A Closed Up Story
I have painted the cot in my cell. In the middle of the dirty grey of the blankets a glowing orange, which V. brought me, as the single light in the room. The little colourful spot did me unspeakable good. Egon Schiele, Prison Diary, 19 April 1912.
My first name is John, my last name is Smith. I’d like to tell you my real name, but I can’t. Security reasons, they say. I can tell you something real, though: at the moment, I’m an italian prisoner in Cagliari’s Buoncammino Prison, on the island of Sardinia, where there are a lot of prisons, and a lot of inmates too. You know what else I can tell you, since I’ve seen a lot of Italian prisons? They’re all the same. Some might not be as bad as others, but they’re still prisons, with their bars, their walls with barbed wire, and their rules, both written and unwritten.You’re still doing time, whether it’s in Milan, Naples, Palermo or Cagliari. Even more so now that the new prisons they’re building, and where I might end up when they close Buoncammino, will be all the same, and they’ll be outside the city. Doing time simply means you have to survive and be patient, because inside, we’re treated like animals, like objects.You can go crazy in an instant. The thought of whoever is waiting for you outside, if you’ve got someone waiting for you outside that is, is the only thing that makes you go on. Other than that, you’re forced to grasp onto the little things, those few, tiny things, that make your life similar to normal life somehow: a letter, a photograph, a memory, a scent, or the little things that you manage to keep in your cell and that you use or make to try to keep busy and above all, to not think. That’s right, to not think, because in here, if you let your mind go, it can kill you. But it can also save you if it can be your friend. With your imagination – another thing that it’s better to have when you’re in prison, I can assure you – you can make these walls and these bars magically disappear, you can imagine you’re outside, at home, between clean sheets, with the scent of your wife or your husband, your kids, and not inside these dark, black, mouldy walls that you can only block out using your imagination. With your imagination, you can make this cell disappear, this cell where you’re not allowed to keep anything and where everything you’ve got can be taken away from you in an instant: they just have to move you to a different cell or prison without any warning, which happens a lot, and you’re back to square one with nothing, just a bag full of a few clothes that stink of prison. You might say, well, you did the wrong thing, now don’t play the victim! But who wants to play the victim? I know I did the wrong thing. I’m paying off my debt with society, and with you outside in society too. I just want to tell you what it’s like in here, ‘cause it’s not that different from the neighbourhood where I grew up. That’s what I can say to you, that’s what I can tell you about, if you want to listen, that is. I just want to show you the little things I’m left with, maybe they’re insignificant and ordinary, but I use them every day to measure how long is left before I can feel free again, and how freedom for me has just become something that measures what I would like from what I am allowed to keep.
In the Buoncammino Prison, the first thing you see as soon as you go through the two huge metal doors is a crucifix, with Jesus up there with his arms out like he’s showing you the way: “Choose: left or right?”. Actually, to tell you the truth, the penitentiary police even asked me when I went in the first time. I said right and they sent me to the left.
Like everyone, the first time I went into a cell, I didnâ€™t have laces in my shoes anymore. They take them off you as soon as you go inside after the first identification and check, because otherwise you could use them to harm yourself. I have to say, as soon as you set foot in prison, you feel like harming yourself, you understand right away that itâ€™s not a nice place to be. But what hurts you most is that journey from the entrance to your first cell. You feel naked, with no dignity as a human being, like a tramp whoâ€™s trying not to lose their busted shoes as they drag their feet along the prison corridors.
The first thing they give you in exchange is the prisoner’s kit, with rough sheets, an even rougher blanket, a metal plate and bowl, cutlery, but no knife, a plastic cup, and the charter of prisoner’s rights and responsibilities. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get a toothbrush and soap. That’s all they give you, but lately I’ve seen more and more people come in with just sheets and bowls. Must be the financial crisis. Anyway, you walk along carrying all this stuff so you almost can’t see what’s in front of you, you look up and down, trying to understand where you’ve ended up, or if you can catch the eye of someone you know who’s already inside and who’s been expecting you. And without fail, it happens to nearly everyone, you drop your plate and bowl on the floor and they make a huge noise, that typical clatter of pots and pans, and everyone calls out from the cells, “Ben venuto! Welcome!”, or if it’s not your first time, “Ben tornato! Welcome back!”.
