A recent proposal to reopen two of Italy's smallest islands that have served as prisons made headlines last May. With Italy's prisons on the brink of disaster from overcapacity, Italy's minister of justice Paola Severino said she was considering the idea of reopening the now-closed maximum-security prisons on the islands of Asinara, off the northern coast of Sardinia, and Pianosa, one of the seven isles of the Tuscan archipelago. Severino soon modified the proposal, reassuring authorities in Sardinia that the prison in Asinara will not be re-opened, while the detention centre that once housed Italy's most dangerous mafiosos on Pianosa will be part of a pilot project to return inmates who will help maintain and develop the island's green areas and protect its delicate ecosystem. But Tuscany has another ‘Rock' that many locals and travellers do not know about: Gorgona. Emiko Davies visited this Tuscan island prison-paradise inhabited by inmates of another experimental detention centre.
Gorgona, the splendid, uncontaminated island that represents the smallest of the islands of the Tuscan archipelago, is a fascinating place, rich in history. But it is not your regular island. It is the home of the Casa di Reclusione, an experimental, forward-thinking detention centre.
Rising between the Tuscan port city of Livorno and Corsica, the island sits 37 km and over an hour's ferry ride away from Livorno. With only one full-time resident, an octogenarian whose family has been living on the island since the time of the Medici, 30 or so summer residents (mostly friends and family of the prison guards and administrators) and roughly 80 prisoners on the 2.2 square-kilometre island, the prison today makes up the overwhelming majority of Gorgona's life and activity, as it has more or less since 1869, when it was first declared a penal colony.
Perhaps for this reason it seems that time has stood still on Gorgona. Crumbling façades, flaking paint, ancient Roman stones and fertile wild plants dominate the residential part of the island, a fishing village that dates to the 1700s, when the tiny island was once a roaring trading port for anchovies.
The island is a nature-lover's paradise. Named a national park in 1996, Gorgona is home to a variety of wild Mediterranean plants, particularly herbs and aromatic plants used by the medieval monastery communities that built the island's first paths and terraces for cultivating olives and chestnuts. It also attracts a host of unique birds to its unspoiled, steep cliff sides and forested areas, as well as wild pheasants that, some time ago, escaped from the prison's poultry coop. A 7km walk through the island's dirt tracks, pine forests and natural lookouts to the highest point of the Torre Vecchia yields a breathtaking vista-what is surely one of the most beautiful and unique landscapes of Tuscany.
The stunning Torre Vecchia is a noticeably crumbling twelfth-century tower, built by the Pisans as a watchtower on a precariously steep 250-metre drop. The turquoise sea crashes silently underneath. It is mind boggling to try to understand how it was built. One can only imagine how much more impressive it would have been before it was abandoned to the wind and nesting birds that are now its only inhabitants.
From here, a wide dirt track leads to one of the most interesting parts of the island, the agricultural area. The prison's main function is as a working organic farm, a social project built on the idea that the prisoners-selected individuals from other jails who have shown good behaviour, a capacity to work and are in good health-will learn new skills and in the meantime earn a salary that can take them back into the real world. Further, the hope is that by working freely, out in the open with animals, plants, the sea and the earth, they will reconnect with the universal laws of nature.
The prison's farm raises cows, goats, sheep, horses, donkeys, pigs, court birds (chickens, guinea fowl, the escaped pheasants), rabbits, fish and bees. They grow vegetables and fruit for the use of the prison. They have recently put in 2 hectares of vineyards for winemaking. And they produce honey, olive oil, aloe, bread and cheese from the goats, sheep and cows. It is a self-sufficient little world built by the prisoners, mostly for the prisoners.
The farm is unconventional, not the least because of its location, in the middle of the sea. The animals are all cared for by homoeopathic methods. The goats and sheep are free to roam the island, coming home to their right places before dark, not unlike the prisoners themselves. The cows have developed such a relationship with the prisoners charged with looking after them that they respond to their names and know which milking station is theirs.
Perched on a beautiful part of the island with a view of the sea is the cows' stable, which is unusual not only for the beautiful view but because the bulls and the cows are happily mixed together. Rosso, an enormous red bull originally from Parma (famous, of course, for its Parmesan cheese) is jealously protecting his mate, while their new baby calf hides between them. On most farms today, the bull is kept separate from the females and mating is done by artificial insemination. Not at Gorgona. The veterinarian, Marco Verdone, who happens to be there to oversee two beautiful cows that are ready to give birth, explains that they are trying to demonstrate the most natural laws of the universe. Therefore, they do not intervene in the most basic of those laws: the creation of life. While the cows are being milked, one teat is always reserved for the baby calves to suckle from their mothers, which promotes healthy milk in the mother and sufficiently feeds the calves.
There is a wonderful sense of man and nature working harmoniously on this island, and you can see how the most basic life skills can be learned by the simplicity of the system at the prison farm. They help the animals, explains Verdone, about the role of the prisoners, but more importantly, the animals help them.
How to get there
Gorgona can only be visited through a pre-approved and pre-arranged guided tour with Toscana Mini Crociere, departing from Livorno. For more information on the availability fo tours this summer, contact www.toscanaminicrociere.it or call 334/2377941 (or 347/7922453).