OPERA, Italy (Reuters Life!) - After eight years in the Guantanamo Bay prison without trial, detainees Riad Nasri and Adel Ben Mabrouk now have a chance at a comparative dolce vita behind bars in Italy’s largest detention facility.
Prisoners at the Opera jail on the outskirts of Milan where Nasri and Mabrouk are currently held must work as part of their rehabilitation, and a lucky few devote their days to cultivating red spicy peppers, creating gelato or making bread and jams.
Nasri and Mabrouk, a pair of Tunisians who arrived in November at the prison which also houses some 84 mobsters, could one day hold down jobs like these, if they are convicted of crimes and given prison sentences by an Italian court.
The two are part of a wave of detainees moved out of the American military prison that U.S. president Barack Obama has pledged to close before January 22. And their care — being unique in its kind — is likely to prove a challenge even for a jail accustomed to dealing with all manner of criminals.
“From my point of view all inmates are equal and we will have to deal with them depending on the crimes they will be considered responsible for,” said Opera Director Giacinto Siciliano told Reuters on a visit to the prison.
But even behind high concrete walls with gun turrets on each corner, it is possible to enjoy your work.
Ivan Saimir, 23, who has already spent a year of his 22-year sentence for murder, nods with smiling eyes when asked whether he likes his job — caring for quail and collecting their small spotted eggs, a delicacy in high street shops and restaurants.
Each day, Ivan and other inmates tend the prison’s greenhouses and quail, under the eyes of less-lucky companions watching from the bars of nearby prison cells.
The ultra high security jail also hosts some notorious mafiosi, including Salvatore “Toto” Riina, a former “boss of bosses” who has been in jail since 1993 and Francesco Schiavone, the former head of the Camorra, the Naples mob.
Inmates such as these are kept under exceptionally close scrutiny lest they attempt to send orders outside.
“All their letters are read, all the talks they have with visitors listened to. No volunteers or priests are allowed to get in,” said Emilia Patruno, 57, who has been working as a volunteer in the prison for 22 years.
Close by, the two detainees from Guantanamo wait in private cells for their trials to start.
Siciliano was tight-lipped about his new inmates but Mario Leone, head of education activities, said he presumed they are also kept under strict custody.
Nasri, known as Abu Doujana, is the better-known of the two Tunisians. He is accused of having offered logistical support and weapons instruction to trainee suicide bombers.
“We questioned him on the night of his arrival and we explained how the judiciary system works in Italy,” Milan-based prosecutor Guido Salvini, who did the debriefing, told Reuters.
Salvini issued an international warrant for Nasri in 2007. The Tunisian was captured in Jalalabad near the end of 2001.
Fellow inmate Mabrouk is considered a secondary figure by Italian magistrates. He was the barber at the Milan Mosque and is believed to have been part of a cell planning attacks on the Cremona and Milan Cathedrals.
Opera’s working inmates are paid between 500-1,000 euros ($717-$1,434) per month, which is saved for them or sent to relatives. Some have enough pocket money for little purchases with jail-grown red hot peppers, one of the favorite items.
They cannot work outside the jail, but any businessman who finds employment for those on the inside receives tax rebates and “extra-safe” warehouses, said businessman Pierluigi Colombo Fassone, who is opening up a new jam production facility.
It will be no surprise then, that the former Guantanamo inmates may become part of the hive of prison activity if they are convicted of a crime and given a jail sentence.
But work is not the only alternative to seclusion.
On special occasions, the jail organizes social activities including theater productions, Christmas shows and concerts where detainees can act, play or sing.
For some notorious criminals, singing and acting in front of other prisoners may dent a tough-guy image and first time performers are often shy at their debuts, Siciliano said.
But he revels in stories like that of Francisco, a convicted drug trafficker who discovered a love of music while in jail and has become a favorite performer alongside other singing, acting and dancing murderers, drug dealers and mafiosi.
“Francisco is always a hit. One day singing could become his job,” said Isabella Biffi, a professional singer turned volunteer, who oversaw the production.
Opera’s inmates spent a month preparing for their 2009 Christmas production and should the two former Guantanamo detainees join in the fun they could find themselves sharing the sentiments of prisoners like Elio, who believes music has become a vital part of his rehabilitation.
“A musical is a way of redemption much more than spending 11 years in a cell.”
Editing by Paul Casciato