Why So Many Italian Women Are Contracting 'Prison Syndrome'

Why So Many Italian Women Are Contracting 'Prison Syndrome'

By Silvia Marchetti

Nigerian detainee Kalu Uwaezuoke Chinedum Ike (right) listens to an explanation as she works on handbags at a workshop of Rebibbia prison in Rome.
SourceAndreas Solaro/Getty


Because doing time can mean doing good.

By Silvia Marchetti

Each day, Emilia Luisolo, 50, sets foot inside Lorusso-Cutugno maximum security prison — voluntarily. She’s there to help stone-cold murderers, kickass thieves and other inmates with their rehab. This being Turin, Italy, the convicts she works with aren’t stamping license plates. Instead, this cheerful, blondish former IT executive spends four hours a day, five days a week, helping inmates make bread, pizza, biscuits and grissini breadsticks in the prison’s kitchen.

More and more Italian women are contracting a weird disease — carcerite, or “prison syndrome.” Once you catch it, it’s a life sentence. These women have no fear of consorting with criminals — especially male ones — when it’s for a good cause. According to the Italian Justice Ministry, some 200 associations work on the prisoner-rehab mission, with determined and provocative women leading the charge at many of them. They’re opening restaurants and ateliers and running hotels and catering services by employing convicts and ex-convicts. “I think that nobody is lost, not even the worst criminals,” Luisolo says, “and the first step to help them recover self-confidence is to make them feel useful again through a job.”

We don’t just recycle textiles from industry leftovers. We recycle human lives.

Luciana Delle Donne, founder, Officina Creativa

It’s a personal crusade triggered by Italy’s overcrowded penal system. According to the Justice Ministry, Italy’s 191 jails and prisons house 55,000 men and women in facilities designed for 42,000 — 130 percent capacity, well above the European Union average of 105 percent. “The situation is so bad that the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Italy several times for inhumane prison conditions since 2010,” says Maria Luisa Di Bitonto, a penal law professor at Rome’s LUISS University. The last time was in 2015, following an appeal to the EU body by a group of prisoners.

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Kalu Uwaezuoke Chinedum Ike works on handbags.

Source Andreas Solaro/Getty

One of the few bright lights in this otherwise dismal scenario is inmate rehabilitation, with some 12,000 convicts — more than 20 percent of the total prison population — enrolled in programs, according to Justice Ministry data. And those efforts get a big boost from women like Luisolo, who works for the Liberamensa Association. At 10 a.m., the baker-convicts in the Turin prison load their bread, pastries and other creations into Luisolo’s car or the association’s van for delivery to a nearby shop that’s fittingly named Farina Nel Sacco — Flour in the Sack, which sounds like a thief’s loot, “money in the sack.” But if money is an image of evil, bread is the symbol of rebirth. “I need my ‘colleagues’ here as much as they need me,” Luisolo says. ”By helping others I help myself.”

Donatella Massimilla tries to create a little drama behind bars to help prisoners. “Work is redemption; it gives back human dignity,” says Massimilla, 55, a playwright activist with the European Center of Theater in Prison. As part of her Ape Shakespeare project, inmate actors from Milan’s San Vittore jail drive around town in three-wheeled food trucks known as ape carts, performing dramatic scenes, cooking street food and serving aperitifs to parents and snacks to kids. She says her crazy passion for going to jail is addictive, like love at first sight. “It’s my happy isle,” she says, “my secret unplugged place where mobile phones don’t work.”


Another social activist, Luisa della Morte of the Alice Association, recently opened an “outside” boutique where female inmates from San Vittore make dresses for fashionistas and robes for prosecutors, helped by some of the city’s notable designers. Sara Battaglino, a former architect, has sponsored a new store in Turin called FreedHome where jail-made products are sold — chocolates, snacks, bags, bijoux, even beer. Donatella Daffra of the ABC Association runs a food-catering service in Milan’s Bollate jail; inmates prepare meals and offer tastings to guests, as well as work all over the city at banquets and parties in banks, castles and skyscrapers. In 2014 Giulia Manca of San Giacomo Cooperative opened an 11-room inn on the paradisiacal island of Pianosa in the Tuscan archipelago. Here, on one of Italy’s last remaining prison isles, inmates on probation operate the inn and guide guests on beach walks and horseback rides. “They’re my boys,” Manca says, “and I love them all.”

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Women’s prison workshops across Italy aim to encourage detainees to learn new skills and plan for a life on the outside.

Source Andreas Solaro/Getty

It’s difficult to determine how big a role these programs play in reintegrating prisoners into society, but the overall recidivism rate is 60 percent; for prisoners in rehab, it ranges from 20 percent to as little as 5 percent, depending on the prison, according to Luciana Delle Donne, a former banker who founded Officina Creativa, a nonprofit that trains women inmates in Apulia. Delle Donne has dedicated her life to helping jailhouse mothers. They create jail-branded bracelets, which are worn by many Italian VIPs, and soon Delle Donne will launch a new brand dubbed Second Chance — men’s and women’s haute couture ties, belts and suspenders. “We don’t just recycle textiles from industry leftovers,” Delle Donne says. “We recycle human lives.” 

Some experts claim that these rehab programs do not take the outside world into consideration. “It’s good to make inmates work,” Di Bitonto says, “but once out of jail, if they find no work due to Italy’s high unemployment, the rehab mission might be useless.” The law professor, however, praises the efforts made by Italy’s penal system in recent years and notes two important aspects: jobs that are developmental and not exploitative, and jobs that pay. There’s even a national contract that protects prisoners’ labor rights. “Such a contract is sacred,” adds Di Bitonto, “and Italy’s courts are very strict about enforcing it.” In fact, several prisoners have gone to court — this time not for a crime but for not getting paid. It’s a legal redress that many other Italian workers who have never been behind bars might envy.