Impromptu tales of a rebirth rooted in the earth

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Impromptu tales of a rebirth rooted in the earthThanks to the "Libere Tenerezze" vegetable garden project dedicated to Pope Francis' Laudato si', since the Spring of 2020, vegetables have been growing in the grounds of a prison in the Sicilian town of Ragusa. Run by an association of social workers together with the prison inmates, the vegetables are grown using biodynamic farming techniques. The first seeds planted are those of a local species of courgettes, but crops recently sown include tropical and subtropical fruits.

Bruno, one of the inmates of the Ragusa prison, had the idea of planting a Laudato si' vegetable garden when he received a packet of seeds of typical Sicilian “tinniruma” courgettes as a gift. The gift brought to his mind the teachings of his farmer father, and he asked to plant them in the grounds of the prison. The seeds were donated to him, with the approval of the prison authorities, by an association of social workers that has been offering its services to prisons, hospital patients, oncological clinics and children’s wards as well as to disabled persons and to the elderly since 2007.

Fabio Ferrito, president of the “Ci Ridiamo Sù” association, himself a social worker who specializes in performing arts, told Vatican News that "In April last year, during the pandemic, a project was launched that involved the local prison in Ragusa. The project was to make masks for the community to be donated to hospitals and centers for the disabled.” With the help of his colleague, Alessandro Vitrano, and other social workers, he said "we gave a sewing machine to the 180 inmates of the penitentiary as a gift, along with useful material for the production of the masks. About a thousand masks were made and, to thank the inmates for their work, we gave them the ‘tinniruma’ seeds: delicate symbols of the delicacy they expressed in producing the masks".

The "Libere Tenerezze - Laudato si'" vegetable garden

Everything else followed suite: with Bruno's help, part of the prison grounds, that had not been used, was set aside and “the seeds were planted, almost as a game. A garden of tender courgettes was born”,' Ferrito explained, “we are talking about almost 100 plants.” Then, in agreement with the director of the prison, Giovanna Maltese, “we suggested planting more greenery, including trees. Thus, with the help of sponsors, we bought 1,500 plants. That’s when we realized that we could create a vegetable garden and the project took-off” with the name Libere Tenerezze- Laudato sì - after Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical.

The aim, the president of the Association explained, is to give prison inmates “the chance to express themselves, to be able to go beyond a sense of isolation, frustration, personal and collective tensions. We have called it a 'humorous garden', because we are ‘clowns’ that try to foster new relationships based on dialogue, exchange and openness to the community, while also providing the detainees with the opportunity to acquire professional skills." Especially in prison, he said, we need to remember that "Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment” as the Pontiff points out in Laudato si' (128).

During the pandemic, "every activity project came to a halt,” he observed. “The inmates' external contacts, especially with their families, were cancelled, and the only time they could get together was for Sunday Mass", celebrated by the chaplain, Father Carmelo Mollica.

Vegetables, fruit and quantum music

The vegetable garden project has evolved over time, taking on a very particular connotation: “with the help of an agronomist, Alessandro Scrofani, we have chosen to use probiotics and biodynamic farming techniques, aiming for a garden that ensures the quality of the produce and respect for the earth. We recognize ourselves in Laudato si',” Ferrito pointed out, explaining that the “vegetable garden is a closed-cycle project because it uses kitchen waste and organic waste. No chemicals, fungicides or antibiotics are utilized, but everything is recycled using a compost bin to avoid the dispersion of aggressive minerals in the soil which can be a source of pollution for groundwater. We also use nettle and garlic insect-repellents, organic fertilizers and manure to stabilize the crop and prevent bacteria and fungi from attacking it.”

In little more than a year, on the three plots of land granted by the prison authorities, seasonal vegetables are being grown, from tomatoes to salads, from aubergines to fennel. In the largest of the three, some 2,500 square meters, "an experiment with legumes, artichokes, tropical and subtropical plants, such as mangoes, papayas, avocados, as well as kiwis and gooseberries has been started.” The association and the inmates are also proud of the fact that they have built a greenhouse "for strawberries, with hydroponic cultivation, using quantum music: it has been observed that certain sound frequencies have a positive effect on the health of the plants, facilitating germination, growth and greater resistance to disease. It is also a very fascinating initiative for children, because it conveys a message of equilibrium between man and nature. Among other things, those involved in the gardening are acquiring a very high level of competence that can also be useful in the future,” with a view to offer them "a dignified life through work" (128).

The relationship with the other

In the world of agriculture there is no lack of hard work. There is, however, the need for profound knowledge and an uncommon capacity for innovation. The operators of the “Ci Ridiamo Sù” association work side by side with the inmates - not all of them, of course, but those who have received authorization to do so: Bruno has recently been joined by Antonino – also because, as Laudato si' notes, “every form of work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves." (125).

“We do everything together,” Ferrito explained: “we plan the garden, choose the plants, make the irrigation systems, work the land, fertilize it, sow the seeds and harvest the crops. These are men who “appreciate working together, and the fact that we relate to them without filters, and we joke with them, when a smile breaks the fatigue of a day in the fields, the true selves of each other really emerge.” These are people who “have not seen their children for a long time: they have long jail sentences.” He noted that some, like Bruno, who left his children when they were toddlers and now they are teenagers, manage to keep up a constant and continuous relationship, even though he sees them very little. “I would dare say, more than a father who sees his son 24-hours a day: he writes them a letter every day and the children confide in him, ask his advice as if he were home with them. These are impromptu tales born of daily work”, commitment and above all, trust, Ferrito said: this is what the detainees have found in the Ragusa prison, “a prison with an all-female staff,” including the director and the commander of the Penitentiary Police.

An opportunity for the future

Prison Director, Giovanna Maltese, was struck by the significance of the Libere Tenerezze - Laudato si' vegetable garden project during the pandemic lockdown, because thanks to the project “the inmates were able to have "continuity of contact with the earth and its values". An opportunity, she said, "to escape idleness" and to enjoy "the concreteness of results, every time a seedling was successful", producing its own fruit. The project has been included in the three-year planning of the 2021-2023 Sicilian Regional Penitentiary Administration.

Rosetta Noto, head of what was known as the Educational Area of the Ragusa prison, that is the sector that deals with the recovery and social reintegration of inmates, hopes "that it will continue and become a structural project for the prison, so that other inmates can have this opportunity in the future". Passing on the knowledge of biodynamic agriculture “is very important,” Noto emphasized, “especially for those inmates who do not have a high level of education: it is we, who give them the training so that when they leave prison they can find employment more easily.” Bruno himself, she says, has "great hopes in the project. He understands its value and hopes that once he has served his sentence, he will be able to find a job with the experience he will have acquired.” The Prison Director agrees, adding that an experience such as this could lead to new professional opportunities in the farming industry, including the possibility of starting one’s own business with the contribution of a law introduced in the year 2000 (Legge Smuraglia) that favours the employment of former prison inmates. This is Bruno's dream, as well as that of many other Ragusa detainees. They have another dream as well, Fabio Ferrito pointed out: that “of being able to make a delivery of their produce as soon as possible to Pope Francis.”

Giada Aquilino