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A Service for the Rights of Detainees: Siciliano and the Story of “His” San Vittore

Interview with the Managing Director of the San Vittore jail in Milan, that is offering new services to encourage the social reintegration of detainees

Giacinto Siciliano.

“Publicizing these services through the press and the media is one way of amplifying a conversation and letting people know that inside the prison we are working for the good of society. By offering these services, we let people know that someone who comes out of jail is not abandoned and alone, but it is someone who during their incarceration period embarked on a journey and was involved in many different activities,” says Siciliano

Giacinto Siciliano is the Managing Director of the San Vittore jail in Milan, which currently houses about 1000 inmates, many of whom are awaiting trial. After ten years at the Opera prison, last year he took over the historical Milanese jail. The same detention center that also held Totò Riina, the renown Italian mobster chief of the Sicilian Mafia. It is inside San Vittore, which houses 952 inmates and has a capacity of about 700, that the Advocate for the Rights or Prisoners and the Job Portal services were recently launched. These initiatives aim to respond to various issues, including overcrowding and the reintegration of the formerly incarcerated into mainstream society. They are part of a series of initiatives that promote family interaction and creative engagement. In other words, these services advocate for the promotion of the social and civil rights of inmates. They are under the supervision of Regional Advocate Carlo Lio.

What is the meaning of these new services launched at San Vittore?
“The Regional Advocate for the rights of prisoners is a figure that promotes the rights of people who have been deprived of their freedom inside the prison but also outside, in welcome centers and in other types of institutions. We offer a service inside the prison that enables inmates to address their rights and the problems they face that are not being addressed and that depend on external institutions. This is a service that the Regional Advocate for the Lombardy region requested. It already exists in other institutions across our region. The real innovation is that this is now being integrated inside the prison because we are trying to bring more services inside. To offer in a penitentiary structure an external and independent presence who can listen and represent inmates, enables us to formalize a place and a service that offers inmates what they need. If we do not respond to their needs, they have the right to complain and if they face problems that as citizens they cannot resolve, the Advocate must act as the intermediary and interlocutor with other institutions. The idea is that a prison, aside from the fact that it is a place where freedom is restricted, must recreate inside a system that is analogous to the one that exists outside. Our objective is to encourage the person to accept, in a responsible and conscious way, the rule of law. To succeed with that, we must ensure the rights of prisoners because only then – when their rights are also recognized – we can demand the full and conscious, not enforced, respect for the rule of law”.

Taking these objectives into account, how will these new services work?
“Regarding the Job Center, we focus primarily on the initial incarceration phase. Our staff will attempt to understand who the inmate is as a person, why they are here, and on which areas we can work together (family, work, professional skills and others). Our goal is to guide the inmate toward an inner journey, even if they are awaiting trial. Obviously, this can only happen on a voluntary basis because our constitutional principle is that if you are found guilty and are sentenced, then I must “try” to rehabilitate you. If, instead, you are only awaiting trial, I cannot “try” to change you because you have not yet been found guilty… unless you expressly ask to work with me. This doesn’t mean that you admit your guilt, but that you want to work with us to support your interests and continue to develop your personality. We do this first evaluation so that we can guide you on an internal journey and create the foundations for an external one with an independent and conscious respect for the rule of law”.

How does this evaluation phase happen?
“The evaluation evolves on multiple fronts: first and foremost, it is about managing the risk of suicide. If a person is at risk of suicide, we must enact a series of interventions to ensure this does not happen. After that, we focus on other intervention areas: education, professional training and employment. The education service evaluates the inmate’s academic competencies, their level of education and their academic qualifications, with or without a formal degree. Then we assess their professional training level: what they know and what they don’t know how. When it comes to employment, we try to understand what this person did for a living before being arrested. We complement this analysis with an evaluation of the inmate’s family situation, housing, etc. Together with the inmate, we try to define the journey they can embark on during incarceration. In some way, we are building on a long-term rehabilitation project. Our goal now is not to simply manage numbers, but rather invest in long-term projects. Our treatment of the human being must therefore turn into a journey that the person commits to while being incarcerated, with support from the staff facilitating their reentry into society”.

Do you already have some success indicators on your rehabilitative approach?
“We have a sense of direction but clearly the large number of inmates that we are dealing with challenge our approach. Surely, in a jail like San Vittore, which houses more than one thousand inmates awaiting trial, it is hard to think of investing in a long-term project. In this context, I prefer to focus on the here and the now. The big challenge for us is to think, “why lose any time?” If you are sentenced in one year, why lose one year? In one year, this person will grow angrier and more frustrated. If, however, we use that year in the best way possible, when the person is sentenced, we already know something about them: who they are and what their potential is. If their sentence is less than five or six years, we might even be able to ensure they can benefit earlier from some type of partial release. In Italy, some inmates can work outside during the day or even go home and return to the jail or prison in the evenings. There are tools that enable some inmates to spend part of their sentence outside. Obviously, it depends on the type of charge they have. For instance, anyone who has committed a mafia crime does not have such privileges. But for minor and non-violent crimes, or crimes with minimal social impact, the trend is to enable inmates to go through their sentence in a state of partial freedom. This allows them to go out of the jail or prison in the morning and return in the evenings. Obviously, they must respect the rule of law and abide to certain rules, otherwise they lose that privilege”.

