Revolutionary social centre in an occupied prison – Ex OPG in Naples

Ex OPG Occupato Je so’ pazzo (Neapolitan for “I am crazy”) is a former criminal asylum. The building was saved from abandonment and returned to its neighborhood (and the city) in the form of an autonomous social center. “Je so’ pazzo” is the name they have chosen, “because in a world where normality is made of unemployment, precariousness, racial and gender discrimination and so forth, we want (…) to build an alternative way opposed to the gray and desperate world we see every day, and we want to do it from below. Call us crazy, but since normality is so tragic we certainly believe that all together we can revolutionize this city, this country and the whole World!” We met the activists of this Neapolitan social center and we discovered something more about this “crazy” urban regeneration experience …

The story of Ex OPG Occupato – Je so’ pazzo

The story of this place (which is located near the centre of Naples, in the Materdei district) begins in 1573, the year of its foundation. It was a monastery devoted to Sant’Eframo, and remained so until 1859. The mountain on which it was built is called Monte di Sant’Eframo, all around it was open countryside and the city was far away. During the first unification of Italy the Savoys confiscated the place from the Church and used it as barracks in order to have a point of support in the city. About sixty years later, during the Fascist regime, it became a criminal asylum and remained so – a prison for mentally ill offenders – until a very recent February 2008, when it was finally closed. Thousands of people have passed through these OPGs (Ospedale Psichiatrico Giudiziario – a formerly common type of criminal mental institutions in Italy), and many have died. It was a real social dump.

When did you decide to occupy this space?

The place was owned by the State Property Office and was entrusted to the Penitentiary Police that still managed it when we occupied it on March 2, 2015. In 2005 there had been an investigation promoted by regional councilors and journalists who had decided to shed some light on human rights violations everybody knew about but never took action on. In Naples there had been a strong anti-psychiatry movement since the 1970s – led by doctor Sergio Piro, a close associate of Franco Basaglia (Italian psychiatry reformer who proposed the dismantling of psychiatric hospitals) – and many struggled to try to improve the terrible living conditions of this place. Only in 2005 did a local institutional group decide to enter, finding tons of human rights violations. The famous case of Vito De Rosa comes from here: he was a man who stayed in prison for 52 years due to a system of extensions called “la stecca” (the stick) which could block the sentence discount. He was eventually granted pardon by President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in 2003. Only on November 2011 would Decree Law no. 211 (then converted into Law no. 9 on February 17, 2012) allow the dismantling of these mental institutions. However, due to the extensions, these structures were closed only in the spring of 2015, with a significant delay in the implementation of Law no. 81, 2014. When we occupied it, we technically entered a prison that was formally still in operation, and our occupation was strongly emphasized by the simultaneous approval of the legislation for the closure of these asylums.

Courtyard view of Ex OPG. Photo (c) Diego Dentale
What did the place look like once you entered it?

Starting from 2008, this place was completely abandoned. It was devastated: clothes and whatnot were scattered all over the place, as if everyone had suddenly escaped. Probably people really had to leave without much notice, and were transferred to the asylum of Secondigliano, that stayed open until 2015. The Penitentiary Police pillaged the place and auctioned many objects, meantime copper and piping were stolen. There were 150 restrooms in the building, but no toilet remained. Many walls were musty and cracked, plants started to grow everywhere.

Did the residents of the district support your occupation? Did they contribute in any way?

The place was occupied in March 2015 and we were immediately reported by the prison police, owner of the structure, who tried to evict us without success. It’s a rather special story. Initially we thought we were going to do some works to make the structure functional again, but in the end we decided to open straight away: thousands of people showed up. No one had ever seen this place, as it always was a prison, and there was not even a map – we made one later thanks to a collaboration with the students of the faculty of architecture from Federico II University. The cells were scattered throughout the whole structure, and people living right next to this prison could hear prisoners cry when they were beaten. This was a scary place many people wanted to see with their eyes. Even former prisoners who visited the place discovered new things about other sections, sometimes disturbing details. We created a movement that kept the place very frequented. A month later (we slept here every night for 4 months in order to prevent the place from being evicted) we started a complex communication process, still in progress, with the Municipality of Naples.

How did you manage to overcome allegations?

Within the framework of the so-called “Marino Law” (Law no. 9, February 17, 2012) it is envisaged that disused OPGs can become property of those municipalities that propose to acquire the property from the State Property Office [Art. 3-ter]. At that time, we opened the place to everyone and we invited the press. The prosecutor who followed the story not only decided to evict us for squatting the place, but at the same time he proceeded against the Penitentiary Police for fiscal damage. We succeeded in activating a roundtable between the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage (which knew nothing about it and didn’t want to know anything about it), the State Property Office (which didn’t want to invest) and the City of Naples which, due to the relationship it established with us, declared itself available to acquire the property. Nowadays the ownership transfer with the Municipality is underway, but we are having trouble resolving the case. Unfortunately, a series of construction abuses were carried out by the Penitentiary Police, and due to this the State Property Office blocked the procedure. And according to the State Property Office’s Sales Plan the asset could be put back on sale.

