|01-01-2006 - Traces, n.1
Free Men Behind Bars
The canteen, a pastry bakery, a paper factory, a tailors’ dummy workshop, a luggage workshop, a call center, all inside a maximum-security prison, offering work opportunities
to over fifty detainees, who are now experiencing a new way of living, of being happy
by Paola Bergamini
“Identity card, please. You can leave your bag in the locker. Here is your visitor’s tag. You may go now.” The prison warden on the other side of the glass opens the door. So begins my visit to the maximum security prison in Padua with 750 inmates and 500 others, including wardens, administration staff, and social workers. Long corridors, more gates that open and close behind me after the usual checks… “Is it your first time visiting a prison?” Yes, it’s the first time. Nicola Boscoletto, President of the Rebus consortium that oversees the four cooperatives which run the workshops where more than fifty inmates work, seems almost “at home.” As we walk along, he tells me, “It all started in 1991 when, as the Giotto Cooperative, we took part in a competition organized by the prison administration for the maintenance of the gardens around the prison. We got the idea of offering the prisoners a chance to work, and even to learn a trade. We proposed the idea to the governor at the time, Oreste Velleca, and we began with a gardening course. In 2001, we opened the first workshop making tailors’ dummies for fashion houses, in one of the abandoned sheds. Since then, the activities have multiplied, including assembling suitcases, paper making, and a call center (the first in Italy to employ prisoners in telemarketing). All this was thanks to a new law. Now you’ll see. Let’s go to the kitchen first.
and the pastry bakery
Our steps echo along the corridor as we meet more wardens and some prisoners. Nicola calls one by name, “See you later.” We reach the kitchen to find people in uniform and everything very clean, with modern machinery. We seem to be in the kitchen of a big restaurant. “Hi, Gianni. Everything okay? At first the canteen was run by the prisoners, but no one taught them to cook, and as a result the food was inedible, and the cleanliness left a lot to be desired. We took over the running, bought new machines, and got a group of chefs to work alongside the prisoners taken on, to teach them the job. Today, the prisoners still complain, but they no longer send back the food untouched! Come and see the bakery where they make pastries.” The same scene, order and cleanliness, no one stops. “This production is entirely for the outside. During the Christmas period, we make over 200 panettoni a day,” Alessandro, the master pastry cook, tells us, “as well as 100-120 lbs. of cakes and pastries.” “How do you find working here with these people?” I ask him. “There are the same difficulties as anywhere else.” I am disarmed, and I realize I could not have asked a more stupid question. Up until that moment, I had been looking at those people’s faces, searching for signs of the evil they had done–I, who am on the side of the just! I remembered what Vittadini said here on November 9th, the day the projects took off. He had said, “We are not the just coming to give a hand to the unjust. We are sinners, people who do wrong, but who have discovered through meeting people like Fr. Giussani that the desire for good is greater.” An encounter that was the beginning of everything… It is true for me and it is true for them. I changed my attitude. I asked someone what his name was. They explained to me that the recipe for panettone is very old. They all greeted Nicola. He asked someone for some information. I noticed that there is a respectful relationship between those who are inside and those from the outside. They work together.
In the call center
“We are not in the ‘charity’ business,” Nicola tells me as we move from the workshops to the call center, where a group of prisoners is waiting for us. “Our products are marketed directly, and the prisoners know it; they know they have to do a good job–we all do. As far as numbers are concerned, this is something out of the ordinary for prisons. One fact is enough to show it. Today, the percentage of repeat offenders is around 80%. Only 10% of ex-prisoners find a job, so you can imagine what happens to the others! Research carried out on all those we trained for a profession in the 1991-2003 period shows that amongst our workers the percentage of repeat offenders dropped to 15%.” I exclaim, “Something to be proud of!” He smiles, “Yes, that, too. But we have made another discovery in these past months that made me look again at all the work done over the years, the misunderstandings, the difficult moments, the successes, etc.: the possibility of good coming out of it, for a change, for me and for them. For many of them the sentences are long. On some of their files, ‘End of sentence: never’ is written!”
I have a letter written by Ilario, one of the detainees, to the President of Italy and to the Pope, read on November 9th here before a lot of journalists and important personalities. Here are a few lines: “The example we have here today tells us that life changes for any one of us who seriously accepts living honestly and truthfully the little good that comes.” I ask, “Is something good possible?” “I think that the good comes out when you are offered something unexpected,” Alberto says. “When it happens, it startles you and you realize there is still someone who wants to believe in you. You begin to hope again.” Marino adds, “Even someone in prison, in the worst situation judicially, hopes that something will happen–first during the trial, then later, when you hope to be able to work so as not to spend your time laying on the bed, wasting away.
