Freedom Room: the book

Released today the book on Freedom Room with contributions from Aldo Bonomi, Aldo Cibic, Tortoioli Marco Ricci, Thomas Bialas, Joost Beundemann, Lucia Castellano, Francesco Bellosi, Luisa Della Morte, Andrea Margaritelli, Michelangelo Patron.

Here is a preview of the contribution of Lucia Castellano, former director of the prison in Bollate (MI):

Present discussions concerning the amount of space available to detainees in prisons inevitably revolve around the issue of overcrowding, which makes the prisons of our country unworthy of a civilized society.

The problem may be tackled seriously only by questioning the so-called ‘leggi carcerogeniche’ (‘carcero-genic laws’, cfr. ‘carcere’, the Italian word for ‘prison’), which provide for imprisonment as the first option when it is deemed that a punitive response is called for and not as a last resort for certain types of minor offences. Reference in this regard may be made to the Bossi-Fini law on immigration, the former Cirielli law relating to habitual relapse into crime and the Fini-Giovanardi law on drug addiction.

So we will let the new Government reach its final decisions, which will hopefully introduce slightly different solutions. The important thing is to avoid a situation in which prisons are overcrowded containers, crammed full with the poor and the destitute, tending to promote deviant behaviour and delinquency instead of curbing it. Prisons should not produce insecurity within society at an increasingly unsustainable cost.

Any reflection on the amount of space available to the inmates of prisons must start from a preliminary observation: there is no existing concept of design that differentiates the distribution or ‘construction’ of spaces according to the subjects that will use them. Today’s prisons are all quite dramatically identical. The Bollate penitentiary (a low-security institution) is just the same as Secondigliano (a high-security unit). The message conveyed by the administrative bodies that govern penitentiaries is quite clear: we have no particular concept of design relating to the organization of prison life based on the type of people that live in prisons. These are the spaces available for the inmates, and they are all the same, regardless of whether they will be used by men, women, minors, leaders of criminal gangs or the perpetrators of petty crimes and ‘white-collar’ criminals whom we expect to eventually rehabilitate.

The control of these immense spaces in the new prisons is thus entrusted to the good sense of prison managers and officers. The hundreds of square metres of open green space separating one prison annex from another can be left empty or it might be filled with benches for outdoor conversations, urban gardens looked after by the inmates or greenhouses for the cultivation of flowers. They might be used to provide space for the prisoners’ working activities or open-air encounters with members of the prisoner’s families or they might be left as they are: empty, desolate places with no purpose. Is this the way we should continue, with no appropriate planning for such areas and no clear underlying political vision?
Unfortunately, this is the scenario we are used to. It has never occurred to anyone at the Central Administration department that it might be a good idea to identify virtuous uses of space and extend their use to other institutions. Virtuous examples, in this country, would appear to never progress beyond the ‘experimental’ stage, even though in fact they may have been adopted for decades. Although they may result in a lower rate of relapse into crime and increase the quality of life for prison workers, such courageous choices are not common occurrences in prisons. Available living spaces in prisons are perennially-degraded communal environments arranged within a sole grey setting. Life is obsessively punctuated by rules that are always the same and devoid of any vital sense, while the individuality or personal identity of the prisoners themselves and prison officers is never taken into consideration. In real life situations the recommendation laid down in the Constitution, whereby a period of detention should ‘aim at re-educating’ offenders, is ignored. The actual trend is to go in the opposite direction. The actual situation in prisons is also in dire contrast with any ideals relating to the ‘dignity of working life’ as far as prison operators and wardens are concerned .

This discourse necessarily draws our attention to the interior spaces of our detention centres. Even in situations not characterised by overcrowding, which will naturally impede any minimal form of organization of basic day-to-day activities, prison cells are subject to very rigid rules concerning furniture and possible internal furnishings and accessories. Everything is seen as an instrument for self-harm. I remember visiting a prison where the manager would not allow the prisoners to use their own sheets. His justification was that “if a detainee hangs himself with a sheet provided by the prison administration staff it’s one thing; if he uses his own bed linen, we can be seen as jointly responsible as we authorised him to use it.”
Might we not suggest that the typical prison wardens’ obsessions with ‘critical events’ occasionally attain rather dangerous levels? The heavy, mortifying restrictions placed on furnishings and accessories useful for day-to-day living stifles the inmate’s individuality and tend to stand in contrast with the educational aims of a period of detention.

Such rules in any case tend to sharpen the wits of the detainees, who will try to make every possible use of the objects they are allowed to keep (cigarette cartons are transformed into shelving, empty tuna-fish tins become knives). The prisoners know only too well however that these ingenious modifications of objects and extensions of their normal use may be all to no avail following a search, which may result in the destruction of any odd inventions found by the prison officers and a subsequent disciplinary report.
If then, in 2013, this is the general tendency of prison institutions, I think that a project such as the ‘Freedom Room’ should be hailed as a breath of fresh air of great importance in terms of a possible cultural advancement within the prison setting.
Inmates can become the proponents of a new ‘culture’ in their day-to-day living environment, starting with the difficult situation they experience on a permanent basis and transforming it into a resource. The depersonalization typical of such institutions can be effectively addressed and the fear of critical events and liability may thus be abated.
I sincerely hope that Prison Administrations will consider and adopt this project to promote a ‘culture’ of prison life which, for the first time, may be determined to a certain extent by the inmates themselves.

Lucia Castellano

Born in Naples, Lucia Castellano (49), who holds a degree in law and is a qualified attorney, has been a prison director since 1991. She has worked at the Marassi penitentiary in Genoa and at Eboli and Naples (Secondigliano) as deputy manager and at the experimental detention centre in Alghero. From 2002 to June 2011 she was prison service manager at the Bollate penitentiary for common detainees, which, under her supervision, developed as a model institution in Italy and at European level for activities relating to the social and occupational rehabilitation of prisoners. Collaborating with Donatella Stasio, in 2009 Lucia Castellano wrote the book ‘Diritti e Castighi’ (Rights and Punishments), published by Il Saggiatore.

In Genoa she was a recipient of the international prize ‘Una Donna Fuori dal Coro’ (lit. A Woman who Stands Out in a Crowd). Lucia Castellano’s biography was inserted in a work jointly published by the Italian Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Equal Opportunities entitled ‘Merito al Femminile’. Her name was also included at the Donne d’Italia (Women of Italy) exhibition held at the Palazzo Blu in Pisa during celebrations for the Unification of Italy. From June 2011 to January 2013, she was municipal councillor for Housing, State Property and Public Works for the Municipal Council of the City of Milan.
She was elected on the Regional Council of Lombardy with 5,998 preferences as a representative of the Ambrosoli Presidente – Patto Civico movement, which proposed Umberto Ambrosoli as candidate for the presidency of the region.