The first night I spent inside was really bad. Actually, every night is really bad, even though you can’t wait to fall asleep and to put an end to another day. At night, in here, the darkness isn’t a real darkness. It’s full of incomprehensible noises, echoes, moans and cries that don’t let you get to sleep. It’s like you’re inside a living nightmare. Then you get used to it, you understand that those are the noises of the prison, and they’re your noises too. We only have them in here, together with the smell of the sheets that stink of prison, it’s a smell that sticks to you and won’t go away, like a mark that takes years to get off and wash away. My wife, she brings me clean sheets in a bag every time she comes for visits. She even sprays her perfume on them, you know, to make me happy when I go to bed. She doesn’t know it, but every time I open that bag of clean sheets and her perfume hits my nose, it breaks my heart in two. I’ll never be able to tell her because to her, it’s one of the few signs of affection she can still give me from outside. But to me, only being able to have her like that, just through her perfume, hurts me, a lot.
From the first day, once you’re inside, all you can do is count the days and fight against the worst enemy of them all: time. Because in here, it doesn’t go by like it does outside. If only! Here, time slows down so much that it seems like it’s stopped, you don’t know how to kill it. I’d kill it for real if I could. The days become very long.You hate winter because it’s cold, and it’s a damp, mouldy cold that gets into your bones, and you hate summer because the days are too long. If you’re one of the lucky few to have a cell that lets you see the sky, you look at the sun and hope it’ll disappear, taking away with it another day spent inside. To pass the time, the thing we do most is watch television. There’s one in almost every cell and we all watch it. Me and my cellmates like the local news the best, because sometimes we can get a glimpse of who will be our next companion in misfortune to come and keep us company. And we watch the Sunday football goals show, which we all like. Things get complicated when there are a lot of us in the cell and we can’t agree on what to watch, like when I’ve been in prisons where there were sometimes five or even six of us in a cell. Choosing what channel to put on was a battle, just like it was a fight to turn off that damn box sometimes.
If you don’t want to watch television or play cards or checkers with your cellmates, each of us tries in many different ways not to let ourselves get overwhelmed by time, and by sadness and loneliness. How can you get lonely if, like you said, there are so many of you to a cell, you might ask? Eh! It’s easy.You miss your loved ones, you miss your life, you don’t have anything left except this bed, you don’t have people who love you by your side anymore, or your things and your routine. Without all that, it’s like you don’t exist, it’s as if you’ve disappeared. And inside, we’re all in the same situation, we all feel like we’ve disappeared, we’re alone, even though we’re together. And so you cling onto the littlest things you have that are personal and that can take you away from here with your imagination. For a time, I was lucky enough to have a cell on the second floor of the wing with bars that faced towards the city.You could see the whole city, it was really beautiful, at least by looking out, we could see something more than three metres in front of our noses. I also remember I had a cellmate who spent hours and hours on the top bunk, looking out through the bars, listening to the same music the whole time. Once, I asked him why he always played the same CD while he was looking out through the bars with that vacant expression. He replied that it was the CD of favourite songs that he and his girlfriend always listened to and that listening to it, looking out towards the city and his neighbourhood, was the only way to make me, the others, the cell and the whole prison, disappear.
Me, I forget about everything when we play football on the small field in the prison. It’s more like a cage than a field, but once I’m inside, it’s like everything else disappears, I keep my eye on the ball and I don’t see anything else, I could be in a real stadium with a crowd and green grass beneath my feet. Being able to run around is a life saver for me, there are people in here who have forgotten how.You let everything out and you release the tension, because in prison, we are all wound up like loaded springs, we’re repressed. At least that way you can run and get it all out by kicking the ball around. My cellmates and I got great satisfaction during the prisoners versus prison guards tournament. We smashed them! And as a trophy, we won a ball, a brand new one, but so we don’t ruin it on the prison’s cement field, we never use it, it’s our trophy. In the everyday games, we use a ball that’s in much worse condition.
Once, the football players from the Cagliari Serie A team even came to play a friendly match and at the end of the competition, they gave us a heap of original football kits. The president of the team came to the prison too, not as a show of support though, but like us, as a prisoner. Famous people come in every so often, maybe con men, politicians or white collar criminals. And here, they realise that weâ€™re all the same, although thatâ€™s not always how it is, and there are some who are worse off than others.
