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Paris Match: four pages for Les Prisonniers Pâtissiers

Monday, March 28 2016

Paris Match, one of the most well-known, popular and influential of France periodicals talks about our pastry chef prisoners.
Here our translation of the article. (You can read the original article from Paris Match pages here).

Paris Match, 11-17 February 2016, pp. 121-124

Pastry Chef Prisoners - by Emmanuelle Jary


They make cakes behind bars. Although prisons are considered to be places for delinquents, in Northern Italy, a company puts prisoners on the right track by giving them work. Condemned to heavy sentences for very serious crimes, these men are transformed and recidivism is drastically reduced after several years of training.

At 5am, the first fragrances of pastries and croissants fill up the Giotto pastry workshop. Like in all pastry workshops, men dressed with white aprons and paper hats are busy at work: some are making shortbread, others are removing fruit cakes from their mold and others yet are decorating appetizing petits fours…

And, like in any other pastry workshop, a radio – protected with a plastic film – is broadcasting popular songs. Nothing’s out of the ordinary, or almost. The windows have bars. Security officers check the IDs of visitors and search them before allowing them to enter. Mobile phones and cash are prohibited. We are in the prison of Padua, one of the ten biggest ones in Italy. More than six hundred people are imprisoned here. Most of them were given long sentences. Murders, thefts, abductions and kidnappings… the Giotto pastry chefs were certainly not in a children’s choir. However, we can speak in the past since the work has softened their ways. Although there are no official figures, Nicola Boscoletto firmly states: “When our employees leave the prison, recidivism is estimated at 2%, whereas it varies between 70 and 90% amongst other Italian prisoners.” Nicola Boscoletto is the director of the Giotto Workshop, a consortium composed of two cooperatives that employ 150 of the prison’s inmates. The latter work in various workshops: making pastries, repairing bicycles, garment bags or USB keys, digitalizing documents for various companies or working as call center operators to take appointments for the hospital of Padua…

The work thus contributes to their reintegration. Yes, but not any kind of work. In France, this has been the source of a debate. In September 2015, a petition signed by 375 university students, mainly specialized in law and labor regulations, recalled the European penitentiary standards: “The organization and work methods used in prison must be as close as possible to the ones used outside of prisons in order to prepare prisoners for the normal professional conditions of everyday life.” Concerned by this issue on the right to work in prison, the constitutional Council judged that the legislation was in compliance with the Constitution. However, the prisoners do not sign any contract, do not have any unemployment insurance, nor do they have any paid leaves, occupational medical rights, compensation in case of illness, or any right to strike or to join a union. They are paid between 20 to 45% of the minimum wage. Indecent wages resulting in less than 2 euros an hour have thus been observed. Finally, there are no guarantees as to the number of hours or days prisoners will be allowed to work every month. Since most prisoners have never held a job before going to prison, they come out with a degraded perception of work and associate it to humiliation. How could it be any different considering how the prion wardens have described the activities planned: distinguishing cruciform screws from non-cruciform ones or unfolding cartons and tapes so they can be ready for use…

Before working for Giotto, Dinja, Guido… were considered to be violent

Philippe Auvergnon, a labor attorney and Director of Research at the CNRS, underlines an important point: “The penitentiary administration regards work as a sport, i.e. as a tool used to maintain social peace. As for the prisoners, they want to work even if they know they are being exploited because it gives them something to do while making them feel somewhat autonomous.” It is indeed impossible to live in prison without cash to buy toiletries, cigarettes, books… or to buy things from the canteen, as one would say in prison.

