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Holiday makers arriving on the white sands of Pianosa island off western Italy are welcomed by hosts unlike any others, five prisoners still serving time who help manage a local hotel.
At first sight, there is little to set apart the island, one of seven in the Tuscan Archipelago, with its quaint port, schools of fish and waters as turquoise as those in the Indian Ocean around the Maldives.
The concrete wall of a high security prison attests to its past as a penal colony, where mafia bosses considered particularly dangerous were once sent before the prison closed in 1998.
But a handful of convicted criminals are back on Pianosa, earning their keep and rustling up food for tourists thanks to a program started in 2000 by a local cooperative called San Giacomo in conjunction with the prison on nearby Elba island.
“It's a really positive initiative. It allows these people to gradually re-integrate into society with a lot less trauma then if they were to leave prison from one day to the next,” the cooperative's deputy head Brunello De Batte told AFP.
The inmates, each serving a long sentence for undisclosed crimes, have been given contracts to work as barmen, cooks, cleaners, waiters, even gift shop salesmen in the small, 12-room hotel with a bar and restaurant run by the cooperative.
Still considered prisoners, they cannot leave the island and are confined at night to special rooms.
Yet “over the years, I've seen these prisoners mature, take on responsibilities. They are completely changed compared to when they arrived. They have developed a sense of belonging to a group,” he said.
Filippo, a 32-year-old Sicilian with piercing blue eyes now in his second year working on Pianosa, says the experience has given him a new sense of self-worth and something to work towards.
“Life has given me a second chance. I feel accepted by society once more,” he said, though he added that it is not always easy to win people's trust.
“People are prejudiced and that's normal, but I try right away to switch their opinion,” he said as he changed the sheets in the hotel bedrooms.
Pianosa today is a wildlife sanctuary but also draws visitors who remember it as the fictional setting for the World War II squadron trying to keep sane in Joseph Heller's satirical novel “Catch 22”.
Only prisoners who have already served at least two-thirds of their sentence and shown exemplary behaviour can apply to take part in the programme on the island.
“I want to be able to show customers that I am normal. Just because you're a prisoner doesn't mean you have four arms. We are human, and everyone makes mistakes,” he said.
At the port, holiday makers tuck into fresh fish caught in the island's pristine waters and prepared by the convicts .
“I think it's a great initiative. I had a fantastic pasta with red mullet last night,” said a 30-something tourist named Benedetto, as he strolled with his baby son along the deserted dock.
Organisers consider the programme a success, notably in offering job training to inmates. There are no official statistics, but they said prisoners have found work upon release, including one now successfully employed as a mason.
The organisers, however, are struggling to keep all going. The tax allowances afforded to cooperatives like San Giacomo have been suspended as Italy fights to battle off the financial crisis.
There has also been a drop in the number of tourists coming to the island, as recession-hit holiday makers tighten their belts and stay at home. This forced the program last year to reduce the number of prisoners taking part from eight to five.
Filippo says he does not want to think about it going under and laughs off the prospect. “There is a risk that it will all go down the drain but if that happens I'll go rest a bit within the four walls of the prison,” he said.
But De Batte refuses to give up, saying the San Giacomo group will not only carry on supporting the hotel and restaurant project but is hoping to open a full-fledged professional training centre for prisoners on Pianosa. - AFP