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Nino, Part 6: Prison, criminal culture and the possibility of change

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Living in prison…once they’ve take away a man’s freedom, they’ve taken away everything. In prison, there are plenty of concessions they could make if they wanted to, so a person could at least live decently. But no, in prison there’s a system and everyone has to live under that system.

Through Nino’s testimony we learn that prison is a story of offences to human dignity and of lives at risk (not only those of the inmates but also those of the guards). It is a story of death, both by murder and by suicide. He provides us with data which go beyond his life experience as an inmate of “Le Nuove” prison in Turin. 

In this universe of unpredictable penalties, some inmates try... to regain some scrap of the world on the other side of the prison bars. This particular struggle, clearly, is only possible for those inmates who have the will and the various resources necessary to undertake and sustain it. We will hear of the very great importance assigned to such things as special passes to leave the prison for a few days, telephone calls, meetings with family members. And then there is the search for other ways - like that of maintaining a correspondence - which make it possible for the prisoner, if only in a temporary and symbolic way, to come out of his prison cell.

The importance of rights and observing rites of passage within the family

For the convicted prisoner.... particularly one (like Nino) who has been convicted of serious crimes and thus formally deprived of civil rights - trying to ensure that his rights are respected is not the main problem. Instead, his greatest problem lies in protecting himself from arbitrary or discretional acts carried out by members of the prison administration as well as from acts of aggression and attempts at domination on the part of other prisoners.

It’s written in the rules that I have a right to something…The authorities don’t give it to me. So that’s an abuse of power. I demand my rights, but that remains a dead letter....Unfortunately, here we are living in a place where we have to submit to certain rules and sometimes, you know, a guy just can’t do it. Here… maybe sometimes without you’re being guilty, they punish you, even explaining the reasons, that is, you justify yourself, but here there are these rules and you just plain have to abide by them.

His request that he be permitted to attend a church service for one hour in order to be there for the first communion of his seven-year-old son has been accepted. But, in church, he will have to keep the handcuffs on.

You know I told you that my son was going to make his first communion? And so I put in for permission, so that I could be present there.

You know, after so many years, my son would be pleased. So, on Saturday they told me that they had given me permission to go: one hour’s exit leave, with an escort. However, for me, that was ok that way because on the Sunday before I told my son I’d be coming and he, he starts crying with joy, because, you know, after so many years… all his pals were going to be there, and the parents of his friends and my relatives had come up from Catania specially to be there too.

On the Monday, I’m all dressed up to the nines and the special escort unit comes in and they start putting the handcuffs on me. An hour, right? The guy says. And I go; but in the church, I hope, these things will disappear. They say to me: no.

I said, excuse me, what do you mean, no? I said, I, look here, it’s not that I’m going to my home, I’m going to church, because there’s the first communion of the little boy.

So if I have to hug my kid with handcuffs on…

Yeah, the guy says, you know, we have these orders, the Captain said we could put something on the handcuffs…

And so I said, no, at this point, you, it’s not that you want to humiliate me, you want to humiliate my son.

And so I said, I refuse. And in fact, I didn’t go. I refused because it isn’t right that I should go there to hug my child, and in church especially, with these handcuffs on... I told him about my pain and how things had turned out and that was that.

At least inside the church, they could have taken the cuffs off, they know that I’m a State’s witness…They treated me like someone who was some really dangerous guy, I just don’t know.....even half an hour would have been enough, just to have the pleasure of holding my son by the hand while he takes his first communion, or take a couple of pictures of me with the boy, that’s all.....with handcuffs on, I don’t think that any father would have accepted, I don’t think anybody would have accepted that... But to humiliate my son that way, in front of his friends and in front of the parents of his friends. That just isn’t right.......

I said to my son, look, I’ve requested a pass but I don’t believe they’ll give me one. I just didn’t believe it, that’s all. And yet they gave me an hour and an hour was enough for me. And now I have to come up with an excuse because I can’t say: your Dad, they wanted to make me go there with handcuffs on. That I’m not going to tell him, I’ll invent some excuse.

Nino compares this treatment with that he received when he attended his father’s funeral:

II went to my father’s funeral last year, from here right to the destination I went with the handcuffs on and the special guard unit, and they were people who didn’t know me and they performed an exceptional job, really… I didn’t feel like I was a prisoner, I felt like I was free! You can imagine, free!. And besides, it was the captain, the captain himself, a wonderful person, who helped me carry the coffin on our shoulders when we went to the cemetery.

