The Italian prison taking bold steps to accommodate transgender inmates

Italy has several prison wings that only receive transgender prisoners, ITV News' Lucy Watson was given exclusive access to Raffaele Cinotti prison on the outskirts of Rome

To see within the realms of a prison is a rare opportunity, but to see how transgender lives exist within one is even rarer.

ITV was given exclusive access to Raffaele Cinotti prison, known as Rebibbia.

It is a medium-security jail on the outskirts of Rome, where they’re taking bold steps to accommodate transgender criminals, by creating a special unit for them.

In a prison of 1,600 inmates, 20 are transgender and their designated section is the largest of its kind in Italy.

Inspector Cinzia Silvano is the woman in charge of running it. As we walked along the corridors together, she was smiley yet stern and knew every inmate we passed by name.

She is a strong advocate for segregating transgender offenders inside jails: "I really do believe in it and I think it has great social value."

The transgender inmates live on the G8 wing and are housed close to male prisoners, but are totally separate from any cisgender female inmates. Cisgender relates to a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex they are registered as at birth.

All of the inmates at Rebibbia are non-violent offenders.

"I know all the inmates on section G8 and I don't just know their names, I know their stories" Silvano said.

"Many things that weren't possible for transgender inmates before are now possible. They can undertake self-improvement programmes and continue their treatment."

Inspector Cinzia Silvano speaks to ITV News' Lucy Watson

I have been inside HMP Styal in Cheshire before so I know, and have seen, that jails are, of course, highly controlled environments - but this prison did feel different somehow.

As soon as you entered the complex, there was a noticeably more relaxed, almost friendly, atmosphere. It definitely wasn't harsh or in any way confrontational.

I noticed at the very start of the day, some of the inmates doing general housekeeping about the prison site.

They were emptying bins in the entrance, mopping floors, and sweeping the courtyards without anyone supervising them.

It felt very much like an open prison. The inmates make an all-round contribution to keeping their 'home' in a good, habitable and pleasant state, and we were taken to meet those living on the unit. Our first stop was the needlework class.

The inmates make an all-round contribution to keeping their 'home' in a good, habitable and pleasant state. Credit: ITV News

One inmate was called Jessica. She showed me a patchwork quilt she had made recently.

Jessica couldn't sew a thing before she was jailed, and has become much happier since living as part of the specialist unit. 

"Here we can be different and be all together. We can support each other, and respect each other."

Sabrina, who was sitting alongside her, felt the same: "I understand other transgenders, we are living the same torment.

"We are fine because we are not forgotten here, but just because we are transgender and live in this unit doesn't mean different rules apply to us. We are humans and we have to follow the same rules."

Inmates Sabrina and Jessica spoke about their experiences in the prison

When I met Sabrina and Jessica, I was aware that who calls them what in this prison can change.

The Inspector refers to them by the names that they have chosen, but quite often the male guards use their birth names, their male names.

While we were told it’s not meant maliciously, dead naming, as it’s known, is considered harmful by the trans community.  

Italy was the first country in the world to open a prison for just transgender prisoners. It was set-up back in 2010 near Florence, but has since had to close.

Now, wings like this one at Rebibbia, with its specially trained staff, are the alternative solution.

All prisoners are here as punishment but also to rehabilitate and learn new skills to equip them better for the outside world.

Being accepted as the gender they identify with can help with that process.

Next, I met Fernanda and Raiza in art class. "I was working as a prostitute at night," Fernanda confided.

"During the day I was a hairdresser, and the police officers saw me as a trans woman. I think that if I was in the male section of the jail, I wouldn't feel good."

Fernanda and Raiza in art class. Credit: ITV News

Raiza and Fernanda feel that because this unit is also managed by a woman - Inspector Silvano - it makes a difference.  

Fernanda explained: "If it was managed by a man, he wouldn't know about our needs as women."

Raiza added: "We undergo hormonal treatment so we have a lot of sensitivities. We need attention, and she knows we need make-up, bras, shoes."

The prison is actively listening to their needs too. They have recently allowed the use of some cosmetics.

Raiza told me: "I feel more feminine, more attractive with it."

Acting classes, also held within the jail, allow them to explore their identity further.

Laura Andreini Salerno is the prison's drama teacher. Her husband was Enrico Maria Salerno, a famous actor and film director in Italy in the 1960s.

Salerno has been working inside jails for more than 20 years, and believes that "in the theatre you can be anyone."

"This is very therapeutic to those who are in this prison. It takes down barriers, and having found this acceptance, these people have blossomed," she said.

The prison is actively listening to their needs. Credit: ITV News

The fundamental reason for separating transgender inmates from the rest of the prison population is for security.

It is mainly to protect them from attacks from the male prisoners, but also to safeguard the cisgender female inmates too.

On some occasions though, like in the sculpture class we visited, all prisoners - irrespective of gender - attend the class together.

On these such occasions, they are watched by either security cameras or a guard.    

There are about 60 transgender prisoners in jails across the whole of Italy, and most are serving sentences for prostitution and drug offences, but the political landscape has changed in recent months.

Since September, a new far-right government has been in power, led by Giorgia Meloni, who has in the past stood on a podium and proclaimed her values.

"I am Giorgia! I am a woman! I am a mother! I am Italian! I am a Christian! You won’t take that away from me!"

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni leads a far-right coalition in Italy. Credit: AP

She was elected on a ticket of traditional, Christian values, but that has since prompted concern that any progress made in LGBT+ rights, thus far, could come to a halt.

We met Mario Colomarino in Rome. He is the President of LGBT movement Circolo Mario Mieli, and he shared his worries with us.

"My big fear is that they [transgender prisoners] will be more discriminated against than what they are now.

"I feel that they [the new government] won't support the transgender community in prison. They think that they don't need any support or protection."

He turned to his colleague at this point and said quietly, "It saves lives doesn't it?" and I picked up on it.

"Do you really believe that having a facility like that inside a prison can save lives?" I asked him.

"I think yes. We need to protect them," he replied. "Inside the prison they need to be in a kind of bubble and not be afraid of being attacked by the other prisoners."  

Mario Colomarino, the President of LGBT movement Circolo Mario Mieli, shared his worries

What Italy’s new government will do or not do for transgender inmates in the future is unknown, and what is best - or right - anywhere in the world, is so often up for debate.

But this jail’s first ever transgender prisoner - Federica - who’s still serving her sentence, is testament to what segregation can do.

She's been in the jail for more than seven years, and can remember vividly what it was like at the beginning when transgender offenders were not separated.

"It was awful, so awful, really brutal. Now, I can definitely say that we have obtained equality in how we are treated, and that is a victory.

"They make us feel good here, because we are just like anybody else. My life can now change from what it used to be."

There are criminal penalties all of the inmates must pay, but it is a life beyond prison walls, without societal barriers, that all in Rebibbia aspire to.  

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