After concluding Encerrados, a ten-year photographic journey through 74 penal institutions in South America, I decided, in 2014, to continue exploring the world of detainees, but this time in Italian prisons. Prigionieri, together with Encerrados and Paco, form a trilogy on freedom lost. This second journey into the world of prisons delves into the everyday life of inmates in Italian prisons, endeavoring to grasp their struggles, needs, and feelings. A prison holds a mirror up to society, reflecting the full range of behavior patterns, from small dramas to major economic and social crises. Italy has 190 penal institutions, 55 of them for women only. I moved between ten of these prisons over four years, and realized how the Italian prison system struggles with overcrowding, the dearth of activities for detainees, and inadequate facilities. While there have been gradual improvements in some over recent years, the conditions still mean extreme and critical isolation. In these “non-places,” people deprived of personal freedom attempt to develop their own routines, to express affection, and find an alternative for the future, a future that often does not exist. The government has no measures to support the rehabilitation of men and women released after years of detention, and many return to prison after only a short time on the outside.
I was granted access to maximum-security prisons where inmates linked to the Camorra and other mafia groups are locked up, prisons such as Poggioreale in Naples and Ucciardone in Palermo. I experienced the reality of institutions where prisoners have a certain degree of freedom and are allowed to work outside, for example at Isili in Sardinia. I experienced life on the inside of women’s prisons, in the ancient monastery of Venice, in San Vittore, Milan, and the women’s section of Rebibbia in Rome. I saw small jails and vast penal institutions. I discovered newly built facilities, such as Capanne prison in Perugia, and small centers such as Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi.
Above all, however, I had the opportunity of being in close contact with the detainees. I had lunch in their cells, heard their stories, and shared in their tears and laughter, experiencing what seemed like ordinary moments that were just part of everyday life. These images are also the product of such moments spent together. More than ever, I believe that jails should not only punish, but must also lead to new opportunities.
Over these four years, I was able to understand Italian prisons from the inside, and what I discovered was immense loneliness. The detainees are in constant contact with others, yet are always alone, at every moment of the day. Prisoners is a project that searches for the souls of these humans who have lost their freedom. It is an anthropological, sociological and photographic analysis of human beings, and part of a broader investigation into the world of persons invisible, those who are forgotten, marginalized, cast aside.
I have always believed that to capture reality in all its depth, it is crucial to know how to wait, to be able to balance what we feel and what we see. It takes time to tell a story.