The assignment was not simple: write about your life through the eyes of someone observing your world and the mindset which prevailed in that world in your past. Tell your story in a way that helps the reader understand the meaning of your actions, but also in a way that highlights and clarifies the ‘adaptation strategies’ you practised. Find a way of extracting from the ‘well’ of your own soul those characteristics that are useful for moving forward or, at least living better in the ‘here and now’.
This was the challenge – an introspective journey – made to two inmates in a prison in Catanzaro, in the southern Italian region of Calabria. Two men sentenced to life imprisonment and now completing their degrees in sociology with autobiographical theses, focussing on the psychological and creative resources they used for survival before prison and during their time behind bars.
What is autoethnography?
“The approach is called autoethnography “, explains Charlie Barnao, professor of the Sociology of Survival at the Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro and the supervisor of the two students in their studies.
“In standard ethnography”, says Barnao, “the researcher approaches the topic – in this case other cultures – to understand the subject by identifying with it. But with auto-ethnography the researcher is himself or herself a product of the culture he/she wants to study.
“Autoethnography is a form of self-narration that places the self within a social context; the auto-ethnographer is both the author and the subject of the story, the one who tells and the one who lives the experience, the observer and the observed.” That was how the professor described the process in an article for the Italian Association of Sociology Journal. (issue 10, October 2017).
In the same magazine, the sociologist defines the process “a long, open, flexible, often very tiring process of understanding reality.” He notes that so-called “epiphanies” (moments of unexpected revelation) can happen along the way “which radically modify and shape the meanings that people attribute to themselves and their lives.”
Making use of qualities from life on the outside
In the case of the two student prisoners and their theses, what emerge are the extraordinary qualities of adaptation in extreme situations shown by the individuals – skills that are often found in the lives of people who tend to be considered chaotic and feckless (for example, those involved in prostitution, the homeless and so on).
In both cases the technique of autoethnography helped the authors not to completely dismiss the past and to avoid creating a split between life before prison and life in prison. This allowed them to reconsider and question certain personality traits and strengths which were evident in their lives of crime.
The truth is that some of the same characteristics that allow people to excel in criminal groups before detention are the very ones that now allow them to survive in a different context, with different purposes. Recovery is very possible – says Barnao – if the research is free from moral judgment: “I ask my undergraduates to be as non-judgmental as possible so they can express themselves at their best; that means recognising significant criminal traits that are still present in their lives.”
Salvatore Curatolo and the role of study
One of the two undergraduates is called Salvatore Curatolo, and is aged 65. He has been in prison for almost 30 years, sentenced to life imprisonment for mafia crimes, which means his only chance of parole is to collaborate with the prosecutors. Curatolo who was due to graduate this summer speaks of his thesis as “a difficult and painful path”.
The idea of becoming an ethnographer of himself came about, “when Professor Barnao read some files in which I explained that I had started reading and studying out of love for my daughters, and on the advice of my wife, to maintain a relationship with them,” (daughters who, in the meantime, have grown up to be very educated and cultured people).
What emerged was a love of studying as a survival technique and the pursuit of knowledge as a vital means of maintaining and consolidating important family and emotional relationships. It’s a discovery – says Professor Barnao – which is helped by writing, which turns the spotlight inwards, and highlights the process of adaptation from life before prison to the reality of living with a life sentence.
Writing about one’s own life, one’s actions and beliefs, explaining them in relation to the culture to which one belongs, requires emotional commitment, and means suspending judgment on oneself:
“When I entered the ‘cyclone’ of auto-ethnography, the pain increased every day,” Curatolo says, calling the time taken away from his daughters and his wife “a time full of pain”.
During this journey of memories, a ‘blush of shame’ comes over the prisoner when a university professor publicly defines him as a ‘friend’. Curatolo feels that he is “not worthy of such a great friendship.” This is followed by a sense of wonder when another professor describes himself as Curatolo’s ‘ally’, supporting his decision to enrol at the university: “This was a kind of alliance I wasn’t used to, because nothing was asked of me in return; in alliances where I come from, sooner or later you have to pay something back … It was a whole new world from the criminal culture of my previous life.”