Another way I vent my energy and stay fit is through a bit of exercise in the cell, using some weights I made. Like a dumbbell I made myself, using plastic bottles filled with salt and then tied to a piece of stick with strips of cloth. Then I covered it in plastic bags to keep it all together.
You must be wondering why I have to make myself a simple dumbbell to do a bit of weights instead of having one that’s ready-made, right? Even if you’re not wondering why, I’ll tell you: there are a lot of things that for you, it’s normal to have and above all, that it’s easy for you to get. Here, it’s not quite like that, there are rules that stop us from bringing a lot of things in or having them sent in from outside. For example, what’s a plastic dumbbell usually made of? It’s a piece of empty plastic with sand inside, right? And who’s to know whether the sand inside is really sand? Maybe it’s something else. Since they can’t be sure, I, a prisoner, can’t have one, and in order to be able to have one, I have to make myself one. There are a lot of useful things we can’t have for security reasons. I’ll give you some more examples so you can understand how much we don’t have, and how much imagination we do have.
For instance, if you get strange ideas into your head, even a tailor’s measuring tape can be dangerous. In the end, it’s like a rope and you can harm yourself with it, you know what I mean? It’s not like you need one very often. There’s not that much to measure in a cell and anyway, we know the cell’s measurements since we count the steps we take every day, and your mind adjusts according to those physical measurements, which then become mental ones. But a tape measure can always be of use, and you have to make it yourself.
Just think, we even have to make our own cheese graters for the pasta.You can make graters in a lot of different ways. The one I use the most, my favourite type, is made using the neck of a plastic bottle and the bottom of one of the camping gas bottles we use to cook with, because we donâ€™t have real stoves in the cells, just camping stoves. I like that kind of grater the most because you can use it as container as well, so if you donâ€™t finish all the cheese, you can keep it in the fridge.
But if you want to keep it in the fridge, you have to make one of those for yourself too. We call it a fridge but itâ€™s actually an icebox. Itâ€™s made out of polystyrene boxes that the fish for the prison kitchen arrives in. We put three or four of them together, or even two, depending on how many we can manage to get hold of, and we cover the inside with water cartons or milk cartons to keep the cold in. The administration does us the favour of giving us some frozen bottles of water which we replace from time to time.
Another really useful thing we make for ourselves is an oven. If you saw it, you’d never say it could work. It’s made from three camping stoves put one next to the other. On the central one, you put the baking tray, while the two side ones have another two bottomless gas bottles sitting on top of them which have an opening at the top to direct the heat upwards from the two gas rings. Once all three are turned on, with the tray in the middle, you cover everything with a kind of lid made of sheets of aluminium foil, which acts like an oven to keep the heat in. I’d have you taste the pizza or the cakes we make, you can’t imagine how good they are.
While we can only keep a few things in our cells, the space is so small that we don’t know where to put them all. There are little cabinets nailed to the walls that are all the same in all the cells and all the prisons in Italy, they’re from the Ministry. The same goes for the stools for sitting on and the tables for leaning on. If you’ve seen the furniture in one prison, you’ve seen it all. So we personalise it. Every so often, they do checks and throw everything away and so, quietly and calmly, we start again, making everything from scratch, maybe after a bit of time, otherwise it’s a bit rude. I made myself some shelves using pieces of cardboard that I covered with a plastic tablecloth to make them stronger. Then I stick everything to the wall with some glue made of four and water. There are some people who have even attached entire plastic tablecloths to the walls as a kind of wallpaper, to cover the mould and the peeling paint. It’s not a bad solution, it depends on the pattern of the tablecloth, which might happen to be worse to look at than the mould itself.
Often in here it’s difficult to get rubbish bags even, so we get by with newspapers rolled up together like a kind of a bag. It’s handy and it’s also environmentally-friendly, seeing we don’t use plastic. When I get out, I’m going to do the same thing at home too. I read the paper anyway, and so rather than throwing it away, I’ll use it for that. The paper absorbs the liquid a bit too, so you don’t run the risk of making a lot of mess in the cell. I’m a clean freak, I’m always cleaning, because decorum is important, living in a clean place is important to me and to my cellmates too. The prison is old and disgusting, but we always keep everything clean where we can.
