Würzburg 2023: Culture in prison

Stefania Tallei

Stefania Tallei
Stefania Tallei

When I entered prison 25 years ago, although I had known and studied the suburbs, I encountered an even more peripheral and distant world, completely unknown to me. An unimaginable abyss of pain opened up before my eyes.

First of all, poverty. Sometimes prisoners have no family to ask for the bare minimum for survival, such as soap or clothing. And then, loneliness, which is the enemy par excellence of women and men prisoners. This is why the visits of the volunteers are so important. The desire to talk to someone is enormous, and doing so with someone from outside represents a small space of freedom and hope.

But apart from the visit much of the time remains empty. Prisoners spend a lot of time lying on their beds in the dark sleeping.

At the beginning of the book of Isaiah 1:17 it is written 'Learn to do good, seek justice, succour the oppressed, do justice to the orphan, defend the cause of the widow'.

Pope Francis has repeatedly said: 'There is no valid punishment without hope! The justice of the Lord is merciful!'. Instead, the culture of discarding leads our societies and ourselves to abandon the weakest and most embarrassing, the most difficult children.

Those with the volunteers are friendships in which they do not feel judged, nor forgotten. Every prisoner dreams 1000 times of the day when he will be free: he imagines it, he prepares for it, but he knows that it will not be easy outside. The thought of the evil committed, the time wasted, the affections lost is like a boulder.

What to do to free people so tried and far away? Over the years, the realisation has grown in me that prison as it is does not help change the lives of prisoners.

I was ashamed of this thought when I read that Cardinal Martini described as one of the most painful experiences for him the discovery that many people do not believe in the possibility of a change of life for those who have committed serious offences, in a true change of man, in a true conversion, in the action of the spirit that can change hearts and situations.

The theme of my talk is culture, I would say culture that helps change, but which culture? I have identified a few:

  • Elementary, knowing how to read and write
  • Professional or higher school culture, up to university culture, in Italy we have the experience of many universities entering prisons and many inmates graduate despite starting from a very low level of education (law and psychology)
  • Culture of the world, reading the newspaper, reading books, novels or non-fiction and other, interesting is the Roman experience of the institutional libraries that have entered the prison, the loan of books is about 1000 books per month for the 3500 prisoners in Rome.
  • The culture of art, poetry (words), beauty, music ...
  • Culture of solidarity, which we could call culture of peace or love

Don Lorenzo Milani, an Italian priest whose memory is linked to his teaching experience with poor children in the poor and isolated school in Barbiana, spent his short life (he died in 1967 at only 44 years old) for these children. Don Milani said: 'The school cannot lose difficult boys otherwise it is no longer a school, it is a hospital that cures the healthy and rejects the sick'. Many inmates are indeed lost difficult boys. Boys, men and women who lack the tools to understand life, good and evil, and to make choices.

Our prisoner friends often lack one, two or neither of these cultures. Sometimes someone has studied until they graduate but lacks the culture of the world - or they lack the basics of an elementary education. It is clear that prison time can be an opportunity - a university professor told me 'I have seen that by studying they change' - it made me think.

Without culture one remains the same, one continues to think as one did in ones home environment and previous cultural contexts, and often to commit crimes again.

Today, perhaps doing justice to the orphan and championing the cause of the widow also means this.

Supporting spiritual change, even for many ordinary prisoners who live in a lack of references and ignorance, cannot fail to take into account the difficulty of expressing themselves well, so much so that even confession can be difficult. Don Milani wrote 'with school I will not be able to make them Christians, but I will be able to make them men. To men, I can explain doctrine, but I do not have the key to conversion because this is God's secret.

A prisoner wrote to me: 'Sometimes a few lines of a good book or a prayer in the dark even at night fill seemingly empty days with meaning.'

I spoke of a culture of peace or love: some of the workshops we run on social or cultural or historical topics, such as the Shoah, war, Africa, the death penalty, migration, with the help of experts and witnesses, are useful. Other workshops are an aid to parenting, especially for Roma girls.

We have realised that these workshops make us 'ecumenical', not in the sense of dialogue between Christians or interreligious dialogue, but of making the reality of the wider world known; this lowers conflict between prisoners and helps coexistence and peace within the prison.

In fact, there are many foreign inmates in our European prisons. We are faced with many who come from different cultures and religions, sometimes they are the most bewildered. In this Europe of ours that has taken in so many refugees, but has rejected so many, I am only thinking of the thousands of people who have died at sea or on voyages of hope, so many refugees have ended up in our prisons. There are so many prisoners' backgrounds and their cultural, religious, human and generational differences. How to talk to young people? How to be 'brothers and sisters' and break down walls, differences and bars?

How to defend them? How to do justice to those who are in prison because they are undocumented?

In this world of ours that, as Olivier Roy says, is experiencing a worldwide crisis of cultures, we too must constantly update ourselves and understand who we have in front of us, because in prison there is the whole world, there is the drama of war, of Africa, of environmental migrants.

We face so many problems and sometimes that of culture does not seem to be a priority.

There are so many prisoners and sometimes we respond to the genuine need for a future and rehabilitation like the disciples in front of the hungry crowd: 'we only have two loaves and a few small fish'. We risk complaining because there are too many crowds and we have no resources. But Jesus responds to them and to us: 'feed yourselves'. They gave food and plenty of it.

We are called to radiate sympathy, writes Andrea Riccardi in the afterword to the book 'the voice of God behind bars' - by Don Raffaele Grimaldi inspector of Italian prison chaplains.

There is a certainty that comes from the Lord: good is always possible. It is the certainty that there is goodness in every man that gives the strength to believe, whatever the conditions, whatever the difficulties, that it is possible to defeat evil. And to believe and to the action of the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, what have I done to deserve a life of ease and affection? I feel a strong commitment to visit prisoners and set them free - to help them rebuild their lives.

Let us ask the Lord of mercy to help us live his justice, so much greater and different from our own.