ilan’s San Vittore prison, inaugurated in 1879, during the reign of King Umberto I, has been plagued with overcrowding since the 1970s. The percentage of foreigners in Italian prisons is from 37 percent to more than 60 percent, depending on whom you ask. Everyone agrees, however, that the number grows each year. Inmates come from more than 150 nations, most frequently Morocco, Romania and Albania
Recently, with an international choir, I participated in a prayer service held in the women’s section of San Vittore. The prisoners had gone to the chapel before our arrival, leaving open the metal doors to their now-deserted rooms. Most rooms contained four beds and a small table, allowing floor space for four women to stand in a row but not to walk about. (In the men’s section rooms hold up to six beds.) Recently, the corridor and rooms had been painted a soft yellow. Photographs, ribbons and colored papers decorated the wall space near each bed.
We entered the chapel in a dense fog of incense. About 50 inmates, half the total, occupied wooden pews on the right side of the chapel. We sat on the left. The Catholic chaplain welcomed us. He explained to the prisoners the absence of women who’d been transferred to another prison early that morning. He said, “Even here, siete precari.” He told the prisoners they might choose to look at our visit cynically but hoped instead that they would receive us in friendship.
They ignored us. They didn’t even look our way when we sang. No one clapped. Perhaps some came to chapel just to sit in this large, light-filled room. Potted plants adorned the altar. A painting portrayed women grieving for the crucified savior.
Some prisoners were young girls, a few were elderly, most seemed in their 30s or 40s. Most were immigrant. All were poor. That’s what struck you; poor immigrant women like those you see everyday on the streets of Milan, carrying grocery bags and plastic purses, pulling young children. They were short, overweight, and had home-dyed hair, sometimes yellow or magenta, showing inches of dark roots. They wore ill fitting clothes and shoes several seasons out of style.
Some choristers had worried about meeting women guilty of the most terrible crimes. One of the priests had said, “You’ll see they’re human beings the same as we are.” He said Italian prisons are garbage dumps for the poor. Only rich people can afford lawyers able to get house arrest or, for technicalities, have charges dropped. La legge non è uguale per tutti.
During the service, a Hungarian Orthodox priest chanted in a cracked, wobbling voice, moving some inmates to cross themselves and bow their heads. They sat up and listened when a Methodist minister, a young woman, said, “Don’t let anyone tell you not to hold your heads high. You’re children of God.”
Some inmates prayed in their own languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Romanian and a language introduced as “Muslim.” Afterwards, they worked a large jig-saw puzzle on the floor. Some knelt, others clustered round, trying to see, and offered suggestions, as the hand of God in the puzzle slowly emerged. We watched from a distance. Later a priest explained that the prison offers no activities except these few run by volunteers. Inmates spend their days on their beds, waiting for time to pass.
We heard two testimonials, both warmly applauded. A 40-year-old Italian mother of a four-year-old son said she first felt God’s kindness in this chapel. Then a male prisoner, one of 1,300 in San Vittore, urged continued faith. He was thin, long necked and preached like a great orator. Two inmate girls put their heads together, giggling.
It was time to exchange the sign of peace. So far there’d been no contact between choir members and prisoners. Even now, singers shook singers’ hands and prisoners shook prisoners’ hands. This changed when the first singer reached across the aisle. When I took the hand of the prisoner across from me, her huge smile showed surprise and gratitude. Tears came. It was the same with the next woman and the next. All across the room, it was the same. The chaplain let it continue until every choir member had shaken the hand of every prisoner. Some hugged each other. Many were crying.
So much warmth and goodwill given for just a handshake, from imprisoned women who had nothing.
After the service, the Methodist minister passed a basket of plastic bead necklaces. There were some extras and she said the women could have them for daughters or friends who hadn’t come to the service. They came forward, some weeping, and took the rest.