The “Prison Project” of the University of Milan

University of Milan, headquarters in via Festa del Perdono. Around the cloisters of Cà Granda, it is one of the hottest afternoons this summer, and Professor Stefano Simonetta begins to tell the birth of the “prison project” at the State University.

Simonetta is the university contact for the project. The last National Conference of the Correctional University Centers has put a fact on paper: one in ten students in Italy is enrolled at the University of Milan. In the entire country, no other university contributes so much to the effective exercise of the right to education for prisoners.

The “Prison Project”, starting from 2015, has activated collaborations with the prisons of Bollate, Opera, Vigevano and the prisons of Monza and Pavia. It is open to all university courses. From economics to literature, from political science to international relations up to the disciplines of the scientific field.

Philosophy, history, law are, however, among the most chosen addresses by students, also for practical reasons. By studying these disciplines, those who are not permitted to attend classes and workshops have a greater chance of being able to keep up with courses and exams without having to make additional sacrifices.

However, until seven years ago, before the start of the “prison project”, the few inmates who chose to study were always forced to juggle a thousand inconveniences. Professor Simonetta remembers how the project was born and the person who more than others convinced him to dedicate himself to this work:


Tutors are students and graduates who choose to accompany prisoners on their studies. There are more than a hundred at Statale di Milano. In practice, there is almost one for every narrow pupil. According to Simonetta, this sharing, this effort to open the closed and often impenetrable world of the prison to the outside, is what really allows for social reintegration for the inmates.

A path that moves thanks to the work of many people and the presence of space. The University of Milan is the only university in Italy that has an office dedicated to the prison project. It is located right at the entrance to the main office. Chiara Dell’Oca is one of the leaders of the office:

To understand how the meeting and comparison between teachers and students can create benefits, just listen to the dialogues and stories that some of them make. Ambrogio is a student who misses a few exams before majoring in philosophy. When you start out, you don’t know which supervisor may be assigned to you, explains Ambrogio. A boy or a girl, young or old, graduated or still struggling with the first exams. According to him, however, there is one thing that unites them all:

At first, students may not know where to begin. In these cases, tutors offer invaluable help on a very practical level. Rocco, another student, tells it. His testimony starts from the experience he lived: “I had no tools to approach the studio. At first I was very worried about having a method, but I was lucky enough to have a very “smart” supervisor. He told me “don’t worry, you start then along the way we will find a way that works for you”. I started making my summaries, my underlining and slowly, my 27-28 exams I managed to take them“.

Asking the educators what prompted them to get involved in the prison project elicits a widespread response: curiosity. Approaching the world of deprivation of liberty means coming into contact with questions that touch deep keys in social and individual life. If the spark starts there, what keeps the desire to continue alive over time is something else, explains Elisa, a student who has been a teacher for years:

Along with books, knowledge, personal relationships are also of fundamental importance. In the case of Rocco, the state university’s “prison project” also affected his condition as a prisoner on the material level. He obtained a semi-release for academic reasons. A rather rare recognition, even when it comes to work. From here, it requires extra energy to confidently look at what the future promises:

If you ask Professor Simonetta where the prison project can and still needs to be improved, there is no shortage of answers. They focus on the lack of space, on the daily struggle to scratch the rigidity of prejudices and habits. “The goal is to make the prison a little more transparent“Says the professor. Humanizing the place of the inaccessible by definition, the one where we most often hear that the keys should be thrown away. The study seems to be a response to these closures, the tool capable of opening minds and doors.

from Luca Parena

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