Ex OPG team. Photo (c) Diego Dentale
What does the venue look like, and how did it operate?

The venue covers 9.000 m² and its structure follows the original plan of the monastery that counts three cloisters. Some parts were added later, during the ‘50s and ‘60s. Inside the cells were 300 inmates, 120 officers and about 80 people working as medical staff and administration. There were only 3 doctors. It was not a psychiatric hospital, it was just a prison.

Going up towards the cells area there is a space in which everything was destroyed. That area also includes the “semi-liberty” area, where patients waiting for appointments passed an indefinite period of time. Below is the caretaker’s house and a whole wing of the building that connects with the barracks, where the guards used to live – that is definitely one of the areas that we will need to renovate sooner or later. Going up there is a three-story building. We have renovated many spaces, but clearly there are still entire areas that should be put back in place. For instance, there is the old courtyard dating back to the time when the place was a monastery where prison officers threw asbestos, so at the moment it is unusable and land reclamation would be complicated. The soil where we created the soccer field is still full of debris. When the place was being emptied, everything that got damaged or did not have a use was thrown away, making it become a dump. Anyway, the idea was that the place would be abandoned at one point.

How did you reinvent the space?

With lots of projects and activities. We collect clothes and collaborate with associations that deal with distributing meals to the homeless. Two years ago we started a project during a cold emergency: we opened the doors of the OPG and hosted about thirty homeless people with whom we had already established a relationship.

Then the People’s Solidarity Network was born – we have a pivotal role in it, but there are many other actors, even parish priests and voluntary associations including boy and girl scouts. We managed to … occupy a church! In Naples there are 200 abandoned churches, an incredible but completely neglected ecclesiastical heritage. And there was this church, or rather an old convent that had been abandoned for 6-7 years. It had several rooms which were used until 10 years earlier by some Redemptorist friars. They wanted to sell it, but since it had been abandoned for years we decided to occupy it. We even managed to organize a Gospel night for Christmas! Above all we have given housing opportunity to the homeless. Some of them have also found work thanks to their newly-found stability. Alas, not steadily, yet three of them today have taken a room for rent and have started new lives.

Most of our political work was done by our Legal Desk. The number of residence permits we have obtained over the years is very high and we have won the trust of many migrants. We are the only national case in which a CAS (Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers) had to close thanks to popular consensus: basically we get in touch with migrants, we invite them over, we inform them about their rights and we make surprise visits to the centers when they send us proof of unsuitable and unfair treatment conditions. We investigate and go to the Prefecture to denounce the facts. If they don’t have a solution they have to shut the place, otherwise we are ready to inform the press as those are not acceptable living conditions. When former interior minister Matteo Salvini rose to power everything became much more difficult because the procedures for obtaining a residence permit and/or a refugee status have hardened and the attitude of police headquarters and prefectures just got worse.

Supporting migrant and refugee movements. Photo (c) Diego Dentale

Today, we use the caretaker’s house in different ways: we support migrants and/or welcome people from the neighborhood that are experiencing significant poverty. Behind the medieval cloister, which we keep regularly clean, there is a part that used to be the prison administration – that is the place where we do language courses today. We have another room in which there is a labor union, and since the largest Sri Lankan community in Italy is in Naples, some people from there set up the Ethera Api Association in collaboration with our Chamber of Labor. There are also rooms that we are completely renovating in order to grant spaces for self-managed activities.

What are your most popular activities?

Most activities follow a calendar that changes year by year, semester by semester. We have political work groups, and at the same time we promote a more “social” approach towards the neighborhood. We strongly believe in mutualism. The activities on which we focus the most are: sport, after-school activities, theater, music, health, migrant help desk and work desk.

We set up a counseling service with psychologists, psychiatrists and experts to combat gender-based violence, also in order to maintain the legacy with the history of this structure.

There are lots of mental health issues in this neighborhood, but obviously there are no facilities to treat it.

We also activated an outpatient clinic that is now also acknowledged by the Municipality of Naples. We have established a relationship with the drug bank and the Italian national health service that supply us with quickly distributable medicines. It works really well, and it has become one of the most acknowledged services in the neighborhood. It was so successful that we went on to replicate in other parts of the city as Potere al Popolo! (Power to the People! – a leftist, anti-capitalist, secular and libertarian political party founded in the end of 2017). In particular, gynecology has its own counter with ultrasound scanners: in two years we performed 837 free ultrasound scans, providing important services to a neighborhood where many migrants and poor people live.

