Rome’s green-fingered inmates clean up the city’s parks and gardens

It's 7:30 am at Rome's Rebibbia prison as inmates pile into a minibus headed for a day of freedom -- and a taste of life after incarceration.

Rome's green-fingered inmates clean up the city's parks and gardens
Prisoner-gardeners from Rome's Rebibbia jail. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Some of the many green spaces in the Italian capital are now in the hands of prisoners under a new scheme that drafts them in to maintain or spruce up gardens and parks.

The initiative, a joint project of the city and justice ministry, aims to smooth prisoners' reintegration into society once they have served their terms.

“Who knows, maybe one day one of us will do this as a job, to stay on the outside rather than ending up back in prison,” says Umberto, one of the younger members of the group.

“At first, people were keen because it was an outing, but now it's good because we come home feeling exhausted but invigorated,” adds the 30-something inmate as he prunes a hedge at the Elsa Morante cultural centre in the south of the city.

No mafiosi

Supervising the prisoner-gardeners, Claudio Iacobelli jokes: “If they escape, I won't chase them.”

But, he says: “Not only does this project make them feel useful, but for them, every minute spent outside is one minute less spent in prison.”

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Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

About 100 inmates at Rebibbia prison will take part in the project overall, getting down to work after receiving training at a gardening school in Rome. From 9 am to 3 pm on weekdays they apply their newfound skills under the guidance of the city's official gardeners.

The prisoners must first volunteer and then be selected for the work — no former mafiosi or lifers are eligible.

“We work together, we get organized, we talk… on our way back in the minibus in the evening we look at each other and we are satisfied,” Umberto says.

“We recognize that we have done a good day's work, and the next day we pick up where we left off.”

'I make a pact with them'

The prisoners are allowed to roam the open spaces freely and handle all kinds of sharp implements, shears and trimmers under the supervision of the guards.

“It's a matter of trust. I make a pact with them,” Iacobelli says. “They know that at the slightest deviation, the project will be aborted” — and they will return to the tedium of life behind bars, where they cost the state an average of 180 euros ($211) a day regardless.

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Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

It is not just the inmates who benefit from the work. The Eternal City has barely 100 gardeners tending its 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of green areas, and their numbers have steadily dwindled because of budget cuts and corruption — the city counted 1,500 gardeners back in 2000.

“The project is very positive. The prisoners are happy and the inhabitants are even happier they are there,” says Pinuccia Montanari, deputy to the mayor in charge of the environment who has come to visit the workers.

“It is also very important for our city because the city hall has very few resources,” she adds.

Potholes next?

The initiative is a pilot project set to last six months, with similar ones planned for Milan, Palermo and Naples. In Rome, Iacobelli mused about extending the project beyond the city's gardens.

“Why not then take a look at the roads?” he asks. “That would really come in handy in Rome, we're world famous for them,” he adds, referring to the capital's notorious potholes.

Pierfranceso Liberti, a 29-year old inmate, says the gardening project makes him feel like an individual again.

“Very often we are all considered the same. In reality this is not the case,” he says, wiping sweat off his brow.

By Arman Soldin

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