Between May 2007 and February 2008, Valentina Quintano documented O.P.G. Filippo Saporito (OPG), asylum for the criminally insane in Aversa, Italy. The series it titled ‘White Life Sentence‘ a term used by inmate-patients for indeterminate confinement.

O.P.G. Filippo Saporito (Google translation) serves the functions of both prison and mental health institution and as such has severe problems due to the often conflicting needs of two types of management. As recently as March 2011, sexual abuse crimes by staff have been reported in the Italian courts.

In the following interview with Valentina, she details her motives, the complex and unjust legal entrapment of many inmate-patients, their reactions to journalists and the ambient visual culture of OPG.


Why take on this subject?

A criminal mental asylum is an hybrid of two total institutions, it’s both a jail and a criminal asylum. It is a paradox to think that people in need of being cured are “helped” by being jailed. I wanted to bring light to the living conditions of the people whose recovery is made impossible in such institutions; they are just marginalized and hidden, as if the problem will disappear by pretending is not there. I aim to show something that most people don’t know about. In the 1980s, mental asylums in Italy closed but, oddly enough, criminal mental asylums continued to operate.

Who are the people in your photographs??

Most of the people jailed in such institutions are not considered dangerous anymore but there are no structures to host them and help them to be introduced back into society, so they are just left there. In many cases until they leave in a black bag. The legal situation is very complex.

Explain how it is complex.

Basically when prisoners enter OPG Filippo Saporito are assigned to a conviction time of 2, 5 or 10 years; a sentence considered a “security measure”. Those years are not exactly [defined as] a “conviction” and they can be added on top of a normal jail sentence too. Those sentences vary depending on the gravity of the crimes they committed. Once their scheduled sentence is over, they are judged by a psychiatrist and a judge to check if they are a social danger or not. If they are still considered dangerous their sentence gets a prorogue (usually six months) after which they will be judged again and so on.

The tricky bit is that in order to be released (and this procedure changes slightly from insitution to institution, but I will refer to what is the current practice at OPG Filippo Saporito) they need to find a structure, that can be a special house, or centre or families, which guarantee the surveillance on them for a one year freedom trial period, after which, if everything goes smooth, they will be definitely released.

What happens is that the number of inmates that would need this trial period outnumbers the number of places available in the above mentioned structures and very often the families can’t take under their charge the prisoners. Often, even if the person is not considered a danger anymore, if there’s no structure that can host them for the trial freedom period, their sentence are prolonged. The consequence is that 65% of the actual inmates are not considered dangerous anymore but are still held in OPG Filippo Saporito.

How many institutions such as this exist in Italy?

There are currently five criminal mental asylums In Italy. There’s a special section [for the mentally insane criminals] in another institution.

When I was working at OPG Filippo Saporito, it housed about 300 inmates. Of those, 65% were not considered a social danger anymore but they couldn’t be released for the lack of [social] structures in the community to take care of them.

What is the public attitude toward criminal mental asylums in Italy?

The Italian public knows very little about criminal mental asylums; most think that they have been closed together with the other mental asylums. They come on the news every now and than when the suicidal rate rises too high, a member of parliament goes and pay a visit inside, and denounces their inhuman conditions of life. It hits the papers for few days and then back to normal.

The prisoners have been amazing with me. They felt that for the amount of time I was spending there (I worked there for almost one year) I was not the normal journalist that comes, plays the voyeur for a few days and than disappears. At the end of the project almost everybody knew me and I knew most of their stories. Many times they have told me that with me they had the chance of talking about themselves, with someone really listening and not just handling them like paper files. [Listening] is a thing that the doctors should do, but the number of prisoners outnumbers the number of medical personal too much for it to be possible.

I gave them prints. The reactions I got were very different, some where happy, some others didn’t recognize themselves, not being used to see their image anymore, which was a very painful thing to witness.

Some prisoners do not recognise their faces?

They are mentally ill and the suicidal rate is very high so no sharp, flammable or explosive objects are allowed, nor things like shoestrings and so on. Generally, they are not allowed mirrors. The only image that some prisoners have of themselves is through old pictures; the perception of their own face and body is distorted.

“They lose track of what they used to be, because they have no guarantee that they will ever be allowed to become that person again.”

What’s more, in normal jails there is a photography service (I don’t know how it works exactly but I know that if you want to have a picture taken to send to your family you can somehow do it) but no-one considered that people in OPG Filippo Saporito might have the need for a photograph taken once in a while. For some people, the last time they saw their own face was years before.

The room interiors look very stark. Did any of the prisoners have other pictures or posters to use, hang and decorate spaces? Or, what is the visual culture of OPG Filippo Saporito?

Visual culture? Good luck with that! The average amount of space that each person has is so small that you don’t really have much wall to stick things on. In the most overcrowded sections, nothing was on the walls at all.

The sections which host people with more severe metal conditions are “decorated” with scribbles, and writing on the walls – which I consider screams more than decorations.

People that have bigger spaces usually have pictures from magazines (less porny that what I expected, to be honest) so landscapes, girls, some people a football team or a car, a postcard maybe, a couple of Christian crosses. The number of personal objects that inmates have is very small, which tells a lot about how this space works with the complete depersonalization of people.

