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Forgiveness Hurts More Than Revenge: Life Imprisonment – Interview to Carmelo Musumeci

Today’s protagonist is Carmelo Musumeci, writer, graduated in Law, Prison Law and Philosophy. In his first dissertation, “Living life imprisonment”, he writes:

“I was sentenced to life imprisonment. They didn’t want to punish me, they wanted to destroy me: lifelong imprisonment goes against nature. […] The sentence of life imprisonment is not a deterrent, it doesn’t improve a man, it has nothing reasonable and institutionalizes revenge through suffering, responding to criminal violence with legal violence”. 

Until two years ago, I had no idea how the Italian penal system worked… Maybe I was afraid to find out the truth. Then, a world opened -or better, closed – to me, when I listened to my sister Alessandra prepare the graduation speech on impeding punishment in Italy. She put it to me in simple terms, to make me understand the absurdity of the matter:

Life imprisonment is the most severe punishment of those covered by our legal system and is provided for crimes of particular seriousness perpetrated against the personality of the State, public safety and life. Next to the common life sentence (art. 22 of the Penal Code) there is a life sentence so-called impediment to the granting of penitentiary benefits (art. 4 bis of the penitentiary system). If the common life imprisonment is left with a glimmer of hope, consisting in the possibility of access to alternative measures provided for by law, those who are sentenced pursuant to former art. 4 bis is sentenced, in essence, to a “living death penalty” because, in the absence of existent cooperative conduct, those institutions are barred from them forever.

Art. 4 bis, Law 345/1975: Outside work assignment, award permits and alternative measures to detention, excluding early release, may be granted to detainees and internees for the following crimes [including mafia and terrorism] only in cases where such detainees and internees cooperate with justice. To collaborate risking one’s own lives and that of loved ones (exposing oneself to the Mafia’s logic reprisals), or to refuse to collaborate giving up any possibility of liberation.

Faced with this dilemma, what was your reaction? What – and who – helped you not fall into “legal blackmail” by choosing not to cooperate?

In Versilia, as a criminal, I had my men, my “crew”. At that time, we were friends: we grew up together, we risked our lives together. How could I betray them? That’s why I decided to pay alone. It’s not a conspiracy of silence. In all cases, I believe that the legality and trust, before claiming them, must be given. Otherwise, it is difficult to cooperate with a State that tortures you through the 41-bis regime and gives you a punishment that never ends. Most of the obstructive life sentences and I, do not cooperate because they simply feel that it is not correct doing so. Everyone must serve, right or wrong, their own sentence without dumping it on others and without becoming informers. I decided not to cooperate with justice, but I decided to do it with my heart and with society trying to be a better person despite prison.

I think that in a rule of law, the mechanism should not be just collaboration. “If you confess and cooperate, you get out, if you don’t confess and you don’t cooperate, you die in prison”. It seems that “non-cooperation” is considered more serious than murder. I think that the consequence of “non-cooperation” is a penalty too severe and disproportionate. I mean, taking the benefits away from non-collaborators seems like a huge penalty to me because “non-cooperation” is not a crime. At the most they could say: “if you don’t cooperate you’ll have to do five more years” but it is inhuman to say: “if you don’t cooperate you never go out”. I remember one day the director of Asinara called me and said: “Musumeci, it is useless to break the balls: the regime of 41 bis was created to make you repent. And just the day before yesterday, I got a phone call from the top and I was complimented because in this prison in a year thirty-six collaborators of justice came out”.

The European Court of Human Rights, in its judgment of 13 June 2019 in the case of Marcello Viola vs. Italy, found the regime of “impediment” life imprisonment incompatible with the principle of human dignity and with Article 3 of the European Convention that “prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. A few months later, the Italian Constitutional Court, in its judgment no. 253 of 23 October 2019, declared that the automatism of Italian legislation, so that no cooperation  would correspond to the persistence of social danger, is unlawful because it reduces the assessment of the detained person exclusively at the time of the commission of the crime, and feeds the criminal dynamic to the detriment of the re-education – violating, in fact, art. 27 of the Constitution.

However, in the face of the established unconstitutionality, the Court chose to refer the questions to Parliament on May 2022, arguing that the immediate acceptance of the questions of legality raised by the Court of Cassation “would run the risk of inadequately fitting into the current system of combating organised crime”.

