Luckily, I’ve led a life that has not put me in contact with prisons. But even thinking back on my trip to Abashiri, I can’t quite picture the kinds of places they must be. I’ve seen them plenty of times in movies—especially American one—but ultimately I’m looking at them as part of a fictional story. It doesn’t make it any easier to grasp what a prison is like in reality.
There is one prison located in the center of Milan. Interestingly, it’s situated in a corner of a high-end neighborhood, with the avenues surrounding it home to massive open-air markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The bustling scene filled with locals and tourists creates a fascinating contrast. And the area is crammed with important landmarks just a stone’s throw away—like the world-renowned Leonardo da Vinci museum and one of Milan’s most important Catholic universities. When you really stop and think about it, one of the most interesting things about this city is the way its contrasting elements back right up against each other and exist side by side.
The five-star Chateau Monfort hotel is built right next to the Saint Francis charity house, for example. It’s a place that offers free meals and showers to drug addicts and the jobless, and when the hour gets to a certain time you can see lines of stooped figures snaking around to get services in the fading light. Meanwhile the luxury cars of the guests of the Chateau Monfort arrive to drop off well-dressed ladies and gentlemen at the hotel. It is a world of contrast.
Back to the prison in Milan. It may be built in a high-end neighborhood, but it is still a prison after all—its inmates inhabiting a completely different world from the people who live around them. That said, I have absolutely no way of picturing how horrific that environment really is. I’ve heard that there are two other prisons in the Milan suburbs, but for some reason the inmates in the central prison are treated the most severely. Unlike Abashiri Prison, which has since been converted into a museum, it’s not a place you can just go and visit. So while I don’t have any hard information on it, I was able to visit one of the prisons in the Milan suburbs when we went to give a Christmas concert there once.
To start, visitors must surrender their cell phones, flash drives, and anything else not allowed to be brought in at the front gate. The mafia is strong in Italy, so a don in prison could arrange to get revenge on the person that betrayed (?) him and landed him in jail with just one phone call, so he wants access to visitors‘ cell phones at the expense of all his possessions.
Once we were inside, the visitors and performers are given instructions by trained jail staff so that the event or concert can be carried out according to a strictly determined schedule. In Italy, it’s common for a concert to start twenty or thirty minutes late, but the inmates filed into the concert venue not a minute late for the one we gave in the prison and quietly took their seats so we could start exactly on time. Being so used to late start times, the situation really threw me for a loop.
When we asked the staff about it, they told us that only the model inmates were allowed the privilege of coming to hear the Christmas concert. Normally after a Christmas concert, the performers will mingle around offering hugs and Christmas wishes to each other and the guests before everyone goes home to their families, but the inmates simply filed out quietly and went back to their cells.
I have no idea what mistakes they made to get in here, but I do dearly hope that listening to the Christmas concert contributed to their healing in some way.