We also organize many monthly prevention programs (breast cancer prevention, for instance). Each group working on a specific program also learns how to relate to the context: for instance, general practitioners based a lot of their efforts on prevention and nutrition following the Cuban model, and since this area has high rates of lung and heart issues we provided more access to screenings.

In order to guarantee other services like dentistry, as we don’t have enough room and funds for equipment, we created a network of professionals that help people who can’t afford dental care. We collaborate with the Waldenses or with Emergency in Ponticelli (an eastern suburb of Naples), for example. We try our best.

What have you done to encourage a closer relationship between the city and the employment issues?

We set up a People’s Chamber of Labor, and we use it for various types of intervention: there is a collective that deals with labor-capital conflicts, we investigate working conditions in Naples and its metropolitan area, we follow disputes and try to create ties of solidarity among workers. We have also activated a free Legal Desk and a Resistance Fund to support workers.

Protest against illegal labour. Photo (c) Diego Dentale

Fighting illegal work is also one of our constant activities, an ever-growing commitment – thanks to this we recovered a lot of money- winning lawsuits against illegal work, mainly in the HoReCa industry. People often don’t know their rights and don’t file lawsuits, so we have prepared “self-defense” manuals for workers. Now we are following other major disputes, in particular the Gestioncar dispute (a fairly large Neapolitan consortium that closed without notice, leaving workers unpaid). During our meetings we have met many workers and under-the-table employees, including delivery workers and another series of situations that we are trying to follow. On Labour Day we also distributed information on workers’ rights in many squares across the country.

How did you adapt your spaces for recreational and leisure activities?

We have readapted the old interview room and turned it into a study/library room; we have created the first indoor climbing wall in Naples and a soccer field. We also have a radio station (in a small soundproof room with microphones and the necessary equipment) and we had a shared kindergarten – for only three years, as it was directly managed by the mothers of children who now grew up. That room now became a Media Center – a room with wi-fi and computers that is also being used by kids to study, as public libraries here close at 16.30. There is a classroom for middle school students and a social after school, where we perform various activities with the children of the neighborhood. There is also a theater, a gym, a bar and of course a kitchen that we use to have self-financed social dinners. Last but not least, we have two concert areas – the smallest one can fit about 600/700 people and the largest one, actually a parking lot, can fit up to 2000 people. Art is particularly important for us. In our Atelier we do painting and sculpture, while we have created the theater ourselves, literally building both the stage and the dressing rooms for the actors, in addition to the control room. Our Teatro Popolare produces its shows autonomously – some are our own, some are re-interpreted, like Brecht’s War Primer – but we also host projects from other independent theater companies. For example, a group of women who were victims of violence set up a theater company, and the same goes for a group of people with mental health issues. We have shows roughly every two weeks, and we’re constantly working on new projects.

Meeting of the theatre group. Photo (c) Diego Dentale

We decided to use the theater hall for the Christmas concert in partnership with an orchestra: we want to offer something else than what you could find in other community centers. We value all music styles and won’t stick to what is more fashionable, and our orchestra Christmas concert is an example of how we give easy access to something not everybody can afford.

How do you manage the whole structure?

We have a management assembly every Thursday with the people of the neighborhood – this is where we create the calendar and share updates. Then, every single activity has its assembly, and there is a general assembly, open to everyone, once a month. It is a lot of work because there are about 2/3 assemblies a week, plus the daily activities. We are open more or less every day from 4 pm to 10 or 11 pm except Saturdays and Sundays, as during the weekends we usually work on refurbishing the place, we go to demonstrations or we do some other political activity, so we are usually closed. Basically, we are constantly mobilized!

How can people take part in the activities and courses? Are they all free of charge?

Every year we evaluate every activity and course we did, trying to figure out which were the most successful ones. We also try to rationally figure out what went wrong and which ones we need to stop as they are not feasible or needed.

All the activities and courses are free of charge and nobody is paid. Money comes in from our own merchandise, from the bar and obviously from the concerts, the festivals and the theater nights. In any case no event costs more than 5€. Courses and activities are a common good and serve a function. For example, if we organize a sports activity somewhere we will then get in touch with the Municipality to tell them they should renovate or enhance the facilities. We show and teach people whom they have to turn to and how they can make their voice heard. We could start many more courses and activities, but we won’t do that until we’re sure that they are “politically tested”. We don’t want to create situations in which some people take control over certain programs and use them as their own product, without caring about the surrounding environment and maybe even going against the core values of the space.

So you have regenerated this former criminal asylum and you have given it back to the community, trying to make it a politically active social space, with services for people in need … But what is the relationship between the EX OPG – Je so ‘pazzo and Potere al Popolo! (Power to the People!)? What is your basic political vision?