“It is thought that by declaring the mechanism of life imprisonment unconstitutional, the mobsters will return free. Instead, by repealing life imprisonment, it would allow the supervisory magistrates to evaluate their path and verify, as happens for the perpetrators of all other crimes, if after 26 years (not one) there are the prerequisites for conditional release. Arguing that this represents a problem for the fight against organized crime means to argue that a piece of the judiciary, the surveillance, doesn’t know how to fight organized crime, a battle that is certainly part of its duties.”

Prof. Emilio Santoro

It is extremely difficult to define justice in a uniform way, but it is even more difficult to believe that it corresponds to a vengeful and unconstitutional automatism.

What is justice to you? Far from having a positive influence on the fight against organised crime, what are the real consequences of obstructive life imprisonment in the lives of prisoners and in public opinion?

Slavery, the death penalty, revenge, torture are part of the culture of every society, both ancient and modern. Instead, the custom of punishing by keeping a person locked in a cell for years and years is relatively new. I think the penalty of life imprisonment makes justice unjust and cruel, more than the death penalty. I thought about the verb “serve”, in fact it is said “serve the sentence”. So, it is already inherent in the word itself that “serving a sentence” should decrease, in fact, the more you serve the sentence, the more the remaining part decreases.So, it is already inherent in the rationale of the legal concept of “serving the sentence” that the sentence, sooner or later, runs out precisely with the passing of the years the sentence is served. Then it is absurd and contradictory to say “serve a life sentence” or “is serving a life sentence” because despite the passage of years, the remaining sentence does not decrease. It’s true! Life imprisonment even goes against mathematics and Italian.

Perpetual punishment does not only take away your freedom, but it also takes away your future. They could take everything from you, but not your whole life. The State can take a part of the future, but not everything, if it wants to be better than a criminal. Obstructive life punishment is inhumane because a man needs hope that his life will one day be different or better. The perpetual penalty is a sacrilege because it anticipates hell on earth and the eternal penalty without possibility of change is only God’s competence (for those who are believers). Man is the only animal that can change, so he could not and should not be considered bad and guilty forever. Justice might, even if I disagree, kill a criminal when he’s still bad, but you shouldn’t keep him in jail when he’s good. Or let him out only when he barters his freedom with someone else’s by cooperating and using justice. If the punishment is only revenge, suffering and hatred, how can it be good or heal? I want to remember that for those who have committed a crime, forgiveness hurts more than revenge, forgiveness forces them to find no justification for what they have done. That is why it would be better to fight evil with good, with forgiveness, with a fair and re-educational punishment. The penalty of obstructive life leaves life, but devours the mind, heart and soul.

Sometimes an entire biographical story is identified in a unique experience, which marks our life more than any other. An experience that is viewed from a single perspective, judgmental and merciless: that of those who ignore the truth and close their eyes to one of the darkest and uncontrolled sides of our society. In his autobiography, Carmelo Musumeci offers a frank narration of the prison and everything that precedes it, telling the daily life, the hardest episodes, the emotions, and the memories, before, during, and after the detention.

In the preface to the work “Zanna Blu”, Margherita Hack writes:

“Carmelo is Zann Blu and this work of Musumeci is the ransom: no longer the real story of a naked and raw life that finds in the present the result of a ruinous past, careless of feelings and love that a child needs and asks.
These are stories that teach courage, love for freedom, desperate love for the partner; written simply, without rhetoric. Thanks to his ability to express feelings, Carmelo reconstructs a free spiritual life, which is worth living and which transmits to the reader, child or adult, profound humanity.
They’re fairy tales, but fairy tales that make you think.”

Who is the child Carmelo? What would you say to him today?

What would I tell him today? To continue to love and dream, but in a different way. As a child, I dreamed of growing up to take revenge for having been a child. I succeeded without even noticing. I believe that in order not to do evil, one must know good and, unfortunately, many of us have known only evil. I remember I was a kid and my poor grandmother used to take me to the town square and, when she saw a man in uniform, probably a traffic cop, she always whispered to me: “Be careful… that’s the black man”. How could I not believe her? I don’t look for any excuse because yes, it’s true, from a certain point of view I was born guilty, but then I decided to become guilty.

I just wish I had a chance to make up for the evil I’ve done by doing good because the real penalty starts when you’ve changed. I am also convinced that there is no better “revenge” for society than making people better, because only if you change you can realize the evil, and only then the sense of guilt can emerge. And guilt is the most terrible of punishments, the worst of prison, life without escape. Luckily (or unluckily) many do not know it and just prefer to keep us in jail and throw away the keys.

In your book “Le vostre prigioni,” you report the darkest years of your prison memoir. A collection of diary pages, poems, and stories, which denounce the existence of the “Living Death Penalty” in Italy and the pain that it inflicts on people in prison, on their families, and society as a whole.