And we have to make do with what we can for the cleaning too. Even just to fill the bucket of water to clean the floor with, we have to get organised. With a tube around two metres tall, made from plastic bottles each inserted inside the other and attached to each other, we direct the water down from the showerhead to the bucket.
Actually, there’s not really a proper showerhead in the shower, there’s just a tube that comes out of the wall and very often, the water doesn’t even spurt out, but comes out and runs along the wall. I’d like to see how you’re supposed to take a shower like that. So we fix it by sticking an empty, bottomless bottle of water into the tube which acts as a showerhead, a half-litre bottle if possible ‘cause it’s handier. I’ve got my own personal blue one. Having a shower is one of my favourite moments because I get under the water and I feel like I’m outside. The water runs over my ears and drowns out all the prison noises and I imagine the noises from home and I wish it would never end.
Even your bathrobe can’t be like all the others, because it can’t have a hood you could use to cover your face. Because in prison, you always have to be visible, controlled and controllable. Just think that even in the bathroom, there’s a hole looking out, so that when you’re in there, if a prison guard wants to see you because maybe you’re doing something strange, they can. So, if your bathrobe has a hood, you have to cut it off, as well as throw away the bathrobe belt obviously, like your shoelaces.
I think making things every so often is useful too. That way, you fill up the time and the days, you make your brain work in a good way, and you don’t think about how bad it is to be in here. A lot of us make things to decorate the cell, or for the simple pleasure of doing something with our hands. Every so often I’ll make something too, like some picture frames made out of toothpicks for putting photos in that I hang to the walls of the cell. I painted one of the frames with the colours of the Cagliari football team and in it, I put a photo of my son. Big fans, we are. In fact, the first thing I’ll do for sure when I get out of here is go to a game with him, it’s a passion that really brings us together, maybe it’s the only one. Actually, sometimes I think about the fact that I know my son so little now. I’ve missed too many of his things, I’ve missed too many years of his life and he has of mine: his communion, confirmation, high school graduation. He’s grown up and many times when he comes to see me at visits, I don’t recognise him. So, I often have to change the photo in the frame, putting in a new one so I can watch him grow, at least through the photos, I mean. At times I look at that photo and I get angry and down like I can’t even describe. Of course, it’s my fault I’m in here, but I wonder why I’ve also had to lose my son for all these years, to wish he wouldn’t come to prison to see me so he can be kept as far away as possible from this terrible place. Because you know what the first thought that comes to you when you get into prison and you know you have to spend a lot of years inside is? To tell your family to start over, to go on without you. I was lucky though, when I said that to my wife at the first visit, she slapped me in front of everyone, telling me I shouldn’t have dared to even think such a thing and that we would go on all the same, together, even though we’re apart. I was lucky, but many others in here haven’t been as lucky as me and now they are really alone.
Visits are the only time we can hug our relatives and friends. We’re allowed three or four visits a month, they last around an hour or an hour and a half and you wish they’d never end. Even though it’s not like you have any real intimacy, because there are a lot of us in the same room altogether. There might be six or seven of us each having a visit with our relatives, wives, children and grandchildren, and it’s a struggle to hear each other with all the noise, with everyone talking and the guards there to check on you. But it’s also nice at times. Around Christmas, it’s a celebration here too, we exchange wishes and give each other presents. For us, it’s not like we have much to give, so we have to work something out, maybe making or buying little gifts that someone here in prison makes and sells. So it might end up that each of us gives the same things to our kids. Like this year, lots of us gave pictures that a guy in here makes on pieces of an old sheet, he’s very good. Sure, I’d have liked to give something special to my youngest son, something unique, but he was happy all the same and that way there was no jealousy among the kids either.
We also make things to pass the time together with our cellmates, like a checkerboard made out of strips of cardboard. Or we make up pastimes that don’t exist outside, like here in Buoncammino Prison, we have a board game that only exists here, it’s called “Girardengo”. Nobody knows who invented it or how many years ago, but we still play it and every new prisoner learns the rules from whoever’s been in longer than him.