In Padua, Dinja does not only buy things from the canteen with his 900-euro net wage. He sponsors two humanitarian associations, in Uganda, to contribute to the education of his children. Before working for the Giotto Workshop, he was in isolation because he was considered to be violent against himself, the prison staff and other prisoners. “Nobody could approach me. I stayed in my cell, the days never passed and I wanted to kill myself. Initially, it was very difficult, I had never worked and I wanted to earn money easily, but the trainers and the entire Giotto staff came to me to motivate me and to calm me down. I didn’t understand why these people were doing this for me since I had been so violent and mean. Today, I like this type of work, it’s like an opportunity to start anew.” Condemned to life in prison for two homicides, Dinja has been in prison for thirteen years and will stay there for a long time. Considering his sentence, we didn’t dare to ask him what he intends to do once he will reacquire his freedom. However, we asked the 47-year old Francesco, who has been imprisoned since 1993, and who should be released in 2020. He moved to Padua in 2003, from a town called Lecce, in the Puglia region. He was locked up here twenty-two hours a day. He wasn’t doing anything and he didn’t want anything. He was just waiting. But, what can one expect after being locked up for nearly thirty years? In Padua, he began to study and, then, to work. He initially did four years at the call center and recently moved to pastry making.  “Today, I have plans. I spoke with my son and sister and we want to open a pastry shop in Northern Italy. “I want to start a new life.” Guido, condemned to life in prison, also speaks of his family relations since he’s been working. “I was able to hold conversations and to confront myself to my colleagues’ ideas. Now, I also speak with my daughter and help her pay for her university tuition fees.” Guido learned how to read in prison. This way, he can escape every evening without going beyond the walls.
His words are translated to us by Franco, from Piedmont, who speaks good French since he was imprisoned in the Baumettes prison, in Marseilles, but also in the prisons of Nice and Lyon.

He was also incarcerated in the Netherlands for kidnapping and abduction, but escaped and was on the run for nineteen years. He was then arrested in 2004, and was placed in a high security establishment since he was considered to be very dangerous. How could this calm and refined man wearing a nice striped blue shirt and an elegant scarf around his neck have been involved in organized crime? “Before, I was not given an opportunity to work since I was considered dangerous. The only thing I could think of was how to escape. When I arrived in Padua, I changed thanks to my work.I’m well now and I turned the page on my past.”

We now move towards Elvin, who just took his Panettone cakes out of the oven. He overturns them to make sure the dough doesn’t remain stacked at the bottom of the cakes. “Pastry making is meticulous work, but, if you stick to the recipe, you can succeed. The Panettone cake is more complicated because of the fermentation. The dough is alive and very unpredictable, like any living thing,” he explains. Condemned for homicide, he has been working in the Giotto pastry workshop for eight years. At 37 years of age, of which twelve were spent behind bars, he had never worked before arriving to Padua. Pastry making has changed his life and these are not meaningless words. Small, with a shaved head, his glance is always stable on the person he is speaking to, almost to the point of making one feel a little awkward. Although calmer, he maintains a certain level of arrogance and one can imagine the truncheon must not have had much effect on him. However, work did: “The first time I got a permission to leave the prison for a day, I never would have come back that evening if I hadn’t been a pastry chef at Giotto’s.”When released, Elvin would like to return to his hometown, in Albania, where he plans on opening a pastry shop, just like another inmate – who founded his own company thanks to the useful and wonderful skills learned behind these walls – has already done. This is how work becomes a real rehabilitation tool. According to Paolo Massobrio, founder of the gastronomical guide “Il Golosario,” “the Panettone cakes of Padua’s prison are ranked amongst the ten best ones in Italy. We have also listed their cookies and excellent artisanal ice cream. The quality of the product is very important for the rehabilitation of these prisoners, who are so proud of it.”

In addition to the importance of the task and to the quality of the apprenticeship, the Giotto workshops also respect labor laws. Like the other paid members of the cooperative, the 150 prisoners signed a contract that ensures the same wages as those working outside of the prison walls, but also the same rights: sick leave, unemployment, old age, right to strike, which is never requested. One of the persons in charge humorously commented: “They are hard workers who never strike because it is more pleasant to work than to remain in a cell.”

A beneficial model for both the prisoners and society considering the reduction in recidivism. Then why isn’t this program more widespread in Italy or elsewhere?

The director of the Giotto consortium, Nicola Boscoletto, has his own idea about it.  The penitentiary system does not believe in the rehabilitation of prisoners, it’s a very closed-minded environment.

In France, we often hear that companies would leave if the labor laws were also applied to prisons and if we had to pay prisoners like any other normal employees. Furthermore, the penitentiary administration allows them to use their facilities free of charge.

THE PRISON’S PANETTONE CAKES ARE POSITIONED amongst the ten best ones in all of Italy.

