VELLETRI, ITALY – After months of scorching hot summer temperatures, winemakers across Italy are looking forward to their best vintage in decades—and so are the inmates of an Italian prison.
From a distance, Velletri jail, just south of Rome, looks much like any other prison. Stark, whitewashed blocks and barred windows house some 350 detainees. But within its towering concrete walls, under the gaze of armed guards, prisoners work among rows of vines and ordered beds of fruit and vegetables. Agricultural cooperatives are not unheard of in Italian jails but Velletri is the first to produce and market its own wines. Italy's criminal justice system has a poor reputation with prisons overcrowded, understaffed, and under funded. But while legislation may be slow to change that, Velletri has a project that aims to reform and reintegrate offenders into society.
"Like other kids, when I was small we used to try to make wine, squashing grapes in a bucket. But we didn't really know anything," said Carlo Matrigiani, imprisoned two years ago for drug offenses and now working 40 hours a week for the vineyard. Rome-born Matrigiani is one of the 12 inmates paid about 600 Euro a month to work on the farm, producing not only wine, but also olive oil, honey and jam. "The prisoners are paid like state employees in prison," said Roberto Craia, an agronomist who instigated the project five years ago. " The aim is to give them a second chance."
the vineyard is the main focus of a busy farm. After a trial run last year,
it is expected to produce some 45,000 bottles of wine this season. Wines will
be available at the local outlets and the prison, retailing for up to 15 Euro
a bottle. "People think the wine will be no good because it is made in
a prison. That's why we have to make it to the very highest standards,"
said expert Marcello Bizzoni, who – after completing a 20-month sentence
– now returns to the Velletri prison each day to work. But although these
vintners take their craft seriously enough, that they are capable of some levity
is apparent in the names they chose for their first vintages, Fuggiasco
(Escapee) and Sette Mandate (Seven Turns of the Lock).
Alongside a Chardonnay, a novello red wine bubbles gently in its vat. Light and fruity, novello wines must be bottled within a year of the harvest, although in practice it takes around 60 days. "Don't waste it as it is now, taste its potential. Think of it as a child learning to walk," said Craia, sampling the wine, still in its potent fruit juice stage. Although small, the Velletri vineyard is fully equipped with glimmering steel temperature- and atmosphere-controlled vats, laboratory equipped and French oak barrels. Craia said working with the latest technology gave inmates a better chance of getting a job on the outside.
Space is limited. Greenhouses and greenery
fill every available spot within the imposing walls and heavy iron gates of
the low-security jail. Vines cling to prison block walls. Olive trees line the
rusting fence of a gravel football pitch. But this isn't a bad thing,
said Craia. "Behind each cell window are two men sharing a 10 feet by
10 feet cell; this gives them a chance to get away from all that. When I arrived
there was barely a blade of grass here, and some prisoners said they hadn't
seen a flower for years." Bizzoni was jailed for fraud and now helps market
the new wines. "Having lived behind bars here I know what it's like.
You go to prison and you lose all sense of culture," he said. The farm
gives prisoners the chance to learn a skill and boost their self-esteem, which
is at zero when they arrive. Craia said, "Many prisoners are just a bomb
ready to go off. Making them work, challenging and stimulating them is essential.
The laws are there for these kinds of projects, the problem is there is neither
the money nor the staff to see them through."