PALERMO - Antonino Marano was 20 years old when he was arrested for the first time. The charge was theft of some peppers, a bicycle and of a now-obsolete Motom 48 model motor bike. I stole them so I could go to work, as a laborer, he says now.
Marano was born in Mascali, near the Sicilian city of Catania. Like in a 19th century novel, his father was a farmer, his mother a housewife, and he started to work in the fields as a child. Today, 41 years later, Marano is still in jail.
Since October 1971, when he turned himself in to the local police, he has never been released. I had to serve a 16-month sentence. I thought, Ill do it and then Ill come back to my wife and my children. But I never got out.
It was in jail that he became a true criminal -- and convicted murderer -- and was sentenced to life. By all accounts, he is thought to be the longest-serving detainee in the history of the Italian Republic. A new bill that will grant amnesty for many Italian detainees is now close to be approved.
But this is a country where even people who are convicted for mass murders and acts of terrorism, at some point, get out on work release programs and probation. Marano never did.
Giovanna Gioia, a volunteer at a prisoner support association in Palermo, says that today he is totally rehabilitated. Two years ago, she was able to help him obtain a furlough that allowed him to spend his first and only night out of prison. For 48 hours Marano left the Ucciardone prison of Palermo. Forgive me, forgive me, he said, lying at his wifes feet, before hugging his four children. When he had understood that he would have lived and died in prison, he had begged his wife to go on with her own life.
Giovanna Gioia points out the letters that Marano wrote her through the years, the painting of the Virgin Mary and the Saints he painted, and the paper flowers he gave her. A man who has spent almost half a century in jail is the symbol of the failure of the legal and prison systems, she says.
Marano has spent decades in prisons across Italy. He has obtained only three days of leave. After the first one from Ucciardone, he was allowed two nine-hour passes from Biella prison north of Turin, where he is currently detained, and spoke to La Stampa by telephone.
The best normal prison is Favignana, the worst is Sassari. Among the high security prisons, the worst was Asinara, the best Voghera, Marano says, after a lifetime experience that might consent him to write an accurate Italian prisons guide.
The death penalty would be better than a life sentence, he says. But theyd have to shoot me, because Im a true Sicilian, and I think that suicide is an act of cowardice.
When Giovanna Gioia met him for the first time, he was already known as the killer of the prisons with a life lived behind bars that weaves through the last half-century of Italian criminal history. He crossed paths with members of the left-wing terrorism group Brigate Rosse, mafia kingpins, perpetrators of infamous kidnappings.
He himself was convicted for two murders and two attempted murders, all committed in jail. In the 1960s and the 1970s, riots, stabbings, and break-outs happened every day in Italian prisons. Marano killed a man for the first time in Catania. I did it to save my brother who was threatened by Carlo Castro.
The second time he killed a mobster of the Casalesi organized crime clan from the Naples area. Marano claims the man had raped two detainees. I took revenge for them, he says. Today, if I could go back in time, I would erase everything. But in jail Ive lived among animals, and in the end, I became an animal too. He pauses, before concluding: All this, even if Ive always hated violence. I know that its hard to believe, but its true.
Read more from La Stampa in Italian
Photo - Flaminio Sergio