High on a hillside overlooking the azure sea on a small Mediterranean island, two brawny men toil under the sun in a vineyard that has just released a 50 euro (US$66) wine destined for the tables of top restaurants.
This is not an exclusive wine estate or secluded retreat for the rich, despite the tranquil beauty. It is, rather, the residence of men serving long sentences for some of Italy’s most notorious and brutal crimes, on an island named after monstrous sisters in Greek mythology with snakes for hair. Gorgona, the smallest of the Tuscan archipelago that also includes Elba, where Napoleon was incarcerated, is home to a project to rehabilitate hardened criminals through agriculture.
The island, an isolated refuge for monks for 1,500 years and a penal colony since 1869, has just produced 2,700 bottles of a crisp white wine called Gorgona with the help of a 700-year-old Italian wine dynasty. Among the buyers is a Michelin three-star restaurant in Florence, Italy.
Gorgona’s 40 inmates, many of them convicted of murder, including a notorious contract killing, also produce high quality pork, vegetables, chickens, olive oil and cheese.
The two men on the hillside are serving long terms for murder and won transfer to Gorgona after years in other jails.
There is a long waiting list for entry to the island, a highly desirable location compared with most of Italy’s chronically overcrowded jails. Unlike them, Gorgona is at about half its capacity.
“When I come up here in the morning I am struck by the peace. The time does not weigh on you,” said one of them, Brian Baldissin, a tattooed and muscular 30-year-old from the northern Veneto region, whose elder brother is also in the jail.
Escape from Gorgona, 37km off the port of Livorno, is considered impossible although one prisoner did disappear and has never been found.
The only boat allowed near the rocky coast is a weekly ferry that brings family members for visits. Even that is not permitted to dock and passengers are taken off on police launches.
Prisoners are only locked up at night.
The island, in an archipelago which includes the setting of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, has only one permanent resident, 86-year-old Luisa Citti-Corsini, a tiny woman who lives with a cat called ET in a house above the harbor.
She said the inmates were “very polite.”
Asked if she was scared, she replied: “Scared of what?”
Both prisoners and guards are strong supporters of the rehabilitation regime and say it should be used elsewhere.
“What does prison do? A prison like Gorgona can improve you. But other institutions where you are closed 22 hours in a cell just make you bad, that’s it,” Prinzi said. “The screams of desperation there will stay in your head forever.”
Higher up the island from the vineyard, Sicilian Benedetto Ceraulo, 55, works among racks of cheeses made from ewe’s milk and cow’s milk.
Ceraulo was convicted in 1998 of being the gunman in one of Italy’s most sensational crimes, the murder of Maurizio Gucci, last member of the original family to control the fashion empire, on the orders of his former wife.
Ceraulo, who has repeatedly claimed he is innocent, won a transfer to Gorgona a year ago.
“It’s a good life here. You are free. You have the chance to learn, I feel lucky,” he said.
Not far away, Chinese immigrant Jin Zhaoli works in a large nursery cultivating more than a thousand tomato, courgette, aubergine and pepper plants. He was convicted of murdering his wife 14 years ago and is due to get out in a year.
“It’s good here,” he said.
The vines on Gorgona were first planted in 1999 but later abandoned. They were cleaned up and restored after 2009 by a now-released Sicilian inmate who had his own vineyard at home, helped by Prinzi and Papa.
The Marchesi de’Frescobaldi wine dynasty came on the scene in the summer last year after prison authorities asked local companies to invest in the agricultural program. The company sent experts to improve the care and picking of the vines, harvesting the same year.
Lamberto Frescobaldi, 30th generation of the family, vice president and head of wine making, said that the one hectare vineyard was ideally situated, facing east toward the morning sun and planted in mineral rich soil.
The Frescobaldis, who were bankers and then wine suppliers to the English kings in the Middle Ages, pay a wage to the convict workers and then sell the wine.
The governor of Gorgona, Maria Grazia Giampiccolo, is known for her progressive methods and also runs a prison inside a Medici fortress in the Tuscan town of Volterra. Inmates there run “Jailbird Dinners” every year with help from local chefs.
She is a leading advocate of engaging inmates in work by building relationships with outside companies.
“We need real possibilities to reinsert inmates into society... If the response is only prison it will always be inadequate,” she said.