This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Above the entrance to the Due Palazzi Detention Centre in Padua, northern Italy is a quote from the poet Dante: “You were not made to live like brutes.” The red-lettered inscription is flanked by marble statues, and makes for a strong first impression of a place that is not your average prison.
Besides housing over 500 inmates, Due Palazzi is also home to the Giotto bakery, a pastry shop renowned across Italy. Their panettone, an Italian Christmas classic, has been frequently ranked one of the best in the country. They also make chocolate pralines, biscuits, ice cream and colombe (doves), a typical Easter dessert. The whole production side takes place here, in the prison. The baked goods are then sold online and in two stores in Padua, as well as being shipped all over Italy and abroad.
Having tried their desserts, I was curious to learn more about how a prison programme can run the kind of tight operation required for patisserie excellence. My prison tour guides were Giulia Calore and Roberto Polito from the Work Crossing association, which founded the bakery in 2005 and still manages it today. They are respectively the organisation’s communications manager and sales and marketing manager.
Padua’s prison was originally located in the city centre, and has always offered work programmes to inmates. The new headquarters were built on the outskirts of the city in the 1990s, with more space for working. Now, 38 inmates are employed in the bakery, while others work in a medical call centre or making suitcases.
Not all prisoners get the opportunity to work with flour and butter. The selection process involves psychologists and social workers who take into account an inmate’s personal profile, the length of their sentence and whether they need to support a family on the outside.
“Paying our employees made all the difference,” Polito told me. Every prisoner in the bakery is hired under a regular contract and receives a paycheque they can send to their families. “It creates a connection with the outside and makes them feel useful,” Calore said. “Here, it’s easy to feel like a victim.”
The bakery’s activities are organised into three four-hour shifts a day, seven days a week, to maximise the number of prisoners who can be employed. Staff turnover is about 30 to 40 percent because some inmates are released throughout the year. Four professional pastry chefs also work in the bakery, instructing and managing the workers. One of them, Matteo Concolato, showed me around.
During my visit, many of the inmates were busy icing colombe for the upcoming spike in demand.”The situation has improved compared to Christmas, when we had a COVID outbreak and entire floors of the prison had to be quarantined,” Concolato said. “We pastry chefs were left to work with only six inmates. Ten people for thousands of panettones.”
Giotto’s production has gone through the roof over the years as customers put aside their preconceptions about buying food made by inmates. Polito and Calore explain that, in the early days, customers at trade fairs would spit out the food when they found out where it had come from. Now, companies order Christmas baskets for their entire staff. The success has meant the bakery is looking to expand and hire more people.
According to the Italian Ministry of Justice, about 68 percent of Italian inmates end up reoffending after leaving prison. In the US, a 2013 study by think-tank RAND Corporation found that inmates who received educational or vocational training while in custody were 43 percent less likely to be incarcerated again.
Obviously, making pastry within the walls of a prison comes with a few bureaucratic and practical constraints. For instance, it is strictly forbidden for inmates to be in contact with alcohol. “We have to be careful about many things – for example, the yeast must be delivered to us personally and in the right quantity,” Concolato said. “If you ferment it with apples, for example, you can make an alcoholic drink.”
Walking around the bakery during production, I heard accents from across Italy and the rest of the world. But despite normally being outgoing, it took me a while to figure out how to approach the inmates for an interview. Eventually, the conversation flowed.
Naples-born Manuele*, true to traditional Neapolitan hospitality, was the first to show us his work: tray after tray of single-portion desserts resting in the fridge, including a beautiful Bavarian cream with chamomile, lemon and a pepper biscuit base. He insisted on us having a taste, before joking that he didn’t want his picture taken, in case his wife saw “how ugly he has becom”.
François* is from Congo and has a huge scar running down his arm. New to the team, he told me he’d already worked in a bakery on the “outside”. He said he enjoys the job and would like to stay on.
In the packaging and shipping section, I talked to Michele*, who has been here for four years. “Before working here, I hardly knew what cookies were. Now, I’m really into it,” he said. “It's nice to think they will be shipped all over the world, from California to Singapore.”
Michele takes a lot of pride in his packaging work. “We make the dessert complete, we dress it up,” he said. Sometimes, he fantasises about who his customers might be, like “a grandfather saving up to buy a good panettone for his grandson”. He’ll be out soon, but said he’s happy to have had this opportunity while inside. “Prison work is very important. It’s fulfilling. It gives you pleasure in the midst of so much suffering,” he said.
Beppe* is now a fundamental part of the Giotto team. In charge of the chocolate desserts (he offered me some amazing pralines), Beppe has been working here for five years, but will soon be out on probation. The pastry chefs often joke that they’d like him to stay in prison because of how good he is.
Pastry chef Ascanio Brozzetti previously worked at the three-star Michelin restaurant Le Calandre in Padua before accepting this job. “I came without expectations, in a good way,” he said. “It’s a great atmosphere. I see a big difference between when someone new first arrives and who they become after a few months. Working here softens their character.”
Many of the inmates working at Giotto come from the so-called “protected” section, for prisoners who can’t be integrated into the general prison population for safety reasons, like sex offenders, former law enforcement and mafiosi who have collaborated with the police. Only here, in the bakery, can they mingle with others.
Inside Due Palazzi, the only canteen is reserved for the staff, while prisoners have to eat inside the nine-square-metre cells they almost always share with at least one other person. You only get out for a couple of hours of yard time per day, plus visitations and doctor’s appointments, which is why this workspace is so valuable to Giotto employees.
At some point, one of the inmates thanked us for our visit and told us kindly but firmly that the inmates had a lot of work to do.
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*All inmates' names have been changed to protect their privacy.