At the beginning of his voyage of self-discovery the temptation was to look back, comparing the friendships of the past to those forged in prison, judging them and judging himself. That temptation faded bit by bit until, as he puts it, “I found the strength and the naturalness to tell my story without denying the experience that led to me ending up a lifer. Auto-ethnography drags you out of the tunnel, makes you more free intellectually, and the story becomes a kind of catharsis.”
Professor Barnao says: “In this process, Salvatore Curatolo discovered how important books were for his psychological survival in prison. After many years of 41 bis (ie under a harsh prison regime with high security measures, ed.) Curatolo, who did not even have fifth grade schooling, realized the cultural distance between him and his daughters, who had by then enrolled in university. So he decided to study to find new topics for discussion with them. The books also help him to engage with the prison officers and the political prisoners, people who are culturally and ideologically miles apart from mafia prisoners. Studying helps overcome the typical prejudices.
Sergio Ferraro: leader and tutor in prison
“The auto-ethnographic experience was extremely important both for my education and my life’s journey,” says Sergio Ferraro, aged 44, and 21 years into a life sentence on charges of membership of the Casalesi clan of the local mafia, known as the Camorra. “It helped me understand that we human beings distinguish ourselves from each other not only from a biological point of view (hair color, eye color, skin color, height, etc.), but also based on the cultural context from which we come… “
“One of the most horrendous things that a human being can do is to kill a fellow human being, but today I am ashamed to say that often it’s the cultural context that ‘imposes’ on you this heinous crime, because in that culture it’s not even considered a crime,” says Ferraro as he uses his studies in ethnography to examine behaviors and values according to their cultural significance.
Through this ‘non-judgmental’ approach prisoners can open the doors to a form of self-acceptance. In Ferraro’s case – his graduation is scheduled for autumn 2021 – it means bringing out the traits described by Barnao: “He is coming to understand how his old charismatic qualities as a reliable leader, ready to do anything for the criminal group, are the same qualities that emerge in prison and that cast him in the role of trusted tutor allowing him to help, involve and encourage other inmates who are also university students like him.”
The role of peer tutor is much encouraged in the Magna Graecia university. “Ours is the first university in Italy to have formally established this role,” says Barnao, calling it “a particularly significant milestone for the re-education of prisoners.”
It’s a role that was first tried out informally “based on cooperation between peers, between people with similar characteristics.
“It’s something different, with different potential,” argues the sociologist “compared to external tutors, usually doctoral students or research fellows, who are often culturally distant from the prisoners, especially the men sentenced to life imprisonment.”
Educational potential and psychological impact
With respect to the scientific objectives of these degree theses, Barnao is very clear on one point: “My approach as a teacher is not to re-educate someone. My goal as a professor is to educate the person about certain forms of knowledge whether that be inside or outside the prison walls.”
That said, these autoethnographic assignments with their suspension of moral judgment to help explain life choices in certain cultural contexts, “can in fact translate into a kind of re-education. I am convinced that enhancing some aspects of a person’s personality, without throwing away everything from their past, can also have a significant value in the process of resocialization. Where, for example, prisoners open up to consider others’ points of view and values outside the world of crime.”
The sociologist is convinced that this scientific approach favors self-awareness, “is essential for everyone,” regardless of any issues of repentance and redemption; irrespective of whether these moments of self-reflection are experienced by criminals or people who have nothing to do with crime.
“The main point of our work is to provide an aid to reflexivity: an achievement of no small importance both inside and outside the prison setting,” says Giuseppe Napoli, head of the educational section at Catanzaro Prison where Curatolo and Ferraro are serving their sentences. The two prisoner-students use autoethnography to carry out – according to Napoli – “a very serious sociological review of their past that may have relevance from an educational perspective.”
Manola Albanese, a psychologist and psychotherapist, defines autoethnography as “a tool for rediscovering the meaning of events and behaviors.”
“The gain that can be had,” she explains “can requalify one’s existence by giving it a meaning that perhaps it had not been given until that moment.” She sees it as an opportunity “to feel alive even in a deadly environment like prison.”
The prisoner students’ academic progress towards a degree also “crowns a work that restores the dignity they have lost socially”. She adds: “When a person manages to find inside him or herself good qualities, resources and creativity, it is no longer the outside that matters, but the inside; that person can never be alone again, or feel that sense of emptiness they had before.”
