Interview. We spoke with the chaplain of the Beccaria Correctional Institute for Minors in Milan. When empathy ‘is lacking, relationships are replaced by regulations. And if there’s one thing a teenager will take as a challenge to fight against, it’s regulations.'

Don Rigoldi: In Italy’s juvenile prisons, what’s lacking is empathy

At the Beccaria Correctional Institute for Minors in Milan, it’s a time for silence after a series of escapes.

“Now it’s quieter, what do you expect? In the main groups, half have been transferred, there are just ten left where there were 20 before. Those who have a few months left on their sentence are sleeping, not doing much else. But now I just hope to be able to convince the other three escapees to come back, to avoid getting even more severe sentences.”

Don Gino Rigoldi, chaplain of Milan’s juvenile prison for 50 years and founder of a foundation that works mainly with minors, is a picture of sadness. He is worried about those boys, whom he knows personally: the three inmates who are still fugitives, and all the others who are either back inside, in Milan’s prison for minors, or transferred to the South, who knows where.

Last Tuesday, the fourth escapee returned to his cell. He was found sitting in a square listening to music with other young people – typical teenager behavior. What is the point of bringing him back to prison, to this kind of prison?

The point? Well, there isn’t any. He committed a crime and got convicted, but otherwise—he’s a quiet kid, not a hardened criminal. One thing must be kept in mind: more than a thousand unaccompanied foreign minors have arrived in Milan recently. A few hundred didn’t have a place in municipal housing and have been left wandering the streets, homeless and jobless. Of course, they all end up in jail, one after the other. What are they supposed to do? The young man who escaped and was tracked down on Tuesday had committed some petty theft, then he decided to go and listen to music in the square. So there was no dramatic escape plan, they don’t have a criminal network behind them. Now, one after another, they will ask to come back, because they don’t know where else to go. The families, if they exist – because many don’t have one – are also pushing for them to go back. It’s not like we have serious criminals at Beccaria.

The right-wingers are calling for a counter-reform of juvenile prisons: an age limit of 21, after which they should be moved to a prison for adults, according to them. You, who have dedicated your life to children of many generations, can you explain when adolescence actually ends nowadays?

Adolescence is very, very long now. And everybody knows that. This is also because growing up doesn’t just happen as time goes by. It happens when someone talks to you, encourages your skills, teaches you what you need to give yourself a clearer identity… A teenager always has the impression that he is not worthwhile, that he is inadequate, that he is not seen as enough. It seems to me that nowadays young people have to grow up on their own, or with social media, which is even worse. It is absolutely insane to think that at 18, or at 21, they could go into the adult criminal circuit. It would be insane even in the cases of those who commit the crime after they reach legal age, but to even think of moving a young person who committed a crime as a juvenile – 16 or 17, that’s the age of most of the young people who end up in a juvenile prison – before they complete the treatment they started, with great difficulty, in a correctional facility for minors, is really complete and utter nonsense. Then we might as well shut these institutions down. It would make no sense to attempt to build a life project together with them; and this in a country where there is little housing for autonomous living, there are no jobs and the halfway communities are closing down.

Minister Nordio says he will address the issue of youth deviance by organizing an inter-ministerial round table. Which ministry should do more, in your opinion?

The Ministry of Education, for one. If we want to take care of young people, we have to go to where they are, that’s where we have to invest in quality. After that, it’s too late. There are so many kids today with psychological and even psychiatric problems. So we need to put our focus on mental health as well.

How should we do that?

In parallel, at the university level, we should make sure that the specialty of Child Neuropsychiatry gets more than the tiny numbers of graduates it is seeing now. We had one child neuropsychiatrist for 20 years, and with him, since he had passion and expertise, psychiatric issues had plummeted. Now we have neuropsychiatrists but who are not child psychiatrists, and it’s not the same. Then, we’d need to be able to have highly mixed and integrated therapeutic communities: a little in and a little out of the system. Like the community of one my friends, which puts troubled kids in continuous contact with peers from the neighborhood, with ball games and such. In this way, as they undergo treatment, the problem kids begin to get accustomed to a normalcy they hadn’t known before. The old-fashioned psychiatric clinic built on a hill where everyone is dressed in white and administering medicine is not good for a teenager.

The same concept should also apply to prisons, shouldn’t it?

Yes, all the more so for a juvenile. You see, one of the most urgent problems in this field is that halfway communities are closing because they can’t “keep up” with these kinds of kids coming in, because they are struggling to find educators. There is a need for replacements, but not just anyone: there is a need for experienced and trained staff who have both skills and passion. Objectively, we have personnel who have just graduated, but the people who can display authority and are able to handle these kinds of kids are very rare.

What are they lacking in: muscle or ability as psychologists?

What is lacking is empathy. And when that is lacking, relationships are replaced by regulations. And if there’s one thing a teenager will take as a challenge to fight against, it’s regulations. It’s one thing to have a relationship, in which you argue, fight, even slap each other and then hug at the end; and it’s another thing to make use of regulations. Which is a problem we also have at Beccaria: here, those who spend the most time with the boys are the prison guards. When I arrived here 50 years ago, the 40- to 50-year-old officers were the “fathers of the family.” And there was no doubt that they were respected figures. Today, we have 23- or 25-year-old squad leaders who get scared and don’t know how to deal with certain situations. Furthermore, they stay very little, there is huge turnover. So you have to start over again every time and you can’t establish meaningful relationships.

This is what is happening at the government level – from raves to baby gangs. Youth deviance or exuberance is responded to with repression alone. It’s an antiquated approach – don’t you agree?

Yes, indeed, I thought of that myself the other day when I heard about the special stadium bans passed on the San Siro kids. But how exactly will you stop them from going to Piazza Selinunte [the place of a number of protests and violent confrontations with Milano police]? Why don’t they come and see how Don Claudio Burgio, the priest who’s working with me at Beccaria, has managed to use three premises to turn some baby gangs into kids who play soccer with him? But who’s even thinking about such ideas? I don’t think they’re so brilliant that they’re out of people’s grasp entirely.

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