Since everything that seems useless can be really valuable in here, we never throw anything out, because either you might be able to use it yourself or someone else might. Lots of things we have here either we make ourselves or they were already in the cell, maybe they belonged to those who were there before us. You learn a lot here, solidarity too. There are people who have nothing at all, not even a cent to buy themselves something with, so if they do the right thing towards the other cellmates, it’s almost your duty to help them. It’s not easy, and this place is full of people who want to take advantage of you, who think they’re cleverer and stronger than you. But it’s like that outside too, isn’t it? Here we’re just closer together, nearer to one another and forced to live together. So it’s better to help each other and share the same things, joys and sorrows, maybe over a coffee or a smoke.
Prison is where the real coffee is drunk. We make so much of it that we turn into pros. They even made a famous song about coffee in the prison cells*. It’s a moment when we get together and talk and joke around and make fun of each other too. It’s a way of feeling at home, that smell always has something familiar about it. Of course, it’s not like we talk about much, very often it’s always about the same things, either about lawyers, judges and laws or things related to crimes. What do you expect us to talk about? That’s what we knew how to do before we got in here. If only they’d teach us something else, if only they’d teach us a job that could take us away from this whole environment. We’re all inside for the same reason: we broke the law, we screwed up, more than once sometimes too. There are people I don’t think should be in here either, like drug addicts who wind up inside for stealing a watch to get a hit. Nobody wants them because they go totally crazy in here, it’s impossible to be in a cell with them. Anyway, what do you expect us to talk about amongst ourselves? This stuff. And what sort of friendships do you expect us to make and what do you expect us to learn to do in here, if not how to commit other crimes when we’re out? If only they’d teach us to work, if only we were really given an alternative for when we get out. We’re only inside because we have to be punished and they put all of us in together. What do you expect, that we’ll all be better people when we get out? That we’ll start work straight away? And who’s going to give me a job after all these years in prison? Nobody! That’s who’ll give me a job, nobody!
*Don Raffaè by italian singer/songwriter Fabrizio De André.
Because there are things to do in prison too. In fact, many of us work inside the prison, but doing things that are only connected to the prison, like working in the kitchens, taking the food around to the cells at mealtimes, doing some little maintenance jobs or cleaning the common areas.You can tell those who work because they all have the same brown pants so the prison police know you’re out of your cell because you’re a lavorante, a “prison hand”, as we call them here.
And if you work, you’re also entitled to a little extra money that you can put into your account.You can’t have money in prison, but what you do have or what your relatives might send you from outside is put into a personal account which you can use to buy things, even here in prison.You can choose from the prison commissary list, where there are things you can buy. I think the prices are higher than outside, a lot higher, even though they pay us the minimum here and we should have lower prices than outside. ‘Cause it’s not like there’s much to eat in prison or that the food is very good. So between what my wife manages to bring me every so often at visits and the couple of things I buy here, I don’t exactly starve. Actually, I cook, together with my cellmates too. But there are people who are really alone, who don’t have anything in their account, so I give them a few things because you’ve got to be altruistic, with those who deserve it, obviously.
As well as the prison commissary list, we have a lot of files, papers and forms that we need for everything. But the one you need the most is Penitentiary Administration Form 393, which we just call the domandina, you need it for just about everything.You want to speak to a social worker? Fill out a domandina.You want to be able to have a meeting with the Director? Fill out a domandina.You need shower gel from the commissary list because you’ve run out? Fill out a domandina.You want to ask permission for a phone call home? Fill out a domandina. And there are people who don’t know how to write and who need help, they need help reading too. With all the paperwork we have, sometimes you don’t know what to do with it all, but I’ve found a way to reuse it. I collect stamps and I stick them on the back of every piece of paper, even not my own papers, maybe I might get hold of one from someone else inside. I don’t buy the stamps, and maybe they’re not even rare, but I salvage them from the letters me and my companions in misfortune get. They know me now, so if someone gets a letter with new or strange stamps, they give them to me and I collect them.
The only letters that don’t have stamps on them are the ones from the internal post, I mean those that are sent inside the prison, that leave from here and stay in here. One of my cellmates writes a letter to his wife everyday, she’s fifty metres from our cell, but she’s not outside, she’s in another cell like we are, but a smaller and a worse one I think, from how he talks to me about it. She’s in prison too, but in the women’s section. I think he suffers more because she’s in prison than for the fact that he is. He’d give anything, even all his freedom, in exchange for her release. He knows what it means to live in prison, and knowing that his wife who he loves very much is in the same situation as he is, if not worse, hurts him a lot. So they write to each other every day, and when I say every day, I mean every single day. They give each other strength, and they say a lot of nice things to each other. They spend all day writing to each other and she makes nice letters too, with hearts and kisses all over the place, and with perfume sprayed on the paper so every time he opens a letter, the smell of perfume fills our cell.
