She is the only woman living on an island of convicted felons
When Giulia Manca traveled to Pianosa, a former Italian prison island, in 2011, she was looking forward to a relaxing break in the sun before heading home.
But 12 years after checking into the beachfront Hotel Milena, which is staffed by convicts under probation, Manca has remained on the island known as Alcatraz in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Now the only woman living in the ghost town of Pianosa, part of the Tuscan Archipelago Marine Park, Manca serves as both hotel manager and supervisor of the island’s rehabilitation program, run by Arnera, a non-profit organization whose social mission is to help vulnerable people. people such as inmates are reintegrating into society and the prison authorities of Tuscany.
“I stayed at the hotel for a week and didn’t want to leave,” Manca told CNN. “It was a unique vacation and the rehabilitation project fascinated me, how these inmates got a second chance at life.
“I fell in love with Pianosa. Its silence, the limpid and turquoise heavenly sea, the peaceful starry nights.
Formerly nicknamed Devil’s Island, Pianosa, located between Corsica and the mainland, is today a haven of peace appreciated for its beautiful beaches and lush vegetation.
One of only two permanent residents on the island, Manca lives and works alongside a prison guard, as well as 10 convicted men, who work as cooks, gardeners, waiters, beach cleaners and dishwashers at the Milena hotel, the only accommodation establishment on the island. .
Surrounded by pine trees, Hotel Milena features frescoed ceilings and has 11 rooms with wooden furniture and stunning sea views, as well as a large patio, where inmates serve evening drinks to guests, a restaurant and a bar.
Manca had been a guest of this unique, year-round hotel for just a few days when the then manager informed her that the establishment was in financial difficulty and was in danger of closing.
If this were to happen, the inmates would have to be sent back to prison, bringing their time in Pianosa to a swift end.
“I felt I had to do something to help them, otherwise they would be back behind bars, in tiny cells with no chance to start afresh and learn a job that could help them once released,” adds Manca, who previously worked as a tourist agent.
Manca, who grew up in Tuscany, decided to stay and take over the management of the hotel. She says she initially worked for free, using her management skills to help secure the future of the hotel.
In just a few years, Manca managed to turn things around significantly, and Hotel Milena became a popular wedding and birthday party venue, with guests, in part attracted by the hotel’s unconventional staff. hotel, who flock here.
Located near Gorgona, another Italian prison island, Pianosa was created in the 1700s to lock up outlaws, bandits and revolutionaries.
The island served as the base for a maximum security prison until 1998 when the prison was closed. Its few inhabitants eventually left and Pianosa was left abandoned for many years.
Visitors were not allowed on the island until relatively recently, and those who visit can only come as part of an organized boat tour which must be booked through specific tour operators.
To be admitted to the Hotel Milena rehabilitation program, applicants must have already served at least a third of their sentence in prison and have undergone a series of strict psychological and social assessment tests.
Over the past 12 years, Manca has treated over 100 offenders on probation for a multitude of crimes, including murder.
Although she notes that many inmates have been sentenced for much more than “stealing daisies”, Manca has always felt comfortable on the island and considers it a safe haven.
She also believes that ex-offenders should be given the opportunity to contribute to society rather than spending more time behind bars.
“I believe in the power of redemption and that even offenders should be given a second chance, they should not rot behind bars but be actively involved in rehabilitation tasks,” she says. “I love seeing them come back to life through work.”
Known as the “Queen of Pianosa”, Manca admits her work has raised eyebrows among friends and loved ones due to the perceived risks of being the only woman alongside a group of convicts.
“People kept saying I was crazy to take on such a job,” says Manca, who is also a member of Arnera. “To be the only woman to work and live alongside male offenders who have not been charged with minor offences.
“But I was never scared or scared. I never thought about it. I feel safer with them here than in town with all these crazy people running around, you never know who you might bump into.
Although being in charge of a group of offenders presents challenges, Manca says she does her best to create clear boundaries to ensure the rehab program is effective.
She explains that her relationship with her staff is one of mutual respect and that she has managed to find a balance by keeping her distance and being authoritative but open, in order to support them.
Every week, Manca hops on the ferry for a three-hour sea voyage to mainland Tuscany to do errands and bureaucratic business, leaving at dawn and returning to Pianosa at night.
Manca points out that, unlike the nearby town of Gorgona, where convicts must return to their cells after finishing, those in Pianosa are allowed to roam freely.
Prisoners there receive a monthly salary for their work in the hotel industry and stay in the old prison quarters, which have been revamped into comfortable studios, with a gym, television, kitchen and private rooms with bathroom. bath.
They also receive cell phones to keep in touch with their families.
Italian prisons are considered to be among the most inhumane and overcrowded in Europe, with 120 inmates per 100 beds, according to a 2020 report by the Council of Europe, while suicide in prison has increased by 300% since 1960 , with a 75% relapse into crime.
Therefore, Pianosa is undoubtedly a much more attractive alternative for those nearing the end of their sentence.
Manca is proud of the success of the “Pianosa model”, explaining that the rate of those who spent time on the island who return to crime has been reduced to 0.01%.
“In the evening, they are free to go to the beach and swim,” explains Manca.
“However, they have to leave their accommodation early in the morning and come back at a specific time in the evening, they are always under surveillance and there is the guard watching them.
Offenders can serve the rest of their sentence working in the hotel if they behave well, and some have spent five to ten years here.
But those who do not show a will for change risk being sent back to prison to finish the rest of their sentence.
“They have all served at least a third of their sentence in prison and undergone strict psychological and social assessment tests to determine that they are no longer dangerous and suitable for the rehabilitation program, [and] that they really regret what they did,” adds Manca.
“They must demonstrate their willingness to work and prepare for a better life every day. I do not accept any slips.
Manca likes to keep in touch with those who have left Pianosa to start a new life, using the skills acquired on the island, through social networks.
She explains that a few have become counselors for prisoners in other prisons after working at the hotel.
Manca is extremely proud of her role in the process and says those who initially doubted her decision to stay at Pianosa all those years ago have now returned.
“Even my daughter Yolanda, who as a child was a bit skeptical of my work, has come to appreciate the island and the importance of what I do, and now tells me I’m a lucky person” , says Manca.