The cook and the dishwasher
“There is more,” Gianni interrupts. “Dr. Boscoletto gave us another chance with the job, the chance to get back our self-esteem. I remember the first day of the cooking course. The teacher told us that a cook and a dishwasher have the same value. I realized this was a new way of going about work. When the boss tells me I have prepared a dish well, I am satisfied. There are small things that make you notice the positive. I understand that your mentality changes. So, during the time when we are free to mix with people in nearby cells, we talk about how long it took to peel 10 lbs. of potatoes, about the new fryer, and not about…the quickest way to break into a car!” There is general laughter. “Joking aside,” Alberto goes on, “When you work you take up responsibilities. In the dummy workshop we managed to get recognition at the European level and, apart from the gratification, it helps you come out of the de-personalization that prison life causes. You are no longer a number, but a worker, at the same level as someone outside. You feel a part of the world and not a piece of prison wall. In the evening, I tell myself, ‘I have built two dummies. I have done something.’” Ilario says, “This is a positive way to rebel against the system. On the job, you get involved. It is like saying, ‘I am here.’” No one keeps quiet; with discretion and attention, waiting until the other has finished talking, everyone has something to say, and about himself.
“I am a foreigner; my name is Altin. When they opened the bakery, I insisted on being taken on; it was a job that interested me. I found something more; I found people who, as well as teaching me a job, trusted me, without looking at my past, at my imprisonment. They showed me that by working with passion and honesty I can be happy.” It seems strange to hear people speaking of happiness here, where there are those who have destroyed the happiness of others, though this is again a rather moralistic attitude, without hope. But these people do have hope, even if they have to spend 20 years here. Hope passes through the bars. They are telling me that a new concept of freedom is possible, a concept that builds. “You can feel free in prison only if you know that you are paying a debt. Then it is no longer rebellion that determines your life. Accepting that I have done wrong and must pay for my fault before society and towards the people I have harmed makes me face life a bit better. It’s not easy, but it makes you think differently about when you will get out.” “I work in the call center,” says Gianfranco. “I am lucky because I can interact with the world outside. Many people hang up after a few words, but I have had the chance to meet people who wanted to talk and who began to tell me their problems. I remember the one who had a tumor and had to face chemotherapy. In that moment, I felt lucky; I understood the value of life. My life was valuable only because of the fact that I was listening to him and he was happy. Sharing his pain, I felt free. I had done something for somebody. You can be free when you are able to give something to someone.”
A chain of beautiful things
“To be free is to be happy, and work brings you happiness. When you put your heart into it, your will–whatever you are doing–you can be happy. Moreover, by working, we are independent economically, and this is no small thing in prison. And what is more, I can now send money to my daughter and she is proud of me and I am…happy. A whole chain of beautiful things is set off and in the end you feel free; otherwise it is a prison within a prison.” Boscoletto says, “There were some difficulties, though, even amongst ourselves…” “ Dr. Boscoletto is right. I remember when the chef gave up. He went away and it was our fault. Then we changed our attitude, we set aside some of our expectations and re-established a relationship, accepting the requests made of us. We gave it our trust.” They all nodded, but Nicola adds, “I think that was how it went. We solved the problems, or found the means to solve them, when some of us began to give each other a bit of trust. Trust is towards the person, not towards the object of the work. I look at the value, I respect the person before me. There were still problems, but the approach had altered, for me and for you; and this is giving us a bit of happiness. These two elements, trust and happiness, are rather unusual here in the prison. Yet, if they are remembered as curiosity in facing reality, they make you feel something more in interpersonal relationships; and not just that, it is something more for the world.” He stops and looks at me. “Do you understand what I meant by saying that it’s not enough to be proud of what we have built? There is much more at stake, for me.”
From Ilario’s letter: “While paying what each of us has to pay, we need to be helped to have prospects and remember that, when someone realizes the evil he has done, he doesn’t want to finish paying the penalty and even when he has finished paying the penalty, there is still a great pain in his heart. These are feelings not common amongst us, just as what you see here today is not normal. It’s a small but great example. Help those who are ready to help us, help us to find and see a hope.”