It was with great pleasure that I received your letter. I hope that the delay in replying has not posed a problem. I hope you don’t mind me speaking in a familiar tone, not out of lack of respect or concern to do with engaging in a confidential relationship with you, but simply because I feel able to speak more freely, more directly. I can adopt a more formal tone if you wish.
I am aware of your training in journalism and am happy to enter into this correspondence and to undertake this project in order to give a voice to those who, in this sort of place, do not have one. Most importantly, I hope to raise awareness of a current form of sentencing in Italy which is somewhat absurd: theergastolo ostativo. Pope François calls it “the hidden death penalty.”
Before going on, let me introduce myself. I was born in Nardo, a city in the province of Lecce in the Salento region, south of Puglia.
My current home is called “prison”. I have spent 28 of my 49 years alive here. I have been detained constantly for the last 24 years. I am doing out a life sentence: not “life” in the popular sense, but in the sense of ostativa.
I am married and I have a 28-year-old son. I am a prisoner who demonstrates a clear interest for studying and a passion for writing. During these years in prison, I have received several awards and prizes, as well as merit awards and professional qualifications at further education and university level in Law, which I gained in 2012 with the highest grade, for which I received a distinction from the Spoleto Prison administration. I have written some books and several judicial documents.
Often I feel that, ultimately, when you are condemned to life imprisonment, the fact of becoming a different, better person, is only of a secondary importance, because you remain condemned to never leave.
Today, it must be said, for people like us, those serving life prisoners of the “ostativa” kind, prison is a tomb for the living.
You have the feeling that you are some kind of human residue who lives outside of the natural cycle of life. The ergastolo ostativo conditions us, dehumanizes us, changes us, and breaks us down physically and mentally. Of course, we no longer wear the striped garments or the white straitjacket, we wear nothing more than the number on our caps, but the reality is nonetheless the same, unfortunately. Each one of us is a number, sometimes just a file.
If you enter into the lair of this infernal sentence, you will perceive a sad, unreal atmosphere in which we, “ostativi” prisoners, move like robots. The rhythms, habits, limits of existence have been altered. All is shaped by this reality which is lights years from normal daily existence.
Ostativa, life imprisonment, changes everything. Your being, your smile, your thoughts, your way of walking, loving, believing, hoping or dreaming… Ergastolo ostativo is responsible for the human and social breakdown of men.
This sentence represents a form of experimentation of regression, a daily reality full of desolation. It is a simulacrum of life which inflicts psychological wounds. It often incites a return to crime. Almost always, we begin to fade away.
The lack of hope and the awareness of one’s death in prison become the painful roots of mental breakdown, of an aging of the emotions. We can thus imagine without difficulty the state of mind of those people who know they will indeed one day cross the prison gate, but will do so feet first. We see everything around us collapse. We feel, vividly, this collapse, anxiety, a hole in our existence.And to boot, there’s our remorse. And our remorse dominates.
Behind the bars and the cement, we, the ergastolani ostativi, no longer feel ourselves to be human.
Prison takes shape as the space of our total destruction. The things which happen to us, feelings, emotions, fears and hopes, hatred and love, form bizarre outlines in our non-reality, which become alarm signals. Each one of us lives as a hunted man. Personally, I feel more than anything that I have been thrown back, vomited out by society.
Now, I am somebody else. Altered, deformed, assaulted in my very essence, I am now a body which has grown old too quickly, an anonymous face, eyes without sparkle, facing the nothingness before me.
And we are too few to react, to be able to resist and beat this monster. Many give in.
It must be said that in each penitentiary system there is a fundamental contradiction: on the one hand, there is a hope of teaching prisoners a lifestyle which will enable them to live in an appropriate way in the free world. On the other, these same prisoners are bound to live for their whole lives in a prison which is the antithesis of the free world. The fact of living this sentence creates a particular sense of self, a sense of a person deprived of all of their rights. We find ourselves in a situation of an absence of self-determination.
And yet, some of us, after decades of imprisonment, after having died through them, after having indemnified in some way society through the harshness of their conviction, are aware of being new people, born out of their own ashes, who discover a belief in their own value of being human. The Constitution seemingly believes in this renaissance but, in fact, this is not the case. For our Institutions, it seems that we must stay the same forever, die guilty of transgression already paid for through the loss of our youth, of our ripe age… paid for through our lives and those of our loved ones.
Everybody can change and a democratic State should always give a second chance on the basis of objective facts relating to a clear path of rehabilitation. Such change many of us have achieved because we have had the courage to question who we are, by distancing ourselves firmly from the world of crime, because we have reached a level of maturity which enables us to not forget a single moment of the pain that we have inflicted upon our victims through our actions.
To conclude, I would like to say that we cannot deny the freedom of a man on the sole basis of an act which often took place decades ago. We cannot accept it by hiding behind a blackmail which rests upon a shameful obligation to provide information. Society has the right to demand the reintegration of people who have changed, better individuals who respect social rules and regulations, rather than the reformed who have bought their freedom in exchange for confessions, often dubious but well presented, and who will remain, fundamentally, criminals, dangerous assassins with all that this implies for society.
I ground this argument in my own experience, in the evolution and metamorphosis of a “new person” who no longer thinks like an ostativo prisoner. And to you, citizens of Switzerland, of France, of Europe, to you, lawyers and politicians, I would like to address the following question, first posed by a famous lawyer:
How is it possible that we tolerate a system without which prisoners are denied human rights? What form of humanity will you leave your children if you have to explain that in Italy there is a monster, ergastolo ostativo, that swallows up those who have erred, which forces those it imprisons to live out a ten-fold sentence? With what heart will you say to those who will take over in that country, a cradle of civilisation and rights, that there exists a system which entraps live human beings and which strips them of their dignity as men?
Dear Laurence, I hope my replies to your questions are exhaustive and understandable. I have written what I feel in my heart because from there come authentic observations from which I suffer bodily every day.
I would much appreciate hearing your opinion on the matter. I look forward to hear news from you.
— Published on 20 September 2016¶