…it was the last time I would see my father…that’s what I cared about.... I had said to them: so, if I have to go in handcuffs I’m not going because, logically, the last farewell I want to give it without those irons on. And I was satisfied on that point, in fact, my treatment was above and beyond what was required.

I would like to believe that there were legitimate reasons, from the point of view of standing regulations, which made it impossible for Nino to attend his son’s first communion without wearing handcuffs. I simply cannot understand how no one ... had the courage to agree, even in the face of the rules, to take off those handcuffs. Why wasn’t it done? For fear that Nino would escape? Come on, let’s not be stupid here: he never tried it when an escape attempt might have made sense, why on earth should he try it now when no one who is out there waiting for him is well disposed toward him, apart from his family?.... Was it just out of respect for the rules in force, just because they are rules? If that is the case, we really need to wonder about this bureaucracy of ours!

Hierarchy and tension in prison society

Prison is a society with hierarchies: a State within a State. One particular is important: the fact that the hierarchy of the incarcerated and that of the incarcerators intersect each other. Perhaps it is in this sense .. that we should interpret Nino’s comment when he observes that the prison guards are prisoners as well.

In the prison in Catania there was this Prison officer, I don’t remember now what his name was. Now in the prison in Catania there are two wings, the right and the left, and then there’s another section which was the new wing and that’s where they put the guys being transferred, and these sections were separated. In one section there were the Santapaola guys and in the other section there we were, the Cursoti.

This prison officer tried to please both groups. Then we saw that he favored those Santapaola guys more and so that guy got shot. They shot him. He didn’t die but they shot him. I’m talking about ’75-’76, that period back then, how he messed up, because he favored the other side more - and so they broke his legs.

But in the ordinary wings, there’s a lot of tension. A lot of tension because the prisoner stays locked in, so he’s calling out: because, logically, he has to call the guard if he needs something. The guard has to get up from his chair and walk maybe 100 meters along the wing to get to the guy who rang the bell, and then maybe they talk some trash to him. So the guard gets fed up and he tells them to get stuffed and so you get these arguments.

The closed wings are a real disaster, a disaster.... guys are always going to complain because even if a guy is doing fine, there’s always something not right.

We have a kid in here with us who has AIDS; he will finish his sentence in 2005 but he’ll be out before that on early parole. Every month he’s out on a short-term pass because his Mom is sick and that kind of thing and besides he behaves himself very well. But unfortunately, you see, we don’t all think the same way about this…

Escaping?

Nino claims that he has never tried to escape. Why?

I have had plenty of chances, my pals have escaped, many of my pals!

One time, in Catania, twice I helped people escape. One time, in fact, all of the prison guards were held captive. The entire prison could have escaped. Guys came at night, they came with pistols, my pals who shared the cell with me, (we were five or six in that cell)…and they go: shall we get out of here? No, no, I’m not going and the others got out. Another time, also in the prison in Catania, guys escaped. But they didn’t take me along because I said: hey, once I’m in prison…the faster I serve the sentence the better I get out… I never even thought about it!

Writing

Now I’ve got this craze for writing. Because besides writing to my family I didn’t write. And, I don’t know, maybe it’s the loneliness that a guy feels more now than in all the other times, years ago; maybe, a guy, you know, changes, with age…

Here inside, there’s no such thing as affection… You have to stay to once a week seeing your family for one hour, and when a guy comes back from that he’s more dead than alive, because he’s left his kids (just about everyone has a family); you see them for an hour then you go back to your cell. A person from the outside and who has never experienced this reality, does he know what it feels like in here? Sure, you could also say: and you, who was it made you go out and commit those crimes? But if there’s some people think that you can redeem a person just by shutting that outside door, sticking him inside here, with all the problems there can be inside here, well, they’re wrong!

Because, to suffer less, you know, here unfortunately the suffering is always there, it’s what it is, so it’s not that you can change that! You can change it for that hour or two while you’re writing and you forget where it is that you are.

There’s a child who writes to me and he tells me about school and the things that he likes. We’ve been writing each other for a short time; he tells me about the poverty there is down there and I try to give him a little comfort. He is ten years old and very poor.

His father earns 40 dollars a month and he works from dawn to dusk; his mother earns 20 dollars a month and she works as a cleaning woman. He goes to school, and well, they have to buy those few books… I said to him; listen, as long as they are in Italian, I can send you some school books, but in Italian. He likes to study Italian too, since there is this friendship…and so I sent him a small dictionary, one of those pocket ones and now he’s saying: here I go.

