It’s 7:30 am at Rome’s Rebibbia prison as inmates pile into a minibus headed for a day of freedom — and a taste of life after incarceration.
Some of the many green spaces in the Italian capital are now in the hands of prisoners under a new scheme that drafts them in to maintain or spruce up gardens and parks.
The initiative, a joint project of the city and justice ministry, aims to smoothe prisoners’ reintegration into society once they have served their terms.
“Who knows, maybe one day one of us will do this as a job, to stay on the outside rather than ending up back in prison,” says Umberto, one of the younger members of the group.
Supervising the prisoner-gardeners, Claudio Iacobelli jokes: “If they escape, I won’t chase them.”
But, he says: “Not only does this project make them feel useful, but for them, every minute spent outside is one minute less spent in prison.”
About 100 inmates at Rebibbia prison will take part in the project overall.
From 9 am to 3 pm on weekdays they apply their newfound skills under the guidance of the city’s official gardeners.
The prisoners must first volunteer and then be selected for the work — no former mafiosi or lifers are eligible.
“We work together, we get organised, we talk… on our way back in the minibus in the evening we look at each other and we are satisfied,” Umberto says.
The prisoners are allowed to roam the open spaces freely and handle all kinds of sharp implements under the supervision of the guards.
“It’s a matter of trust. I make a pact with them,” Iacobelli says.
“They know that at the slightest deviation, the project will be aborted.”
It is not just the inmates who benefit from the work.
The Eternal City has barely 100 gardeners tending its 40,000 hectares of green areas, and their numbers have steadily dwindled because of budget cuts and corruption.
“The project is very positive. The prisoners are happy and the inhabitants are even happier they are there,” says Pinuccia Montanari, deputy to the mayor in charge of the environment who has come to visit the workers.
“It is also very important for our city because the city hall has very few resources,” she adds.
The initiative is a pilot project set to last six months, with similar ones planned for Milan, Palermo and Naples. — AFP