One of the few things we’re lucky to have is the library. I think it’s the nicest place in the prison. When you’re there, it doesn’t seem like you’re in prison, even though there are bars on the windows there too. We do activities, prisoners and social workers meet there, and you chat a lot with people and volunteers who come from outside to do workshops and courses too. In one of the workshops I did, I found an alternative to television: books! I started to write too, not just reading, would you believe it? I’ll admit it, at times I copy: like how I discovered this writer called Pablo Neruda who writes really beautiful poems, so I include them in my letters for my wife, telling her I’ve written her a poem and it makes her really happy, she says I’ve gotten really good and that prison is making me romantic. I can hardly tell her it’s making me the total opposite. But there are other prisoners who write a lot and have become artists too, some have written actual books and sometimes have even won competitions for prisoners across Italy. It’s nice to know that even if you’re in here, you can find alternatives, and you can grow and learn something. It makes you feel alive and helps you in difficult moments, which there are a lot of.
Writing now is what makes me feel alive, even in relation to the outside. From here, thanks to writing and to the letters, I somehow manage not to lose everything I had outside, like family and friends. I’d like to study too, maybe get my high school diploma, which I don’t have. I know, many people outside judge me and have abandoned me, they don’t believe in me anymore and maybe they’re afraid too. But my real friends, who know that making mistakes is human and that you can always start again from scratch, stay by your side. There are few of them, I have to be content with that, but it’s nice to receive their letters. We say more things to each other than we would in person and above all, it’s nice to know that outside, there’s someone who still believes in me, who doesn’t judge me for what I have done but tries to understand how I am going inside and gives me their support.
All these words of mine, I don’t know if they make any sense or if they can be useful for something. They certainly don’t reduce the number of days and years I still have to spend inside, that’s for sure, and they don’t make me a better person either. But at least I can pretend to talk to someone, though I don’t know who would ever read these words of mine or would care about them at all. Because being in here makes you feel forgotten, useless, like whether you’re in this world or not doesn’t matter at all, on the contrary, my companions in misfortune and I take up space and they say we are a cost to society too, you know, maintaining the prisons that take up space in order to keep us locked up when you could do a lot of other useful things with the building, I understand that too. But soon they’ll move us to a new prison, outside the city, in the industrial area, where there’s nothing except factories and arid land. We’ll leave this space to someone else who maybe will turn the building into a nice hotel or offices or a student residence. It seems that the new prison will be nicer and technological, we’ll have more space and showers in the rooms and armoured doors that open on their own and even a theatre. It will be better for sure, this one is old and is disgusting. We are all a bit excited about the change and I’m happy to leave this damp cell too, who cares about being in the middle of the city. But it would be nice if now, through my words, I could let you hear what I can hear beyond the bars at this exact moment while I’m writing to you. Outside, beyond the walls of the prison, which is on the highest point in the city, like a bitter cherry on top of a cake, there’s a little group of people, a family maybe, talking to a prisoner in my wing. They have to yell because otherwise they can’t hear each other, so everyone in here and outside on the street can hear what they’re saying, even personal things like “we miss you” or “say hello to mum for me and tell her I love her”. But at least they can talk to each other every so often and see each other, even from afar and with the bars and the walls in between. I don’t think we’ll be able to do that anymore in the new prison because we’ll be far away and the new walls will be higher than these ones are, and they also say that the cells will never face towards the outside. And so I think we might even feel a bit more alone, after our enthusiasm for the new things, including the hot showers in the cells, has passed. Every so often, as a “prison hand” in here, I do the night rounds picking up the rubbish from the cells, and go up to the highest floors of the prison, where you can see the whole city, and I stop along one of these corridors with the bars that face outwards in the direction of my neighbourhood and my house. I can see it, it’s right there near the sign for the new shopping centre they built. I mean, I can’t see it very well, also because it’s night time, but I
know it’s there, nearby. And I know that from the balcony of my house, my children and my wife can see the floodlights of the prison, right where I am. So while I look towards the city, I imagine that at that very same instant, my family is looking back at me from down there, that we can see each other, that I’m not part of this cement anymore, and that we’re close, and then I feel much better right away, I know I’m still on this earth, not far away, but here near them. Who knows what it’ll be like in the new prison though. I don’t want to think about it for now, because like I said, thinking can be painful in here. So, I continue to write, to pass the time and maybe to leave something, even if it’s just a bit of scribble on a piece of paper, so as not to feel so very useless. Then, whether someone reads it or not is not that important, though every so often I think about it and I imagine someone’s reading what I’ve written and I feel like one of those great writers who people still read even centuries later. I know, at times I go over the top with my imagination, but that’s what I still have left. So I think that even just to get some extra letters, maybe from someone I don’t know, would already be a lot.