We have been here for about 4 years and we have begun to regenerate the place, but we also do a lot of politics around us and beyond. Potere al Popolo! is one of our main commitments. We identify as communists, even “orthodox” with respect to the importance we attach to the study and knowledge of the classics of Marxism. Yet, in this historical phase we think that the necessary kind of practical-political approach is to get the communists back in touch with the working class.

Ex OPG – Je so’ pazzo procession. Photo (c) Diego Dentale

Making social inquiries, interpreting needs, spreading class and human rights awareness, and demonstrating that we are capable of organizing and giving solutions: this is important not only to tackle certain issues, but also to intervene in people’s lives while improving their living conditions. We investigated, trying to understand what the neighborhood needed; then we tried to organize an immediate response, showing that we are not patronizing and that we are here to do what is needed together with the residents; then we used social activity to politicize by establishing contact and creating relationships. And last but not least, we keep those relationships alive by keeping people updated.

The cells

Je so ‘pazzo was occupied during a cold and windy March 2015, definitely not the best moment for the people who had to guard the occupation on permanent shifts. They entered a humid, shabby and neon-lit environment without natural light. Towels, shoes, papers and many other things were found all around the place, as if everyone had suddenly fled. Since the former criminal asylum was reopened to the neighborhood, over 400 guided tours have been performed and many more are to come especially with schools, which is why activists are working on collecting materials to display them on the walls.

The cells area consists of several parts: a small infirmary – where x-rays with traces of abuse and similar documents were found; passage rooms in which the detained patients were sorted; the basement for telephone calls under the supervision of the penitentiary police in case of mutiny attempts; the shower area; the lunch area and the actual cells, either single or double. There are entire wings of the building that look exactly like that.

From the buildings just in front of the criminal asylum anyone could hear (and see) everything that happened inside the cells. This is why some of them had been sealed from within and made opaque. Each cell had two doors – one was closed during the day and both were closed at night. The inmates could be checked at any time, even inside the bathroom, and if they tried to cover themselves with towels to avoid being looked at, they would get punished. As for the conditions of detention, a typical single cell had a very small and very narrow single bed with tools to tie people up; the bed had no bedspring, but only a holed metal plate, and was fixed to the ground. Then there was the toilet. The space an inmate could walk in during the day was about three steps. Patients could not keep furniture of any kind, so sometimes they fashioned them with whatever they could find (e.g. packs of cigarettes glued to the wall and used as shelves).

Writing on the walls

On the walls of the cells we can find some excerpts from the book dedicated to Vito De Rosa (a man who lived as a prisoner for more than 50 years for the killing of his father who abused him. His case was very controversial in Italy), even if the humidity caused many parts of the wall to fall. Moreover, whenever a prisoner left the prison the authorities repainted the walls, so not many traces of their stories remained. Nevertheless, some are still visible inside some cells. An inmate had tried to draw the map of Italy, trying to remember where the regions were. Some testimonies are delirious, but there was also a level of foresight, so there are many messages written in coded language. However, the underlying mood emerges. An inmate writes: “I have to destroy”. Others speak of “witches”, a code word for OPG executives, while “insects” were the guards. So we read sentences like “Mom, Dad, how could I befriend an insect? If I call him friend he coerces me and beats me” or “When I tell the truth you punish me, and when I say lies you reward me”.

Writings from the cell walls. Photo (c) Diego Dentale

Among the prisoners there were also mafia bosses (for example Raffaele Cutolo, Italian mafioso, founder and head of Nuova Camorra Organizzata). An inmate writes: “I give all my power to the Lord and whoever else, for the rest has all been taken by evil. If these were really crazy, Beniamino wouldn’t go talk to them. They act like they are fools, but they are not. Let’s hope they aren’t witches”. Many of these mafia bosses managed to be sent here bribing the Police so that they wouldn’t be locked up in real jails.

Many poems were also found, including those of Michele Fragna – an ex inmate who is still alive today. Fragna suffered from bipolar disorder and had entered the psychiatric hospital at the age of 22 for the murder of his best friend. As soon as he entered the place he underwent drug therapy. Even if he was mostly sane they locked him in the same cell with paranoids and schizophrenics. Michele still talks about his experience during public initiatives promoted by the activists of Je so’ pazzo.

The writings on the walls are evidence of the lack of activities inside the jail. Even if some activities for these prisoners were introduced during the seventies (occasional movie nights, drawing or pottery classes), most of the time people were left completely to themselves.

Interview by Manuela Ausilio with Salvatore Prinzi, co-founder of ex OPG Je so’ pazzo, translated by Andrea Giuliano.

Visit the Ex OPG Occupato Je so’ pazzo in Naples at Via Matteo Renato Imbriani, 218

http://jesopazzo.org/