It’s not something you can learn from books – the art of supporting each other. But helping someone with their studies and devoting time to them can be the right opportunity to discover wonders and reap unexpected rewards, even in a place like prison. That’s what happened to Marta Veracini, giving her a new look on life.
Laughing out loud while a voice in the distance whispers not to disturb; exchanging ideas and opinions, attempting to concentrate and stay in the books. This scene repeats daily in study halls of universities, between coffee breaks and on the way to a new class.
All this and much more happens to Marta Veracini, a young woman from Tuscany, Italy, every time she hears the armoured doors close behind her at Dogaia, the prison in Prato (near Florence).
A law graduate with a master’s degree in criminology, Marta joined the University of Florence’s organised civil service project in 2019. In it volunteers assist inmates preparing for university exams. Since then, even after the year ended, she continued her service – there in a place that anyone would have a hard time calling ‘beautiful’.
Yet in surprising and unexpected ways, it has become a space dedicated to care and mutual trust, a place where relationships are a ‘welcoming home’, and where everyone, inmate or not, can finally be themselves.
‘I am always asked how it feels to bring comfort and help in a place like prison,’ says Marta. ‘The truth is that no one really understands how much you can receive, even in that context.
‘Volunteering in prison changed my life. It allowed me to break down the barriers of my shyness, my insecurities and allows me today to show off a smile that I used to hide. It is I who have to thank the people I have met for all they have done for me and continue to do.
‘I am truly free with them.’
It is a real achievement. There are so many cells that can imprison us, in fact, that can hold back our dreams, our thoughts, our hopes.
Marta’s experience, together with those of the inmates she has had the good fortune to meet and help with their studies over the years, are an example of how together it is still possible to take flight, to feel that you are worth something and – why not – think about the future.
‘The university path is definitely tiring for everyone,’ Marta says, ‘but they work so hard, and it is good to see their grit and joy in passing an exam. These are great little milestones, where they face tough subjects.
‘Many, for example, are studying law, and some have already graduated. There are young people as well as adults from various regions of Italy, or foreigners. It is good to see how they set no limits, spur each other on and become examples for each other.
‘For those with long sentences, it means investing strength and time to achieve something that makes them proud, and makes their families outside proud. Those who are released have the opportunity to use what they have studied to be able to start over.’
Hers is a look of hope that embraces and allows itself to be embraced. The stories of daily life within the walls of Dogaia, captured in the book Marta wrote during the pandemic, My guardian angel has a life sentence, are a small drop in a great sea of indifference that divides the inside from the outside.
Yet they are a testimony to how it is possible to break down barriers by generating beauty and putting unconditional love for one’s neighbour at the centre.
‘I have never wanted to know why each of them is in prison,’ Marta continues, ‘but one thing is certain: I have never looked at them as “monsters” – just people who, although with mistakes behind them, have the same needs, feelings and hope as others do to relate and share.
‘They are people who have dignity like everyone else, and thanks to them, I also found mine. In short, true friends.’
Maria Grazia Berretta