FEATURE - Inmates become amateur TV journalists in Italy jail

  • World
  • Friday, 10 Feb 2006

By Silvia Aloisi

SALUZZO, Italy (Reuters) - Down a bare corridor behind a series of heavy steel doors, the "newsroom" is a small affair: a computer, a hand-held video camera, a television and a DVD player. 

There are no phones, no Internet connection and virtually no contact with the outside world beyond a few newspapers, some days old. 

But this is no ordinary news centre -- it is in a jail in northern Italy and its 11 amateur reporters are all inmates. 

Since January, they have been broadcasting a daily programme on the prison's closed-circuit television. They offer a press digest of national and foreign news, sport updates, information about life in jail, new laws and changes to the judicial system. 

Whenever possible, two Albanians and two Moroccans also read the news in their own languages -- more than 50 percent of the jail's 355 inmates are foreigners, mainly illegal immigrants. 

"It was their own initiative, I just helped them a bit," said Antonio Santillo, a guard at La Felicina jail in the Piedmont town of Saluzzo. 

"In the beginning I was a bit sceptical. But then I saw how dedicated they were to the project," said Santillo, who has worked as a TV operator. 

The 11 inmates give up their daily walk in the prison's courtyard to work on the news programme. They bought the lights and some of the equipment with their own money, and the rest was acquired thanks to a 1,500-euro ($1,815) donation from the local town hall. 

The inmates get their information from newspapers bought by the prison staff. A detainee who used to work as a tailor stitched together the curtains that darken the room when the programme is being recorded. 

"Before people here were just watching silly films or reality shows. Very few read the papers. This programme is meant to help communication among detainees and break the isolation we are living in," said Pancrazio Chiruzzi, a 54-year-old who has spent 30 years in jail for a series of bank robberies. 

"But we are also doing it for ourselves, to show we can do more than just committing crimes," he said. "Something like this helps you stay alive. In a cell, you're lifeless, it's like being in a vegetative state." 


Chiruzzi's main partner in the venture is 31-year-old Stefano Diamante, who made headlines himself when he killed his mother in 1999 with a bread knife and a hammer. He did not want her to find out that he had lied about his university degree. 

With a 30-year sentence to serve, he has big plans for a full-blown prison TV service. 

"We are starting with news, but we'd like to build a proper TV channel, with cultural programmes and documentaries," he said. "The problem is, we need more equipment, another video camera, new tapes and even printer cartridges." 

A local DVD shop has already donated a selection of films and the detainees are hoping to get a free subscription to an Italian satellite channel and even to news wires. 

Their programme is broadcast every afternoon. The inmates have two hours in the morning and three in the afternoon to prepare the show and like people in newsrooms anywhere, they say they are always struggling to meet their deadlines. 

After reading the newspapers and discussing the main stories, one inmate films the others reading the press digest. They also do occasional interviews with prison social workers. When the tape is edited, they give it to a prison guard to broadcast it on the closed-circuit network. 


The Felicina prison -- a nondescript concrete building nestled at the foot of a mountain -- is no paradise but detainees say that by Italy's standards it is relatively clean and spacious. 

The country's criminal justice system has a poor reputation. In a 2005 report, Amnesty International said chronic overcrowding and understaffing persisted in prisons, along with high rates of suicide. It also said there were many reports of poor sanitary conditions and inadequate medical assistance. 

In Felicina, there are no more than two people per cell. Inmates can attend theatre and cooking classes, learn how to make mosaics or bind books. 

Much of the credit, the detainees say, goes to Marta Costantino, who at 35 is thought to be the Italy's youngest prison director. 

"There are guards here who think we shouldn't be allowed to do all this, but she is open-minded. She talks with the detainees once a week, she listens to us," said Chiruzzi. 

Costantino said that what she liked most about the news project was that the prisoners came up with it themselves. 

"Jail is a place where people are told when they can wash, eat and sleep. So to see them put forward a proposal, take responsibility for it and make it happen is a big result." 

"It can also help people broaden their perspective and find a job when they get out," she added. 

Arben Shala, an Albanian who has spent 12 of his 16 years in Italy in jail and who is likely be expelled back home as soon as he gets out, said working on the programme gave him hope. 

"When I was out in the street, I didn't learn to do anything. Now I am here training as a journalist and maybe I won't end up in the street again," he said. 

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