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2021-01-18 Zenia Simonella

Being Welcomed InJail: Stories of Inclusion

Silvia Polleri, entrepreneur and founder of the Catering ABC - La Sapienza in Tavola cooperative and the InGalera restaurant, speaks of her experience in the Bollate jail and the importance of education and training for reintegration of prisoners into society.  

Let us start with your history. You are an entrepreneur, with a background in early childhood education. How did you come to work in and for the Bollate jail?

For over two decades, I worked as an educator in a nursery school in the hinterland of Milan, an area with large pockets of decay. In that period, together with my husband who is a doctor, I performed community service in Uganda, working in child care. After twenty-two years of service, I made a change due to family needs, and decided to transform the hobby of my life into a profession: cooking, a passion I have cultivated since I was twelve years old.

Initially, I opened a small catering business with which I pampered the Milan bourgeoisie. Then I closed it due to a medical problem I had at the time. Two years later, in September 2004, I was contacted by Lucia Castellano, the first female director of the Bollate jail. She had tasted my catering dishes by chance, at the home of a friend of hers who was a notary. She had decided, on request from some prisoners, to open up a catering operation within the penitentiary, but they needed the assistance of someone from the outside. She wanted to give the prisoners a real job. We met. I have always worked on social issues, but never prisons: I was interested in the request, but I said: "If I accept, I want this to be a true profession for the prisoners." At that time they were making interwoven baskets, to keep them busy. I told her that if within a year we didn't succeed in breaking into the market, we would close. Instead, the result was a boom in business.

I began to get to know the prisoners. At the beginning there were five prisoners and five outsiders. In that first phase, the five prisoners were those who had asked the director to start the catering business. They had taken cooking classes before being arrested, and thus were very motivated. They were people who had not benefitted from the alternative detention measures established by the Gozzini Law of 1986[1]. Some had been there for more than ten years. None of them even knew of the existence of mozzarella cherries. Their recipes needed to be modernized. After one year, Catering ABC - La Sapienza in Tavola exploded and we were swamped by requests.

At the beginning, I realized that food service, due to the way it is carried out, is one of those professions that forces you to strictly follow the rules. Roles in the kitchen are similar to those of brigades in the navy. For a prisoner who didn't respect the rules of society, it is an opportunity, because he has to commit to following them closely, but while performing a profession full of creativity and pleasure. And then there is the element of welcoming the guest. Welcoming the guest brings into play very high-level values: manners, respect, courtesy.

At that point I literally did everything possible to collaborate with the hotel-management school of the Quarto Oggiaro neighborhood of Milan, in order to educate the prisoners. At the beginning, the Ministry told us that it wasn't considered useful. I thought: "If I'm able to collect the funds, we can do the first year in a private capacity." Fortunately, I found generosity in Milan. In the end, the Ministry had to acknowledge the value of the project, and the journey began. We have had two graduation cycles, which is extraordinary.


In her TED talk "Voices From Jail: The Humanity You Won’t Expect", the director of the Bollate jail Cosima Buccoliero speaks of the relationship between the city and the jail, describing these two elements as separate entities. Jails are often geographically isolated from the urban context, and citizens are not familiar with the lives of the people that revolve around it. How do you see this relationship?

In my journey I have realized this: the prisoners saw the outside world with a sense of wonder, aware of the stigma that society places on them, regardless of whether they have been inside for one year, or twenty. Society is scared. This is why it wants to remove prisons. It doesn't want to recognize them as part of society itself. It knows nothing about them. It thinks that prisoners are an evil to be eliminated.

Restaurant work has great value, because it involves the various senses that are a source of knowledge. So we decided that we would involve outside society: "I'm not asking you to accept me, the prisoner. I say: you come in here, look, and reflect. We will show you what we're capable of." In 2015 we opened InGalera, the first and only restaurant in Italy created inside a jail that is open to the public. We chose to make it an elegant restaurant. When The New York Times came, I realized that the effect would be sensational. I fought for the name InJail (InGalera); it pays to tell the truth, even if it's violent.


