Alessandro Toscano

A Closed Up Story




On 8 January 2013, Italy received a harsh ruling from the
European Court of Human Rights
, according to which
the Italian State had violated article three of
the European Convention on Human Rights,
subjecting those in its prisons to inhumane
and degrading conditions
. At the time of the ruling
by the court in Strasbourg, Italy’s prisons
were severely overcrowded, holding around 66,000 prisoners
in only 47,000 allowable places.

Despite the extraordinary measures adopted by Italy
over the course of the last two years to deal with this serious emergency,
the rate of overcrowding is still unfortunately very high today.

The latest figures provided by the Italian Government reveal that
there are 195 penitentiary institutions across the country
holding 52,846 people (source: Italian Ministry of Justice,
figures current at 29/02/2016). Of these prisoners,
there are 3,342 (6.32%) more that the overall maximum capacity
for all of Italy’s prison facilities, which totals 49,504 places.
The calculation of this capacity considers a living space of 9m2 per prisoner.



The Project

In light of this situation and following the ruling from Strasbourg, twice a week for a year, I met with a group of prisoners in one of Italy’s many prisons.

The purpose of my visits was to get to know and to document the situation in one of Italy’s many prisons (Buoncammino Prison in Cagliari, Sardinia), in the wake of their condemnation by the European Court of Human Rights.

Like many other Italian prisons, Buoncammino was a dilapidated and overcrowded facility, which accommodated a number of prisoners well beyond its capacity in a building from the end of the 1800s, at the centre of the city.

For this reason, and as provided for in the new Piano Carceri (the Italian Justice Ministry’s 2010 Special Plan to create 12.000 new prison places, with an investment of around 463million euros. By the end of 2014, just 52 million euros of the available resources (about 11% of the total) had been utilised,creating just 4.400 new places in Italian prisons in four years), Buoncammino would be closed shortly after, and its inmates moved to a new, more modern and building with a greater capacity. But the new prison would be also away from the city, thereby breaking that bond which, for a century and a half, had characterised the relationship between the prison and the social fabric of the city itself.

Initially, our authorisation to enter the prison, which had been agreed to by the Prison Management, included the opportunity to involve a group of prisoners in the photographic documentation of some areas of the prison, including the cells and certain common areas.

"In the Buoncammino Prison, the first thing you see
as soon as you go through the two hugemetal doors
is a crucifix, with Jesus up there with his arms out
like he’s showing you theway: “Choose: left or right?”.
Actually, to tell you the truth, the penitentiary police
even asked me when I went in the first time.
I said right and they sent me to the left".

The aim was to involve the prisoners in the construction of a first-person documentation, capable of observing and interpreting daily life in prison from the inside. However, contrary to what had been agreed upon, we were denied this liberty from our first encounter for “security reasons”. The only chance we were allowed was to carry out our work in a room assigned to us for the “workshop”: a former cell that had been completely emptied, except for a few chairs and a table.

What seemed at first like an insurmountable obstacle instead proved to be an opportunity to build a different relationship with the prisoners, one in which words and oral storytelling were the principle and free means of getting to know aspects of their daily life which would otherwise have been hidden. In this process of narration, documentation and of weaving things back together orally, I was able to understand how much their daily activities were focused on the few, small, apparently ordinary things that made their daily life somehow bearable.

Each one of their objects, whether a photograph, a letter or a book, appeared as the only thing capable of affirming their presence in the world even if they were locked up, and the prison, with its walls, bars and barbed wire, an element to be removed and blocked out with their imagination. The only means of escaping the physical and psychological oppression of the prison – an all- encompassing institution that relieves inmates of responsibility – was to further narrow down their perception concerning those few small objects they were allowed to keep with them.

The symbolic and concrete action ended up being that of bringing the prison and its daily life into the empty cell, piece by piece during our meetings, through their personal objects. A camping stove, a couple of sheets, a grater, a book, a letter: small elements that carried a direct and reliable account of the prison reality.

"Like everyone, the first time I went into a cell, I didn’t have laces in my shoes anymore.
They take them off you as soon as you go inside after the first identification and check,
because otherwise you could use them to harm yourself.
I have to say, as soon as you setfoot in prison, you feel like harming yourself,
you understand right away that it’s not anice place to be.
But what hurts you most is that journey from the entrance to your firstcell.
You feel naked, with no dignity as a human being,
like a tramp who’s trying not tolose their busted shoes as they drag their feet along the prison corridors".


The result is a Personal Story, narrated in the first person, by any given prisoner in any given Italian prison. It is made up of images and words, in which the objects photographed appear as elements that serve to bring the attention back onto the words as a relational element and one of dialogue, and therefore onto the dramatic Italian prison experience which is too often excluded from perception and public dialogue.

Here the Full Story


The exhibition project

The results of the project undertaken inside the prison become the means for developing a direct and shared experience with the social and urban fabric, and the pretext for creating a dialogue between the prison experience and the society, whose indissoluble link with the prison is too often ignored.
The exhibition project is set within this vacuum of relations and dialogue, and has the aim of bringing discussion back onto the places and the prison experience in the urban context, in shapes and ways that adapt to the context of reference with the production of new content and relationships.
The first public exhibition of the project was developed within the program of Cagliari Italian Capital of Culture 2015. Curated by Matteo Balduzzi, the exhibition took place in the city of Cagliari, where the former Buoncammino prison is located, and was developed through two parallel and dialogical exhibition forms:

- Posters

The first action involved installing posters (100cm x 70cm) in the urban environment, reworking the photographs produced inside the prison in graphic form and operating on two levels: on one hand, helping publicise the installation they were part of, and on the other, constituting an autonomous artistic and communicative project both on a formal level and in terms of content.

Playing on codes similar to the language of advertising and on the abstraction allowed by the design, the drawing and the infographic (the posters reference an IKEA-style visual campaign for mass produced commercial homeware products), the posters sought to spark curiosity and to disorientate the spectator on the street, proposing a discussion about the handmade objects as the link with prison life, but also as independent objects conveying values that are extremely current in the world of design, such as recycling, sustainability and the handmade.


- The installation

In parallel, an installation was developed inside the “CARTEC - Cava Arte Contemporanea” space, in conjunction with a performance/installation by Greek artist Maria Papadimitriou.
The images and text were exhibited in a spatial and visual dialogue, leading the viewer through a first-person narrative by a hypothetical prisoner about the living conditions inside one of Italy’s many prisons.


Other graphic and narrative elements were placed near the photographs and text which linked the journey within the space to the elements exhibited through the streets of the city, thereby increasing the project’s narrative value.

A barbel

An Oven


A Closed Up Story was produced in collaboration with architects Maria Pina Usai, Margherita Fenati, FrancescaTatarella and Daniele Iodice from the U-BOOT group “Research and action in highly vulnerable social andenvironmental landscapes”, as part of the research project entitled
Prison, Urban Space – the Boundary betweenCity and Penitentiary Periphery” (Carcere Spazio Urbano-il Confine tra Citta e Periferia Penitenziaria).

Using Format