“Freedom Exercise”

“Studying in jail as a possibility of rebirth”

Lately, the debate on the meaning of freedom has emerged. We asked ourselves when we are truly free. Pietro’s initial questions like, “What is freedom for me? Can I be free while facing 8 hours of lectures?” became an occasion for a deeper insight. Although the questions remained unanswered questions, they triggered a search, which stemmed from song lyrics. For example in “Il suonatore Jones” (Jones, The player) by Fabrizio De André, “Liberty I have seen it sleeping/ in the tilled fields / from heaven and money, / from heaven and love, / protected by barbed wire” or in “La Libertà” (Freedom) by Giorgio Gaber, “Freedom is not being on a tree. / It is not the flight of an male fly. / Freedom is not free space. / Freedom is participation“. Our reflection wasn’t limited to this but was an inspiration to talk about the topic of jail. We then asked ourselves: what does it mean to be free in prison? Is it possible to talk about freedom in such a difficult context?

We had the occasion to interview Antonella De Luca, a mathematics teacher at the Istituto Superiore V.Benini of Melegnano in the prison of Opera, who told us her experience, leaving us even more challenged. Antonella started to work at Opera by simply accepting a job proposal. She was then assigned a role within the pedagogic area, now called “re-education” area, as in recovery, somewhere to restart for prisoners. This job, as she explained, allows her to constantly confront herself with other figures inside the prison.

Lately, the debate on the meaning of freedom

Ada: What does “Freedom” mean to you, as sung by Gaber?

Antonella: Talking about freedom is not a simple task and I would like to avoid common thoughts. I started working in prison 8 years ago, asking myself every year if I should continue, but it is such a significant experience, full of humanity, that I can only answer ‘yes’. Each one of my students is a small world of real life, of mistakes, of illusions, of projects. It is not a simple experience but there is always something that makes me stay. 

Ester: Have you ever encountered difficulties? Why did you stay?

Antonella: Obviously there are objective problems, given the fact that I work in a particular context with strict rules, in which everything is shared with officers. 

It could represent a limiting factor, but one has to be aware that these rules must exist, that they are there for everyone’s protection. In addition, continuous confrontation with educators and other figures recalls the fact that everyone has his or her own role. For example, the inspector calls them prisoners, while I call them students. Multiple visions of the same person may be difficult, yet it may become a value to join different points of view and reflections, so as to collaborate to the project of reintegration of a person into a social context, to recover his new, changed, identity. 

Ada: Lately the theme of rules and freedom has been very present for us. In the context of Opera, can teaching activities be a chance to feel free?

 Antonella: Yes, taking part in a teaching and cultural activity with outsiders can correspond to living “a small space of freedom” in their reclusion. I hear more often the word “escape” opposed to “freedom”, but in a positive sense: a book, a lesson can give them the ability to “get out” of their daily reality. Not all of them have the possibility to attend though, maybe the Correction administration is not in favour,yet everyone who is present, is here by choice. Inside the classroom there’s a different atmosphere, which arises from the comparison with something that comes from the outside. I remember a boy who drew a man on a pile of books that looked out from a wall, as if culture became an opportunity to discover oneself and one’s passions.

Ada: Have you ever met prisoners who felt free throughout a relationship with you?

Antonella: I teach in every regime and they are all different from each other. Youngsters are the ones I care the most about, because they are the “weakest” and I hope to be a helpful presence for them. Everyone of them has a relationship with me, an easier or more difficult one. Some come to an end, others give up. However, in there nobody is considered a number, everyone has a value of a person. We sometimes have dialogues, even if we have different points of view. An example is when I tell them to commit to school: asking themselves why attending classes can help them gain responsibility. Often, when they go back to their activities, the relationship between them remains in a prisoner perspective – processes, lawyers, sentences -; in school one discovers the other, going beyond this perspective: it’s a different way to get to know each other and even to criticise each other. It means getting involved, in every sense.

