Inmates Get Another Shot

An exhibition opened by Italy’s Minister of Justice at the PAC – Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea features 800 photographs taken by detainees and officers inside Milan penitentiaries.

Eric, an inmate at Milan’s Juvenile Penal Institute “Cesare Beccaria,” took this photo in 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Ri-scatti Onlus.

For once, it will not be the inmates who look out of little windows to catch a glimpse of a corner of the city during the months, or years, of serving in penitentiary institutions, but it will be the public who will have the opportunity to look through the windows – in this case, a collection of photographs on display at the PAC Pavilion of Contemporary Art in Milan – and catch sight of moments of prison life to understand what this experience means.

Returning for the eighth consecutive year, “RI-SCATTI” (a play on words: in Italian ‘riscatto’ means redemption and ‘scatti’ means photographs) is a project conceived by Ri-scatti Onlus, a charity that since 2014 has been creating events and initiatives for social redemption through photography.

“A truly extraordinary initiative that touches on a central aspect: the care of our penitentiaries,” said Marta Cartabia, Italy’s Minister of Justice, during the opening of the exhibition on Saturday.

The project aims to give voice to the complexities, and difficulties, but also opportunities of life in correctional institutions, beyond simplifications and stigmatisations, providing participants – in this case, both inmates and prison officers – with an educational tool while also generating a constructive confrontation and concrete synergy between the city administration, prisons and Milan’s cultural institutions.

Mohamed, an inmate at the Milan-Opera Detention Home, took this photo for the project in 2022.  Courtesy of the artist and Ri-scatti Onlus.
Mohamed, an inmate at the Milan-Opera Detention Home, took this photo for the project in 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Ri-scatti Onlus.

“Penitentiaries are unknown for most of Italian society but also for the Minister of Justice,” said Ms. Cartabia. “I chose to live in a small flat overlooking the courtyard of Regina Coeli (a prison in Rome) so I could see certain moments that animate prison life, such as football matches, birthday parties, and many unimaginable situations to those who live outside the prison. An exhibition like this does a great service to everyone because it is not possible for every citizen to experience in person the very emotional impact that every visit to a penitentiary has.”

One hundred participants from the Casa di Reclusione di Opera, Casa di Reclusione di Bollate, Casa Circondariale Di Cataldo, and Youth Detention Centre Cesare Beccaria – of which sixty inmates and forty police officers – took over 50,000 photos, 800 of which are shown in the exhibition, curated by Diego Sileo.

“One aspect I like is that this initiative has involved both detainees and prison officers, two worlds that have too often been portrayed as opposites,” continued Ms. Cartabia. “They are two completely different roles, of course, but they share the same everyday life, which should not be taken to extremes in a conflict that does no one any good. What helps the daily life of guards helps the daily life of inmates, and vice versa. We have to go in this direction, with a clear distinction of positions and roles but with the possibility of working on a common ground, where things work because there are these forms of cooperation.”

A path never before tackled by anyone else, which had – as an absolute novelty for the inmates – the possibility of having at their disposal the cameras in their cells, and for the prison officers the possibility of having cameras available to them during their working hours. The result is intense, truthful, explicit, at times extremely blunt.

Officer Luciano Coniglione, on duty at the Milan-Opera Detention Home, took this photo in 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Ri-scatti Onlus.

“That this takes place in Milan and in such a prestigious place is a source of great honour but not of surprise. Milan is a city that has a big heart for its penitentiaries,” added the Minister. She recounted that during a visit to San Vittore, in Milan, in 2018, her commitment to prisons began. “A commitment that will not end with my term as Minister of Justice because, as some prison directors have told me,” she said, “when one encounters these places is scarred forever by this.”

“The PAC courageously continues to investigate the most difficult and complex realities of our present time,” commented Tommaso Sacchi, Councillor for Culture of the City of Milan. “In any exhibition, we become part of an artist’s universe of thought, but with this project, there is more. There is the desire to delve into particular experiences, teaching people how to represent themselves, and how to give their everyday life the sense of a life lived to the full, albeit in a different way from the one that flows with other rhythms and other codes outside prison walls. There is also the will to never stop at the surface of things and the frames that define them: a fundamental objective for those who are involved in representing contemporaneity.”

“Ri-Scatti. Per me si si va tra la perduta gente” is open until 6 November at the PAC – Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, free admission.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.