The father and the mother were surprised too, because I told him I was a prisoner and they were surprised that in a place of suffering, I, a person who’s suffering, would give comfort to someone who is free.

I talk a lot about what I have done, not going into specifics, but the road I have taken, that it’s an ugly road; about my childhood, how I came to commit certain crimes. That is, the life one can live if he shoves himself into that tunnel that is very, very ugly.

Then I placed an ad in Guerin Sportivo. Mostly it’s girls who write back and I correspond with a whole lot of women. You exchange postcards, then there’s an exchange of ideas that you talk about, from Brazil, from Chile, from Peru, from Uruguay. Each one of them has her own story to tell: the disappointed ones, the widows, there are the divorcées; there are those who have been disappointed in love, many, many stories. I can’t answer all of them, unfortunately, because, if I did, it would mess up my head; but I try to answer, because I think, I could hurt her feelings if I don’t answer her.

Humiliation

Because if you put a prisoner locked up in a cell for twenty hours – let’s forget about the four hours they’re out of the cell - but it’s twenty hours a day he’s locked in a cell, what kind of person does he become? I’ll tell you this, in my view, a lot of the suicides that have happened, it’s also because of the humiliations. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a humiliation if I don’t have enough money to buy cigarettes and I have to just hope that someone will buy them for me of will offer me a cigarette. These are humiliations…they all build up: but a lot of people don’t understand this…and I’ve come across four or five, guys like this who have cut themselves or hung themselves.

Reflection, collaboration with the state, and change: Nino today

My daughter understands. I’ve had the chance to talk to my daughter, talk about everything I’ve done. My daughter cried, because I didn’t hide anything at all from her. This is what your father is. Why should she hear about it from other people? I’m telling you how it is, then it’s up to you to judge me. This is what your father is. My daughter had tears in her eyes.

She says: Dad, you were that person then, you’re not any more. You’re my father......

I think that it is very difficult to understand a person, that is to understand the change in a person… of course I can also do some things that show I’ve changed. Nevertheless there are also people who won’t be convinced and so who should I go shout about it to? Because I’m not the type that I would go around and say: I, you know, I’m changed.

And already when a doubt arises in your head, you start to think that maybe that guy didn’t have to die, but he was killed, already this is a sign that you’re starting to think about things. Perhaps in a way it could be a sign that you’re tired of this life and also a sign of repentance, not in the sense of collaborating with justice but repentance inside yourself.

However, the difficulties to be overcome are enormous.

I felt like a worm… After a week, I wanted to die, truly. I wanted to kill myself… I, for a year, a year and a half, I was still asking myself if I’d done the right thing.

A guy thinks back about all that has happened over all these years, he thinks back about the people who are dead, either by my hand or by someone else’s hand, and a guy, thinking it over again, says: hey, how was all of this possible? I mean, with these people, with a good part of them, we were all friends, we went out together to have a good time, many times and then, because of some choices, we were enemies, I was on one side and they were on the other side… I mean it doesn’t make any sense at all….

Did it make sense to start a war, one which is still going on, in order to avenge the death of a friend....?

There were thousands of people dead! All of this killing, I have part of it on my conscience too. Because I was one of the ones who went along with all of this… 

While realizing the meaninglessness of that period, with its burden of death, (there were far too many horrors in my life, stuff that I did, far too many), Nino feels, almost at a physical level, disgust and nausea.

You, little by little, at the end, you get fed up by all of this stuff. And so at this point it is how, maybe, the final decision is born: Enough! That’s enough!

However, his life would not have no longer been safe in prison. Continuing to serve in the organization, he had only two ways:

Either to kill, or to be killed. It [The decision to collaborate, Ed.] was a liberation for me [from the cultural bind of 'kill or be killed', ed.].  

When he decided to collaborate and asked to be allowed to speak with his wife, he’d been in solitary confinement for months. (Just imagine, they called me x2, not even by my name!)

Perhaps this ferocious solitude had a part to play as well in his decision to collaborate...

I couldn’t go out to take a little air. I couldn’t even go out to take a shower. Nothing….I, for three months, in the winter time especially, I’d take the jug of cold water and I’d pour it over myself, just so that I could wash somehow. Enough to drive you nuts.

Yet Nino was well aware of the choice he was making.

But, when I took that decision, I was aware. I knew what I was doing. I’ve got to say that, yes, maybe being in solitary confinement had some influence, maybe it was something that influenced the decision.