The prisoners loose identity. They are trapped in a small space that, despite the amount of time they spend in it, they cannot identify it as belonging to them and so make no effort to decorate. They lose track of what they used to be, because they have no guarantee that they will ever be allowed to become that person again; they become faceless and with no identity and no ties with the outside world. Plus, most of them are severely sedated and/or depressed which doesn’t really stimulate any effort to make the place more welcoming.

Did the prisoners see your prints?

Quite a few asked me to have their picture taken in order to have something to send to their families and to see what they looked like. It was a tricky one for me, as I could not turn my reportage in working for them, so I had to be very careful to handle it and make no promises I couldn’t keep.

Prints were either sent to family or saved among their belongings. Someone chucked their portrait in the bin!

It’s very sad to see how is the inmates’ perception of possessions. They are not used to owning anything so the idea of possession almost disappears for them. Some people had a look at the picture and that was it, end of the use of the picture. They are deprived of the most basic elements that make a person an individual subjective human being.

Was it easy to share your prints?

It is not exactly that you bring a print with you and that’s it. Everything is extremely bureaucratic so I had to give pictures to the police attendants, who had to request the approval of the director and then they were given to another attendant that would have been in charge of delivery. Also, some staff considered giving people their pictures as inappropriate . More than once prisoners told me they never received the prints I had brought for them.

You said the prisoners appreciated and understood you presence. Do you know what they hoped your photography could do/might do?

For many reasons, most of them consider their condition of detention to be unfair. The biggest one is that their release is not time-based (not in a linear way, anyway, as I explained above) and that’s why they call their condition a life-sentence, even if not defined as such.

This condition of not knowing when they are going to be released (if ever) is source of great distress and, in my opinion, makes the recovery of a person impossible. What’s more, even if the law states that different crimes and different mental conditions are treated in different ways, the reality is that people with very serious conditions live close to people which are in better health, all under the same set of rules and in the same spaces. There are sections in which the surveillance is a little bit lower, for example when i was there they just had stated a section in which there were no police attendants but just nurses and medical personnel, but the difference between section to section vary very little.

Sometimes, for disciplinary reasons, people are moved to higher security sections and excluded from recreational activities, as a form of punishment, but this is of course off the records.

The jail is overcrowded, the number of inmates being almost twice as the one the jail was designed for. Food is very poor, and hygiene is too. [Available] medical and psychiatric assistance is ridiculous, and the police personnel are not specifically trained to cope with mental illness, which leads to a massive number of abuses and a complete lack of empathy towards the inmates.

The activities, which are considered to be treatment but in reality constitute just a form of entertainment, are restricted to a very small number of people (because there has to be one police attendant for every four inmates) and they are always the same inmates, the easier ones to cope with.

The prisoners are aware that the way in which they live is unknown to most of the population and only hits the news when a parliamentary inspection takes place. They hoped my presence was a way to get their voice out, and they hoped  the approach I had compared to the other journalists (reporting from the “zoo” they live in without effecting change) would be different. So they were hoped at least I would be less biased that the average journalist.

I made clear to them all that I was no “big cat” and I could only do my best to bring their voice out, but also aware that having the reportage sold and diffused would have not been so easy, because the reality is that is sellable only when something in the news brings those places to attention again.

And then of course there is the personal element; there’s a girl hanging around, who knows your name and smiles at you, and she considers you a human being and not a case study or a patient, which for some people is something that they hadn’t had in long time.

Plus, a photographer is something that is “happening” that breaks the routine a little bit. I have to say, some of them were very hostile to journalists, and I can easily see why, for the way they handle the topic. It took time to gain their trust.

And something else too, one inmate saw me as a tie to the outside world; I was not a nurse, not a doctor, not a police officer, I was just a person talking to them for no other reason than talking to them, because I have spent days at times just talking about food or pets or places or my normal day or whatever. They thought I was out of my mind because I decided to go there on purpose instead of taking pictures of trees and beautiful landscapes!

Filippo Saporito strikes me as an eclectic complex. There is a training centre for clinical and psychiatric training?

If I am not wrong, yes, there is a training school that works together with the OPG but I don’t know much about it.

There is also a museum at the site, correct?

There is a very small museum in the [old] jail which hosts instruments that were previously used to deal with mental illness. But inmates are still there [in the asylum], still in the same medieval conditions. I wish the asylum was something in the past […] you can say it too is a museum, but a living horror museum.


Quintano is based in London, UK. She holds an MA (distinction) in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from London College of Communication (December 2010) and received a Diploma in Photojournalism from The Danish School of Media and Journalism, Århus, Denmark (December 2009). Between July and November 2010, Quintano was Assignment Editor, Getty Images, London Office and is currently a Staff Photographer at the Italian monthly magazine, Progetto Campania. Quintano’s photography has appeared in the following books; Terre in Disordine, Minimum Fax (2009) and Enciclopedia della Canzone Napoletana, by Pietro Gargano, Magmata Edizioni (2006). Quintano’s work has appeared in many exhibitions, including Donne rEsistenti, Napoli, Italy (May 2008) and Rifiuto, at the Associazione La.Na., Napoli (July 2007)