A Closed Up Story by Alessandro Toscano
In 2014, twice a week for 11 months, I had the opportunity to meet some of the prisoners at Italy’s Buoncammino Prison in Cagliari, Sardinia. The aim of my visits was to get to know and to document the situation in one of Italy’s many prisons, in the wake of their condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights for overcrowding. According to the Court, Italy had violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, subjecting inmates in its prisons to degrading and inhumane conditions. Like many other Italian prisons, Buoncammino was a dilapidated and overcrowded facility, which accommodated a number of prisoners well beyond its capacity in a building from the end of the 1800s, at the centre of the city. For this reason, and as provided for in the new Piano Carceri *, Buoncammino would be closed shortly after, and its inmates moved to a new, more modern and building with a greater capacity. But the new prison would be also away from the city, thereby breaking that bond which, for a century and a half, had characterised the relationship between the prison and the social fabric of the city itself. Initially, our authorisation to enter the prison, which had been agreed to by the Prison Management, included the opportunity to involve a group of prisoners in the photographic documentation of some areas of the prison, including the cells and certain common areas. The aim was to involve the prisoners in the construction of a first-person documentation, capable of observing and interpreting daily life in prison from the inside. However, contrary to what had been agreed upon, we were denied this liberty from our first encounter for “security reasons”. The only chance we were allowed was to carry out our work in a room assigned to us for the “workshop”: a former cell that had been completely emptied, except for a few chairs and a table. What seemed at first like an insurmountable obstacle instead proved to be an opportunity to build a different relationship with the prisoners, one in which words and oral storytelling were the principle and free means of getting to know aspects of their daily life which would otherwise have been hidden. In this process of narration, documentation and of weaving things back together orally, I was able to understand how much their daily activities were focused on the few, small, apparently ordinary things that made their daily life somehow bearable. Each one of their objects, whether a photograph, a letter or a book, appeared as the only thing capable of affirming their presence in the world even if they were locked up, and the prison, with its walls, bars and barbed wire, an element to be removed and blocked out with their imagination. The only means of escaping the physical and psychological oppression of the prison – an allencompassing institution that relieves inmates of responsibility – was to further narrow down their perception concerning those few small objects they were allowed to keep with them. The symbolic and concrete action ended up being that of bringing the prison and its daily life into the empty cell, piece by piece during our meetings, through their personal objects. A camping stove, a couple of sheets, a grater, a book, a letter: small elements that carried a direct and reliable account of the prison reality. The result is a personal story, narrated in the first person, by any given prisoner in any given Italian prison. It is made up of images and words, in which the objects photographed appear as elements that serve to bring the attention back onto the words as a relational element and one of dialogue, and therefore onto the dramatic Italian prison experience which is too often excluded from perception and public dialogue.
*The Italian Justice Ministry’s 2010 Special Plan to create 12.000 new prison places, with an investment of around 463 million euros. By the end of 2014, just 52 million euros of the available resources (about 11% of the total) had been utilised, creating just 4.400 new places in Italian prisons in four years.
A Closed Up Story was produced in collaboration with architects Maria Pina Usai, Margherita Fenati, Francesca Tatarella and Daniele Iodice from the U-BOOT group “Research and action in highly vulnerable social and environmental landscapes”, as part of the research project entitled “Prison, Urban Space – the Boundary between City and Penitentiary Periphery” (Carcere Spazio Urbano-il Confine tra Città e Periferia Penitenziaria).
Copyright Alessandro Toscano © 2015