You know, not seeing the family, that kind of stuff, it all started to let loose inside of me so many things that I took this decision; because really, never, before that moment, had I ever thought I could do something of that kind… see, it’s a whole chain of things; the loneliness, the lack of affection from my family, all of these things and then… the decision.

And along with the decision, upon placing his signature on the first statements, the painful part began. Nino didn’t think he could make it.

I wanted to die. But not because I had signed that first statement, but because the thoughts about betrayal entered my head. This was the thing.

We need here to make a digression about solitary confinement. It is well known that when it is prolonged it becomes a form of torture, but I wonder if it can provide, somehow, a chance for the prisoner to switch off from his usual roles, to take a pause of quiet reflection, without being absorbed in the rules of the “criminal society” which, as we have seen, run the everyday jail life.

Little by little, logically, you know, a guy can’t go overboard with his family all at once. But, little by little, I try to show that the person I once was isn’t there any more.... But not everyone understands this.

What I am trying to make clear, not to you but to the people I talk with, is this: I’m a different person. But I didn’t change because I collaborated - because maybe I would have changed anyhow if I hadn’t collaborated. I feel I’m a different person, with more responsibility.

Maybe it’s age, you know, that a guy starts to change the way he is, his feelings. I have no doubt at all that I have changed a lot, and my wife tells me this too. Then, I’ve changed inside myself. This is what really matters....

You see, I gave my kids an upbringing, my wife and I did; and look out - I say to him [his son, ed.] - look how I am, look at how I’m here in prison! You have grown up without a father and all of this, for what? My daughter goes to take part in protest marches against the Mafia, against drugs, that is, they are kids who have been brought up, thank God, because their mother knew how to bring them up, and also because I took them away from that environment where I had grown up.

With respect to the kids their age, the fact that they had a father in prison, no, they didn’t feel discriminated against because they had their friends anyhow. And when the other kids asked: where’s your Dad, my son always answered, he’s abroad, traveling and working.

Moral change, the culture of criminality and the collaboration

Nino claims that he has acquired another mentality, whether it’s about deciding whether or not it’s a good idea for a young girl to wear a miniskirt or go out in the evening, or whether it’s about his views on homosexuals.

So many taboos I’ve lost, but I didn’t lose them because I came to live here in Turin… Maybe that’s part of it, another mentality, even though there’s plenty of southerners here, right? 

Everything changes: the lifestyle (his family will no longer receive the generous monthly payments made by the criminal organization to the families of their imprisoned members and Nino was a particularly respected figure); human relationships (old friendships are dissolved or transformed into hatred and plots for revenge); his identity (what has happened to the respect he used to enjoy? What will be substituted for that? What new image of himself can he construct?).

What is there that remains of the former Nino if, as I seem to have grasped on the basis of his choices and his reflections, he has truly changed? Have his relationships with the world and with others changed so very profoundly that it is now possible to consider him as no longer dangerous?

Among us, in the slang of the criminal world, when a guy makes a mistake, that is, makes a mistake in the sense of becoming an informer, dropping the dime, making the call, the other guys are amazed: Good Grief, here’s this guy and for 40 years he’s been an honest man, and then at 40 years old he goes and turns informer?

No, it’s not that after 40 years he becomes an informer. It’s that he never had the chance before to become an informer! This chance came along when he was 40 years old, and he took it when he was 40 years old; but in his soul he has always been an informer.....

… I have killed people, but there were plenty of reasons to get rid of those people, business reasons… And then, after all, it’s not that I went out to do it with a smile, that I enjoyed doing it. I did it: it was a job for me. I did it and I accomplished the task if it were possible for me to do so. But I didn’t enjoy doing it. But I did know a certain guy, Angelo “the nut-case”, and this guy got off on it, he really did! And so this guy was one of the truly dangerous ones, if what we mean by dangerousness also is this side of things, then he was one of the dangerous ones....

...in my opinion, a guy, in order to be dangerous, has got to be dangerous in all circumstances. If a person becomes dangerous when he is led to certain actions, but then in his everyday life, he’s a quiet, normal person, he’s not really dangerous. Dangerousness comes out in a person - not every day, or at every moment in time, but when there is a need for it.

Thus, it would seem, for Nino, dangerousness (leaving aside the case of those who are crazy or sick) while it is potentially present in everyone, does not in and of itself constitute the real problem. Or rather, it could become the problem in certain circumstances, when somebody loses his cool; but this could happen to anyone. Naturally, the greater the provocation, the more serious will be the reaction.