Just like in school, my boys feel ashamed when they must admit in a clear manner that they have difficulties, or that they didn’t study. It can be very difficult because it means seeing themselves as weak, men who may have had leading roles in their previous life and were used to deciding for themselves and for others. “School is an experience that hurts”, another teacher once told me: it hurts because it gives space to discussions and it asks to forget the approach one had before. Maybe, even for us teachers the biggest value is that school demands for us to re-learn how to understand the other being, forgetting what he was before in order to look at him as a person able to redeem himself and as a person to rely on.  

Ada: What you are describing lines up with Article 27 of our Constitution: “ Punishments may not be inhuman and shall aim at re-educating the convicted”. How is this passage established in difficult situations or within extenuating circumstances such as life sentences?

Antonella: School is an element of hope even for those who must experience this for their entire life, as in life imprisonment. Re-education almost makes more sense for those who cannot go back into society, they almost have a greater motivation. Teaching doesn’t become a way to obtain more things, like reducing time in jail imposed by the judge. Throughout school, everyone can grow humanly. Education – work – religious activity – contact with family members are the basic experiences in re-education, as the Prison law states: teaching can make a difference.

Franci: What sort of hope supports a prisoner condemned to life imprisonment? For me the current lockdown is difficult enough, I can’t imagine what it’s like for them…

Antonella: I don’t know what gives them the strength to live the same condition for the rest of their days. I cannot give a judgement because I’m not able to understand their thoughts, but I can understand their anguish. It is a hard journey but they make it only with the hope of a change and with the attachment to what life can offer them in the situation they are in, with the awareness that prison is almost a deserved situation, in becoming aware of the mistakes they made. A key factor are the relationships built with family members and with us. Meeting people from the outside helps them to grow with different values with respect to the ones from their previous life. This can be achieved only with their contribution and their desire to change. The question here is not life imprisonment for its sakes, but leaving a small light at the end of the tunnel. Beyond the duration of the punishment, the person’s dignity has to be recognized.   

 Pietro: The song by Giorgio Gaber really got me questioning. Facing your story today, the line “Freedom is participation” still gets me. At first glance, one thinks there’s no way to talk about freedom inside prisons.

Antonella: Yes, freedom means participation even for me. At Opera freedom means taking part in initiatives to grow, even if it is not a free space. I think it is very rewarding for them to get a diploma, a degree, to be able to work: these elements become freedom. It is a privileged occasion that relies on their own involvement.

As Antonella told us, the sensation that is generated begins with changing one’s gaze  and by wishing for more. Getting rid of what we were before to know that we are not only defined by that, can make us start again from new values in order to create a new identity, as in to be born again. This can set us free even in a 2 square meters room. The desire to continue this work does not end with this interview. The challenge is to discover how freedom plays a role everyday in the conditions that we have to face, whether we are physically locked in or in a lecture hall. 

m has emerged. We asked ourselves when we are truly free. Pietro’s initial questions like, “What is freedom for me? Can I be free while facing 8 hours of lectures?” became an occasion for a deeper insight. Although the questions remained unanswered questions, they triggered a search, which stemmed from song lyrics. For example in “Il suonatore Jones” (Jones, The player) by Fabrizio De André, “Liberty I have seen it sleeping/ in the tilled fields / from heaven and money, / from heaven and love, / protected by barbed wire” or in “La Libertà” (Freedom) by Giorgio Gaber, “Freedom is not being on a tree. / It is not the flight of an male fly. / Freedom is not free space. / Freedom is participation“. Our reflection wasn’t limited to this but was an inspiration to talk about the topic of jail. We then asked ourselves: what does it mean to be free in prison? Is it possible to talk about freedom in such a difficult context?

We had the occasion to interview Antonella De Luca, a mathematics teacher at the Istituto Superiore V.Benini of Melegnano in the prison of Opera, who told us her experience, leaving us even more challenged. Antonella started to work at Opera by simply accepting a job proposal. She was then assigned a role within the pedagogic area, now called “re-education” area, as in recovery, somewhere to restart for prisoners. This job, as she explained, allows her to constantly confront herself with other figures inside the prison.

We wish to thank: Antonella De Luca, Pierluigi Cassinari

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