She is the only woman living on an island of convicted criminals

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CNN

When Giulia Manca traveled to Pianosa, a former Italian prison island, back in 2011, she was looking forward to a relaxing break in the sun before returning home.

But 12 years after checking out the Milena beach hotel, which is staffed by convicts on probation, Manca has stayed on the island known as Alcatraz of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Now the only woman living in the ghost town of Pianosa, part of the Tuscany archipelago marine park, Manca is the hotel manager and supervisor of the island’s rehabilitation program, run by Arnera, a non-profit organization with the social mission of helping vulnerable people. people such as prisoners get back into society, and the prison authorities of Tuscany.

“I stayed a week at the hotel and I didn’t want to leave,” Manca told CNN. “It was a unique holiday and I was amazed by the rehabilitation project, how these prisoners got a second chance in life.

Guests pose for a photo with the male criminals who work at the hotel on Pianosa.

“I fell in love with Pianosa. The silence, the clear turquoise sea like paradise, the peaceful starry nights.”

Once known as the Devil’s Island, Pianosa, located between Corsica and the mainland, is now a happy retreat loved for its beautiful beaches and lush green vegetation.

One of only two permanent residents of the island, Manca lives and works with a prison guard, as well as 10 male convicts, who work as cooks, gardeners, waiters, beach cleaners and washing machines at the Milena Hotel, the only accommodation facility on the island. .

Surrounded by pine trees, Hotel Milena features frescoed ceilings, and houses 11 rooms with wooden furniture and a stunning sea view, as well as a large patio, where inmates serve evening drinks to guests. , restaurant and bar.

Manca had been a guest at the unique hotel, which is open all year round, for just a few days when the manager at the time informed her that the property was struggling financially and in danger of closing.

If this happened, the detainees would have to be moved back to prison, quickly ending their time on Pianosa.

“I felt I had to do something to help them or they would have gone back behind bars, inside small cells with no chance to start over and learn a job that will help them once that they are released,” said Manca, who previously worked as a tourist agent.

Manca, who grew up in Tuscany, decided to stay and take over as a hotel manager. She says she initially worked for free, using her management skills to help secure the hotel’s future.

In a few years, Manca was able to turn things around, and Hotel Milena has become a popular wedding and birthday party venue, with guests, partly attracted by The unconventional staff of the hotel that was established, come here.

Pianosa is popular for its beautiful beaches and lush green vegetation.

Located near Gorgona, another Italian prison island, Pianosa was founded in the 1700s to prevent spies, bandits and rebels.

The island was the base of a maximum security prison until 1998, when the prison was closed. Its few inhabitants eventually left and Pianosa was left deserted for several years.

Visitors were not allowed on the island until recently, and those who do visit can only come as part of an organized boat trip that must be arranged through special tour companies.

To enter the rehabilitation program at Hotel Milena, applicants must have spent at least one third of their sentence in prison and passed a series of rigorous psychological and social assessment tests.

Over the past 12 years, Manca has dealt with approximately one hundred criminals on trial for various crimes, including murder.

Although she notes that many of the prisoners were convicted of much more than “stealing daisies,” Manca has always felt comfortable on the island and considers it a safe haven. it is.

She also feels strongly that ex-offenders should be given the opportunity to contribute to society rather than spend more time behind bars.

“I believe in the power of redemption and that even criminals should be given a second chance, that they should not rot behind bars but be actively involved in rehabilitation activities,” she said. I like to see them come back to life through work.”

Known as the “Queen of Pianosa,” Manca admits her work has raised eyebrows among her friends and loved ones because of the perceived dangers of being the only woman with a group of ‘criminals.

“People kept saying I was crazy to take on such a job,” says Manca, who is also a member of Arnera. “Being the only woman working and living side by side with men who has not been charged with light crimes.

“But I was never afraid or worried. I never gave it a second thought. I feel safer with them here than back in town with all these crazy people running around, you never know who you might bump into.”

While she has her challenges leading a group of criminals, Manca says she does her best to create clear boundaries to ensure the rehabilitation program is effective.

She describes her relationship with her staff as one of mutual respect, and she has managed to strike a balance by keeping her distance, and being authoritative but open, to support them.

Every week, Manca hops on the ferry for a three-hour sea trip to mainland Tuscany to run errands and bureaucratic matters, leaving at dawn and returning to Pianosa at night.

Manca points out that unlike nearby Gorgona, where convicts must return to their cells after clocking out, those on Pianosa are allowed to move freely.

Pianosa was the base of a maximum security prison until 1998.

The prisoners here receive a monthly salary for their hotel jobs, and they live in the old prison quarters, which have been remodeled into comfortable studios, with a gym, TV, kitchen and private rooms with bathrooms.

They are also given mobile phones so they can keep in touch with their families.

Italian prisons are considered to be among the most inhumane and overcrowded in Europe, with 120 prisoners for every 100 beds, according to a 2020 report by the Council of Europe, and suicides in prison up 300% since 1960, with a 75% relapse rate. in crime.

Therefore, Pianosa is undoubtedly a much more attractive alternative for those nearing the end of their sentence.

Manca is proud of the success of the “Pianosa model,” explaining that the rate of those who have spent time on the island returning to crime has dropped to 0.01%.

“In the evening they can go down to the beach and take a dip,” explained Manca.

“However, they have to leave their lodges early in the morning and return at a certain time in the evening, they are still under supervision and there is the guard who keeps an eye on them.

Offenders can serve the rest of their sentence working at the hotel if they behave, and some have spent five to ten years here.

But there is a risk that those who do not show a willingness to change will be sent back to prison to complete the rest of their sentence.

“All have served at least one third of their sentence in prison and have undergone rigorous psychological and social evaluation tests to determine that they are no longer dangerous and suitable for the rehabilitation program, [and] that they really regret what they did,” said Manca.

“They have to show every day that they are willing to work and prepare for a better life. I don’t accept slips.”

Manca likes to keep in touch with those who left Pianosa to start a new life, using the skills they learned on the island, through social media.

She explains that several have gone on to become counselors for prisoners in other prisons after working at the hotel.

Manca is extremely proud of her part in the process and says that those who were initially suspicious of her decision to stay in Pianosa a few years ago have now come around.

“Even my daughter Yolanda, who as a child was a little skeptical about my work, has come to appreciate the island and understand the importance of what I do, and now tells me that I’m a lucky person,” Manca said.

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