It is culture which causes him to speak thus about people in his environment:

There were some people who behaved in a way that was out of line with the ethic of how they should behave themselves… To me, for example, I didn’t like those guys who would…take drugs… or would get drunk or they’d mistreat their families…

But it is also culture which causes him to say:

The cops are creeps; the judges are all against us; the State is against us; and for me too, the woman has to stay at home, she has to take care of the kids, she has to take care of the house, she shouldn’t go get a job; and if she has to go out, she must to do it with her husband: she cannot go out by herself, with friends, men or women. A guy grows up like this. This is a culture.

The culture of which Nino speaks with such evident pride and with such a profound sense of sharing its values, is that for which one is prepared, in the last resort, to sacrifice one’s own life and the lives of others.

My wife even asked me recently… after this latest happening here [the killing of R. ed.] she said that she was really… And so I tried to explain it to her: listen, it’s not that I want to do this stuff at all costs. But you are a Catanese too. You know the mentality of the South; and you know that even outside the criminal world certain mistakes have to be paid for.

If however it is true that certain values of Nino’s criminal universe (like those, for example of trust and of honor) are also folkloric [culture-specific, ed.] values, then it seems to me reasonable to assume that the Nino of the past and the Nino of today are not to be seen as an expression of opposites but rather as of continuity.

His own words confirm this:

But there are some things that stay with you, that can’t be cancelled out from one moment to the next. What I have rooted inside of me can’t be cancelled out, simply because I collaborated.

So you cannot change a person radically from who he really is inside, from what he feels inside himself! What a man has in his brain can’t be changed from one day to the next… I don’t think they will ever succeed in doing that… there just aren’t any prisons which can make a person change! But when I’m talking about “rooted” inside of ourselves I’m talking about a person’s feelings, not in the sense that I have to go back out again to break the law… this stuff, sure I could change it! What I’m saying is that a person cannot change what he feels, his feelings…

Therefore, on one hand we have the rational sphere, within which a conscious denial and rejection of the criminal profession has taken place; on the other hand, we have the emotional sphere, that of the feelings. In this second sphere, according to Nino, a whole lifetime is not sufficient for a true change to take place.

In his view, the refusal of his parents to accept the choice he made to collaborate is the proof of just how deep are the roots of their shared culture.

The father, the mother, they turn you away because you’ve made this choice. And why is this? And if even your own family, your father and mother, they turn you away because you’ve taken the decision to collaborate, you can just imagine how deeply rooted this is inside, even if it’s regular working people… People say; hey, just look at what this guy is doing! And so the humiliation that they, my relatives, they felt!

This is a recognition which goes beyond an acknowledgement of the high degree of criminal ability he has... From our conversations it came across very clearly that, compared with other criminals, he strikes almost everyone as being different. A difference that lies in the fact that he has been the personification of a certain lifestyle; a way of life which is, at the same time, criminal and folkloric; and perhaps this is one of the reasons, though not necessarily the main one, which has contributed to conferring upon him a position of prestige in the underworld. 

[This is, ed.] to endorse what Nino says when he states that he has not changed: he can hardly change because, as we know, cultural change happens very slowly indeed.....

Nino, in many ways, is still bound to a context in which one is unable, at least not without Herculean efforts, to escape the omnipresence of violence, either because one suffers it or because one inflicts it.

It is a world in which there are those who kill in order to dominate and others who kill to defend themselves, where people say: they are right when they kill people who don’t mind their own business, who steal animals, who break into houses. It is a world where people say: they do right in three cases: honor, blood and tragedy. Honor we’ve already [mentioned, ed.]. Blood: when I have a son or a father or some other relative, and they get killed, it is the blood that calls for the vendetta. When the authorities grab someone who is innocent, and they’ll send anonymous letters telling who really did it, so as not to end up in infamy. And then, if I am the one who gets a mule at the cost of sacrifices, and it happens that they rob me of that mule, and someone realizes who did it, and later on it comes out that he has been killed, then everyone says: 'Blessed be the hands that killed him'.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The text in italics is Nino. The rest, except where marked is that of Professor Amedeo Cottino.

Amedeo Cottino is Professor of Sociology, at the University of Turin; also in his time Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Président of the Comité Scientific du GERN and Director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Stockholm. These interviews were first published as a book in Italian as Vita da Clan, 1998, EGA-Edizioni Gruppo Abele; then in Swedish in 2004 as Familjeliv: en maffialedare berättar, Ordfront Förlag. There was also a French version in 2003.

Part 1 of this series         

Part 2          

Part 3          

Part 4          Part 5

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