Besides, Giotto is a flourishing business. It delivers its cakes to the largest hotels in Italy and just opened an ice cream shop in the center of Padua, but also plans on opening another in Lisbon. Furthermore, former prisoners will manage the shop. Lastly, Giotto also owns a good restaurant whose pizza maker is a prisoner on parole. Aren’t the waiters afraid of a man who was once classified as being dangerous? No one makes any difference between this pizza maker and the others. Rino is also on parole; he drives a small van to deliver meals – prepared by Giotto – to businesses and private individuals on a daily basis. Has he ever thought of escaping with his vehicle?
“After ten years of prison, with a beautiful job and only six more years to go before being released, one would be insane to throw it all away.” Yes, we have to trust them, but it’s not the most difficult thing to do since these men have been transformed by their professional activities.

There is, however, a moral barrier. Although prison is only supposed to deprive a person of his/her freedom, many people around the world share the same thought: the living standards of a condemned individual must be lower than the lowest living conditions of a free person. Philippe Auvergnon summarizes: “When you are in prison, nothing must be easy, from what you eat to what you do for work, if you have a job.”

After all, is it acceptable to know these men are happy? Are the victims’ families happy to see these prisoners smile with beautiful Panettone cakes in their hands?  Salvatore Pirruccio, who has been appointed to the prestigious position of vice-inspector of the penitentiary administration of Northern Italy, was the head warden of the Padua prison from 2002 to 2015. He organized many meetings between the victims and prisoners, as well as visits of the workshops.  He mentioned the daughter of a politician who was killed by the red brigades in 1974, when she was only 4 years old; she voluntarily came to visit the prison in order to help the prisoners.

Their job is like redemption. Even the families of the victims approve.

“Initially,” he continues, “the victims’ associations believed that prisoners should be locked up without being given an opportunity to work or leave. However, they have changed their minds after seeing the Giotto workshops. They now understand that working in prisons creates a bond with society. Even though these prisoners have committed serious crimes, they are not animals.” Indeed, the people we have met are human beings that are oddly frail enough in some cases and whose emotions can be perceived through their every word. Others are undoubtedly serene and happy, like Davor, who was condemned to life in prison and who sees his job as a real redemption.

Certainly, not everyone is capable of forgiving. We are not all like Pope Francis, who – as soon as he was elected – went to prison to hold mass and to cleanse the feet of prisoners. 

He also buys the Giotto Panettone cakes as end-of-the-year gifts. If prayers manage to accompany many prisoners, Nicola Boscoletto - a catholic himself - is certain that intelligent work remains the best solution because it can give inmates their dignity back and help them reintegrate themselves. What we saw in Padua proves it. While forgetting about our prejudices, we also forgot we were in prison. When we finished this reportage, we viewed criminals in a drastically different way than before: we even gave our cell number to a prisoner who asked for it. Any company must be allowed to evolve in order to move forward. When it was time to leave, the small radio of the pastry shop – covered with the plastic film – ironically played a French song.

We left the prison with the following words from Edith Piaf: “Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien. Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait, ni le mal, tout ça m’est bien égal. C’est payé, balayé, oublié, je me fous du passé” [No, I do not regret anything, neither the good or bad that came to me, nothing matters anymore. I have paid my debts, cleaned-up, forgotten and I no longer care about the past.]

Every country comes to study the Giotto method…with the exception of France!

In Italy, the Giotto workshop remains a one of a kind project. Other social companies employ prisoners under good conditions, especially in Rome and Turin, to package chocolate, coffee and wine, but these are much smaller structures. Abroad, Bruno Abate, an Italian chief from Chicago, made two visits to the prison of Padua in order to better understand the model and to try to replicate it in an American prison. Currently, he teaches prisoners to make pizzas through his Recipe for Change association. Members of the Association for the protection and assistance of condemned individuals (Apac) came from Brazil to visit the workshops of the Padua prison. The Brazilian State then drew up an official social policy document requesting all prisons to set up work opportunities based on the Giotto model. Now, Chile and Venezuela are also interested in this experiment. But what about France?  No member of the penitentiary administration ever went to the prison of Padua. Although there are examples of interesting work that can be implemented, the penitentiary administration prefers not to speak about this issue.

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