What type of work do you do with the community to increase the probability of a positive and successful reentry of the formerly incarcerated person?
“Publicizing these services through the press and the media is one way of amplifying a conversation and letting people know that inside the prison we are working for the good of society. By offering these services, we let people know that someone who comes out of jail is not abandoned and alone, but is someone who, during their incarceration period, embarked on a journey and was involved in different activities. In some way, this helps to create around the prison and the Returning Citizen greater awareness and sensibility. Clearly, we do not mean to say that someone who was incarcerated never committed a crime or will not do so again, but it is extremely important to let people know that in prison we work hard with inmates to ensure that crimes will not be committed again. Unlike in the United States, we do not have private prisons in Italy. The management of all prisons and prison services is entirely public. We do however delegate some services to social enterprises outside. There are social cooperatives and community organizations that we can rely on but they are always under our direct supervision and must report to us. In case of inmates who benefit from partial freedom, they can be supported by a social cooperative or a community organization. The goal is to ensure these inmates can work, have psycho-social support available to them and the help they need to adjust to life outside prison”.

Photo Stefano Gusmeroli.

What are some of the most common problems that formerly incarcerated people must face once they leave prison?
“First, it is not easy to go back to society and be accepted, therefore we work a lot to publicize all the initiatives that we have inside the jail. People must understand that it is not enough to be an inmate to pose a danger; just like it is not enough to be an inmate and not pose a danger. It is necessary to evaluate the person. If the institution has done its job well, when the person comes out, they are just like everyone else. Surely, there is the issue of work because in a context where there is high unemployment, one is unlikely to hire a formerly incarcerated person unless he/she has the competencies needed for that position. I also want to emphasize that our policymakers have decided that an inmate who works inside the jail or the prison must be remunerated at least 2/3 of the national contract for that specific job. This means that if an inmate works full time, either inside or outside the jail, they will get a decent pay”.

What is the recidivism rate at San Vittore and, on average, in the rest of Italy?
“If the inmate does not do anything in prison or jail, the recidivism rate is around 70 percent. If you keep inmates busy with purposeful activities, offer them educational opportunities or professional training, then there are cases when the recidivism rate goes down to 18 percent. Nevertheless, the national average continues to be around 70 percent. The problem is that the person who lands in prison is already somewhat marginalized, and may live in poverty and in a state of despair. Prison will unfortunately not give them what they did not have before. These background circumstances contribute to high recidivism. Surely, the risk of recidivism is lower among people who benefit from alternative incarceration measures, such as partial freedom or others. This is because the less you are inside a prison, the less you are surrounded by criminals. The pack always poses a risk of drawing you back in because some people are weak, others do not have much structure and therefore, to survive, they will adapt and accept bad deals. This is not always the case but the risk exists”.

In the U.S. we have bail, money that is paid to get out of jail while awaiting trial. Does this also exist in Italy?
“No, if there is a need for preventive detention, people must await trial in jail. I think our reason for this choice is a historical one: we do not want those with money to evade justice. Organized crime, for instance, has the money to pay for bail thus we would be encouraging impunity of those who have the possibility to pay their way out”.

Can you share with me a success story or an intervention that has worked? Luckily, there are many. Now, for instance, I have decided to bring to San Vittore some lifers who are sentenced for mafia crimes but who have gone through an important personal journey and have distanced themselves from criminality. We are obviously supporting them through this process. They come to San Vittore to speak with our young adults, under 25 years of age. The goal is to teach them the meaning of making wrong choices. We know for sure that what a judge, a lawyer or even a prison director says does not matter much to the young people. They barely listen to us. But if they hear it from someone who has made a bad choice, then it works: “Listen, at your age, I had the world in my hands and this is where I ended up. Do not make the same stupid mistakes I made.” When they speak the same language, they can get to places that we cannot get to. Oddly, the more famous the detainee is—the one who is a celebrity or has killed the most number of people—the stronger the impact will be. If he says that he made the wrong choices, it will be much more effective than if it came from the guy who did an armed robbery the day before and promises they will never do that again. They need to hear this: “I ended up here. My wife left me. I have never met my son. I am alone. I spent 30 years in prison and I have nothing to look forward to.” The more testimonials we have from renown criminals, the more likely it is that the message passes. Because the youth thinks, ‘if he did it and is not ashamed to say so, then I too can do it and turn my life around'”.

Photo Stefano Gusmeroli.

Every year on December 7 San Vittore projects on a large screen the season première of the La Scala opera house, which is one of your many cultural initiatives. Can you tell us why these types of initiatives?
“We must use all the instruments at our disposal to encourage a person to change the relationship they have with themselves and with others. We intentionally focus on leveraging the power of the arts, culture and music. We want to open new worlds to inmates. It is also a way to open the jail to the outside world. There are people that on the opening night of La Scala come to San Vittore instead of going to opera house. The opening of the opera season becomes a way to increase awareness about incarceration and what it means. At the end of the evening there is a socializing moment where the inmates share the meal they prepared with the guests. It is a beautiful and powerful moment that brings together very different realities. We also do a lot of theater inside the jail. There is historic and scientific evidence that theater helps people look inside themselves. Acting out different roles and using our imagination allows us to see ourselves from the outside, connect with a positive character and see others. You can understand the difference between a story and reality. It is also about team work thus you must relate to others. Today you may be the main character, but tomorrow you may just be an appearance on the stage. I think theater is one of the most effective tools for changing behaviors; maybe art in general is. The same goes for team sports. There are rules, there is sacrifice. You must respect the rules and the opposite team. We collaborate on these projects with external associations and community organizations. We even host poetry labs inside the jail. There are people who remain silent for years, then they write a poem that even wins an award. They do things they never thought they would be able to. In a way, it is our duty as prison staff to discover a person’s hidden inner resources. This should be the objective of jail and prison, while at the same time teaching inmates the meaning and importance of the rule of law. The rule of law cannot be enforced upon people. The rule of law must be chosen consciously and responsibly”.

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