Once in jail, the prisoner "suspends their life." What happens when they leave prison, and what stigma do they have to face?

When a prisoner is arrested, their life is frozen, they are detached from the world. If they had a profession on the outside, their resume now has a hole, and isn't updated. If they don't have a culture of work, it's even worse. The function of prison is to offer opportunities for work and training. This is why I wanted to favor the entry into a hotel-management school. If the prisoner does nothing during the years in prison, it will be very difficult to return to society and work afterwards.

In our experience, we had 15 prisoners hired before the outbreak of the pandemic, with all social insurance contributions paid. When their sentence is up, I don't fire them, especially if they live close by. Now we can't work, but as soon as we can open up again, they will be hired back.


Let us talk about the Bollate jail. How would you describe it? Who are the people who live there? What crimes have the prisoners there committed?

There are prisoners who have committed all types of crimes, many with life sentences, with the exception of those convicted of mafia crimes.

Since 2009 there has been a section for sex offenders, those who have committed sexual crimes (in this department psychotherapy is provided, which over the years has demonstrated the reduction of recidivism for this type of crime as well).

I have worked with all types of prisoners in Bollate (those that have been allowed to do so by the observation team), even many people who have committed murder. Various observers have come from the United States to study our model. Some have said: "You trust them? With knives in the kitchen!" Prisons in the United States are punitive and reactionary.


According to a study carried out by two researchers from the University of Essex, the more involved prisoners are in rehabilitation programs, the less likely it is that they will commit repeat crimes. In what activities and projects are the prisoners involved, and what results have been reached?

Rehabilitation programs offer opportunities, although they require the prisoner's desire to make use of them. There are many people who still call me today. They say: "You changed my life." The Bollate jail is a penal institution that attempts to apply Art. 27 of the Constitution, which states that punishment must be aimed at the rehabilitation of the prisoner.

The problem of prisons in Italy is overcrowding. What does overcrowding mean? It not only means that there is not enough physical space for everyone, but also a lack of symbolic space; there is no room for the victim, for personal reflection. Overcrowding means that the prisoner concentrates on the injustice he is suffering at that time, and cannot begin that process of self-consciousness necessary to rethink what he did in the past (this is defined as a "review of one's crime").  


With the Smuraglia Law of 2000, any company that hires a prisoner can make use of certain tax breaks. How are companies behaving on this front?

This law is often unknown. Even some tax accountants are not aware of it. In the past we have even organized some meetings to explain it. And then there is the fear that the inclusion of prisoners will lead to greater controls. Ultimately, companies are afraid.


What advice would you give to companies that are reluctant to hire a former prisoner?

We have begun efforts to raise awareness in high schools: students take a guided tour in the jail accompanied by an educator and a selected prisoner, and then they go to the restaurant. It is a contamination between the inside and the outside. At the restaurant we also have thematic dinners entitled "I'll tell you about jail": police, educators, and prisoners speak of their experiences. We also do this with companies active in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). With interested companies we organize a day-long program in which they access the confinement area and have them interact with the various companies inside the jail for which the prisoners work. This way they learn about life in jail, with explanations from the prisoners themselves.

Society needs to know what jail produces: jail is part of society. In addition to businesses and cooperatives born on the inside (like ours), before the pandemic the Bollate jail had prisoners who were serving their sentence and approved to work inside, and two hundred and fifty working at companies outside the jail. The goal is always the same: give them more opportunities that favor their reintegration in anticipation of completing their sentence, an important service for these people and for society itself, because the reduction of recidivism is a great achievement for everyone.


[1] Attempting to enhance the re-educational aspect of imprisonment with respect to punishment, Law No. 663 of October 10, 1986 introduced a series of alternative measures to prison, including bonus permits such as assignment to social services and house arrest.