, and also interacting with clients has filled me with hope for a better future. Now when I look ahead, the gloom is gone", says Giuseppe.

Pianosa and neighbouring Gorgona islands were set up in the late 1800s by Italy's king as distant places of detention, where the worst criminals could be well isolated, in the middle of the sea.

Italy had many prison islands back then but across time, particularly after the second world war, they were all shut and these two are the only two historical ones still functioning, and were turned in the 1960s into 'soft' rehabilitation centres.

Manca stresses how Pianosa is a unique prison model in Italy where convicts are trusted and treated as ordinary, free people.

Even though supervised by jail officers, at the end of their eight-hour day shift they don't go back into cells.

Across Europe, there are similar 'humane' prison rehab programmes, mostly located in northern countries such as Germany, Norway and the UK. In Norway, for instance, there are Bastoy prison island and Halden prison island. The latter, however, envisages occasional solitary confinement in case of behavioural transgressions — something which never happens on Pianosa, says Manca.

"They live in independent studios once part of the old 1800s jail fortress which has undergone a restyle. There are single rooms with private bathroom, a kitchen, a gym and inmates are also allowed to keep a mobile phone to call their family. Their only two obligations is to leave their lodgings early in the morning to go to work and return at a set time in the evenings, but they can go swimming in the afternoons", says Manca.

'Devil's Island'

For centuries dubbed the 'Devil's Island' for the thousands of outlaws who died here, today Pianosa is an extraordinary example of how justice in Italy can efficiently rehabilitate offenders and give them a second chance, without keeping them locked behind bars.

The hotel often hosts weddings and birthdays and is open year-round. In the evenings the inmates socialize with guests and make souvenirs for tourists out of driftwood. Pianosa has just four residents, Manca being the only woman besides three jail guards, who co-live on a daily basis with inmates on probation and strongly believe in the power of 'redemption'.

Guests are aware, once booking, that the staff are prisoners for the rehab project is specifically mentioned on the hotel website homepage, and even reviews talk about the interesting way convicts are rehabilitated here.

Overcrowded Italian jails

Italian jails are the most overcrowded in Europe, with 120 inmates for every 100 beds, according to a 2020 report by the Council of Europe. Italy has also been condemned several times over the past few years by the European Court of Justice for its inhumane jail conditions that violate human rights.

In-jail suicide rates have grown by 300 percent since 1960 while a 75-percent relapse into crime just proves how punishment is never the right solution.

The Pianosa and Gorgona 'rehab model' was established as an attempt to address these failures, and policy makers have replicated this elsewhere in other mainland prisons by involving offenders in useful activities.

In other 'virtuous' jails across Italy 'active' inmates run in-jail restaurants open to the public, bakeries and pastry shops, are actors in plays, and design and sell haute couture clothes with recycled materials.

On the isle of Gorgona, named after the snake-headed Medusa and Italy's only other 'soft' prison island, there's a bit less freedom. There are 100 inmates but only 60 are on probation while the rest are behind bars.

The supervised inmates do not mingle with the tourists who are taken on adventurous day trips to Gorgona by the Tuscan archipelago park authorities and at night they sleep in rooms similar to prison cells, says Manca, under strict surveillance. Visitors who wander across Gorgona get to spot them but only from a distance.

The Gorgona supervised offenders also have jobs, primarily of a rural nature. They've embraced gardening and farming and make cheese and wine which is sold across Italy following a partnerships with leading Italian wine label Frescobaldi.

The wine is now also exported to New York and Japan, with a total of 9,000 bottles (mainly of white Vermentino wine) produced each year. Inmates earn up to €40,000 per year from their wine business.

The Gorgona offenders also tend to lush orchards that grow in the island wilderness and sell their fresh veggies and fruits at a tiny marketplace down at the harbour, then ship the rest to the mainland.

Those are the only moments they can interact with Gorgona's 20 residents. Before the guided tours started, they even worked as breeders and kept donkeys, sheep and goats.

Author bio

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.


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