Could this work be a way to prevent extreme acts such as suicide? “I believe that every person, if he knows himself better and knows life better, can defend himself better from his own demons and from the trials of life,” Albanese replies. “Suicide is nothing more than an extreme, desperate escape from a distressing life. But one thing is certain: the more tools we have at our disposal, the better chance we have of finding a way through our problems rather than opting out of life itself.”
A program that can be adapted for use elsewhere – but there are limits
This method is innovative and applicable in other contexts, Barnao underlines. For example, to remain in the criminal justice world for a second, as far away as the Juvenile Court of Trento (in Italy’s far north) “there is an interest in replicating this approach in offering a new chance to young adults interested in a journey of change”.
To pursue this line of research and make its findings robust it is important to gather precise knowledge: “It is necessary to be equipped with specific skills such as those developed in the degree course in sociology by these students, who have also been able to understand survival in extreme conditions of life,” says Manola Albanese, citing the example of Curatolo and Ferraro.
Giuseppe Napoli cautions however that the programme is not universally applicable: “Theses of this level are not for everyone. They require scientific preparation, commitment and constant guidance. Without the constant presence of Professor Barnao, the work could not have been completed in this way.”
Of no less importance are the economic and organizational issues: “This program is only possible because of a strong partnership between the prison administration and the university. It is a very impressive path, but not easily replicable, especially when it comes down to a discussion about available resources “.
Barnao sums up the program as follows: “We were lucky to be working here with the prison administration at Catanzaro which has been led for about 10 years by an enlightened director who has given a very high priority to education. We were lucky too to have the collaboration of the university, the Magna Graecia, and of course there was my availability. We benefitted too from the relationship of mutual respect between me and the two students that made it possible to minimise problems, and of course we had the full support of the prison officers.”
On the other hand problems still occur: “It’s not easy to delve into the deeper parts of the self, especially for people who have lived troubled lives like theirs. Then there is the heavy burden on the academic: it would be unthinkable for me to work on more than two or three of these theses a year – an approach like this requires face-to-face meetings almost every week, two to three times a week. It’s further complicated by the fact that the Italian university system is not particularly keen on significant investments in research.”
If, on the one hand, in Italy “the network of prison university centers is growing”, on the other “there are still difficulties in the relationship between the prison institutions and the universities usually related to excessive bureaucracy with little relation to the logic of the outside world.”
The importance of guaranteeing the right to study in all prisons
According to the sociologist, other aspects also hold back efforts to promote personal growth and rebirth starting in prison and going beyond prison walls. “Unfortunately,” says Barnao “the right to education is not guaranteed in the same way in all prisons; so much so that until recently the university center of Catanzaro was the southernmost one in Italy.”
The professor cites the tragic case of Bruno Pizzata, a 60 year old, convicted of ‘Ndrangheta and drug trafficking, who died after testing positive for Covid-19 following an outbreak in the Catanzaro prison.
Barnao says: “The prisoner was starting an interesting thesis on Calabrian shepherds.” Hence his opposition to being transferred; an appeal took place because he wanted to carry on his university activity here without a rupture. After a few weeks, however, Covid broke out in the prison. Most likely, Pizzata would not have died if he had not had an interest in studying.”
Barnao believes the project’s ethos of personal improvement and change clashes with the prevailing cultural climate “which is characterized by a crisis of democracy and a tendency towards authoritarianism. The prevailing view of prisoners is that society should ‘throw away the key’. There seems to be a thirst for harsher penalties and a tendency to resist any effort to offer a way out of the prison system; this is the harsh culture in which we are deeply immersed and that’s part of the reason Italian prisons are among the worst in Europe,” says Barnao.
When it comes to the ‘life means life’ sentence he is firm in his views: “It is unconstitutional and inhumane, the expression of a culture that we find it hard to get rid of.” It’s an element of Italian law on which the European Court of Human Rights has intervened, asking for a reform of the current regulatory framework which greatly limits the prospects of release, appeal and parole for a detained person. It was for these reasons that Italy’s Constitutional Court decreed such sentences to be “incompatible with the Constitution” and set a hearing for May 2022 to consider the practice, “thus giving Parliament adequate time to address the matter.”
Meanwhile, while politicians consider and judges sentence, in the background the stories of survival and efforts at rebirth continue.. despite the obstacles.
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