Gleams of Light: Europe behind bars

, by Monica Falezza

Gleams of Light: Europe behind bars

The ideals of peace and equal human rights cross the raw reality of detention: the hopeful story of a young Albanian detainee imprisoned in Padova, in “Due Palazzi”. Behind bars, Europe becomes a dream of value preserved expectancy and at the same time ransom feeling for the future of people whose rights are violated

It is a wonderful, sunny October day and I sit daydreaming in the bus with no thoughts, losing myself while looking through the window at the fields just outside the town. When I get off, the bitter cold of the upcoming autumn attacks me. After a short walk I am in front of the “Due Palazzi” prison in Padova. This was an unexpected exploration on the occasion of a seminar for Veneto-journalists.

Here I meet Elton, a 33-years old detainee and master student in Political Sciences. He is one among the 36,92% of foreign convicts who are detained in Italian prisons (DAP, data at 30.09.09), a percentage that in Veneto rises up to the 58,71 of the presences. He introduces himself in front of the group of journalists, and I immediately become curious about his story. “As I came to Italy, it was a kind of myth for me, that was fueled especially by the television. When I was in Albania I used to go to bed while listening to Battisti and Celentano, and during my schooling I was taught about Dante and Manzoni. Italy was a dream of a ‘glittering life’ that ‘may dazzle’...”.

While listening to him I think that Elton’s story is similar to that of thousand of migrants travelling each year towards the Italian coast and the other Mediterranean countries. In spite of the deficiencies we find, the European countries are a dream for those who live outside. At first a dream of peace and civilization that has lasted since the end of the second world war. It is a dream of a peace among populations and regions that had been fighting against each other for centuries and that finally decided to bury the hatchet and work together for a better future.

But I keep on listening to him.“ It is not easy to explain why I chose to study Political Science here in prison. My trial experience, the psychological and physical violence I suffered, the apathy of the lawyers who defended me, made me realize that it is not just an imperfect law system, but sometimes also cruel and against basic human rights. Furthermore it was a decision to take revenge against what is around me: in Italy I live in a low strata of society first as a detainee and second as a non EU citizen. Studying and writing for the jail magazine are two kinds of refusal of my condition. When you live as a society outsider, if you want to keep yourself alive, you redeem yourself only with dignity from prejudice and intolerance”.

A melancholic veil emerges from his self reliance. Unfortunately it is not just Elton’s story. In many European countries ill-treatment and torture still occur today in imprisonment. Only according to the report ‘Dying of prison’ published the Center of Studies ‘Ristretti orizzonti’, about 50 deaths for ‘uncertain causes’ occur every year in Italian prisons. Moreover since last summer with the ‘Sulejmanoviç sentence’ the problem of the prison overcrowding has come to the fore in Italy: the European Court of Human Rights accused Italy for its prison standards in which the Bosnian prisoner, after whom the case is named, was detained, and the government was obliged to pay him 1000 Euro as a compensation. Europe gave an answer to a case for which Italy could nothing.

While the time passes I am getting more and more involved in his story. “My masters studies deal with the activity of International Institutions that aim at monitoring the respect of human rights. My master’s thesis focuses on the European Committee for Prevention for Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. There is a sane madness in me that I am constantly told that I will not be allowed to stay in Italy after my release and, despite this, I still have interest in Italian policy and culture. All I want now is to gain knowledge to offer my experience in the service of others after my release. I think a kind of moral duty demands me now to maintain an interest in and keep writing about this worried society that deals with issues of prison violence without criticism and that just accepts the simple and brutal solutions that diminish the humanity of people living there. Many people say this European political situation of no tolerance and ‘certainty of punishment’ will remain a topic in the programs of the European bipolar political system for a long time. It is devastating that the voices of protest against the social and economic disaster that mass imprisonment produces cannot be heard amongst a throng of media scare campaigns. This non-informing information, simply depicts an artificial world of sophisticated and glamorous life as a distraction from the problems of suffering people. I do not like much of what I watch on TV about today’s Italy, but I am sure that things can change for the better. And that is because Europe will grant perpetual peace among its boundaries and Italy will go forth on the path of solidarity and tolerance”. His speech is interrupted with the noise of police officers beating the jail bars to control their status. This daily act, repeated twice every a day, remind us where we are, despite our thoughts that are flying high above us and delineate an horizon of peace and ideals.

It is about lunch time and through the jail bars I see the light blue sky. The wonderful weather and the expectancy of European ideals from a non EU citizen from the prison fill me with positive emotions. It is possible for oneself to feel “European” also from the prison, at first in respect of the solidarity and universal human rights EU grants. I think this is the European Conscience the founding fathers of EU wanted to create. But it is not a dream, it is the heritage we received from the past and our responsibility that we have to preserve and reinforce for the future.

Image: Jail in Procida; source:

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