“A useless suffering that is not good for anyone, not even for the victims of our crimes”, you wrote.

Inevitable, the analogy with the memoir of Silvio Pellico, “Le mie prigioni”, in which the author describes the years of detention, testifying to the harshness and injustice of the Austrian repression, but without any purpose of denunciation. Eternally the victim of a misunderstanding, his work is not political, but openly religious, in which Christian acceptance is the only anchor of salvation.

“How the prisoner longs to see creatures of his kind! The Christian religion, which is so rich in humanity, has not forgotten to count among the works of mercy the visit of prisoners.”

Silvio Pellico

What was your lifeline? And what role did religion play in your life, before, during, and after detention?

More than believing in God, I have always preferred to believe in man. In all cases, what has improved and changed me was certainly not the prison, but the love of my partner, of my two children, the social and human relationships that I have created in all these years, together with the reading of thousands of books that I have always surrounded myself with, even in moments of absolute deprivation. 

And it is self-education that opened a window for me to understand the evil I had done and thus giving me a chance of redemption. Many could not know that, but the most terrible thing about prison is to realize that you suffer for nothing. And it is terrible to understand that our pain is not good for anyone, not even for the victims of our crimes. I have often thought that prison hurts society more than it hurts prisoners themselves because, in most cases, it is the root of increased criminality. If this has not happened to me it is only thanks to the love of my family and a part of society.

“End of the penalty: 9.999”. In the documents of the lifers, this number is the bureaucratic formula used to replace the word never.

In 2018, after 27 years of imprisonment, Carmelo Musumeci receives the phone call from the prison of Perugia, which notified him of the positive outcome of the Council Chamber on the request for conditional release, that is “provisions concerning the attendance of certain places or environments, the times at which he must be found at home, the territorial limits of travel and, in particular, the obligation to submit to the supervision of the public security authority and to maintain contact with the Social Service Centre.”

What is the first desire for freedom that came true when you got out of prison?

I hugged a tree. Who knows why in prison there are no trees!

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“Today is one of the best days of my life. I think that more than I believe in myself I chose to believe in others. And perhaps this was my salvation. I was notified of the positive outcome of the Council Chamber on the request for conditional release. When I get the Ordinance of the Court of Surveillance in my hands, I shake my head. My heart beats hard. I breathe with my mouth open. Far from prying eyes, I lean my head against the wall and sad happiness assails me. In a few moments, I relive these twenty-five years of prison with periods of isolation, punitive transfers, hospitalizations for prolonged hunger strikes, detention cells without books, paper, pens, radio, TV, etc. In those times I had nothing. I spent my days just looking at the wall. Then, suddenly, I shake my head. I stop thinking about the past. I’ll make some coffee. I’ll light a cigarette. And, after the first stroke, I meditated that now I should stop smoking because now my only escape to freedom is no longer by dying. For over a quarter of a century, I always believed I would die in a prison cell. I think that a bad and cruel sentence like the penalty of life imprisonment, which Pope Francis calls “a masked death penalty”, cannot make you reflect on the evils you’ve done. I think I was only alive because of the love I gave and received from my children and my partner. Those were difficult years because I had not only chosen to survive, but I also struggled to live. That’s why I suffered so much. I never really thought I could do it, and maybe because of that, I did it. Now it seems so strange to see a little happiness in my future. I’m touched. And my heart whispers to me: “For many years you thought that the only thing you had left to do was wait for the year 9.999; instead you made it! I’m happy for you … and for me too”.

What I regret most about these 27 years in prison is that I have no memory of my children’s childhood. I take comfort in thinking I’m going to make up for my grandchildren now. Then I think that without the help of so many people in the free world, who gave me voice and light, I would probably give up. I spent a good part of my life enjoying the only privilege of being free to think, to write, and to say what I thought: now that I have become an (almost) free man, I will not stop my fight for the abolition of life imprisonment.

In your first degree thesis, “Living Life in Prison,” through a questionnaire, you collected 48 direct testimonies of life prisoners, mostly under the 41 bis regime, High Vigilance, and High-Security Index, and almost all of them were from the south of Italy – further evidence that the penalty of life imprisonment, in most cases, is the result of social inequality, subculture, economic problems of some regions such as Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia.

Among the questions you asked the participants, there is one – perhaps the most complex – with which we close all the interviews of HUMANS… so I pass the question to you, as well:

Carmelo, what is happiness to you?

To love and be loved.

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