What does a woman do alone on “Devil’s Island” inhabited by convicted criminals?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — In 2011, when Julia Manca traveled to Pianosa Island, which was an Italian penal colony Previously, she was looking forward to a relaxing, sunny vacation before returning home.

But 12 years after checking into Melina’s seaside hotel, which is staffed with supervised convicts, Manka has stayed on the island known as Alcatraz in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Now, she is the only woman living in the ghost village of Pianosa, which is part of the marine park in the Tuscan archipelago.

More than ten years after checking into Melina’s beachfront hotel, which is staffed by convicts on probation, Giulia Manca remains on the Italian island of Pianosa.Credit: Courtesy Giulia Manca

Manka works as the hotel’s manager and oversees a rehabilitation program on the island, which is run by the non-profit organization Arnera, whose social mission is to help vulnerable people, such as prisoners, return to society.

“I stayed in the hotel for a week and didn’t want to leave,” Manca told CNN.

“It was a unique holiday and I was blown away by the prisoner rehabilitation project and how they get a second chance at life,” she added.

She added, “I fell in love with Pianosa. With its stillness, its clear, heavenly turquoise sea, its quiet starry nights.”

Second chance hotel

Guests pose for a photo with the male convicts who work at the hotel on Pianosa IslandCredit: Courtesy Giulia Manca

Formerly called the Devil’s Island, Pianosa lies between Corsica and the mainland and has been a beloved happy getaway for its beautiful beaches and lush green vegetation.

Manka and one other permanent resident of the island, and she works alongside the prison guard and 10 male convicts as cooks, gardeners, waiters and beach cleaners at Hotel Melina, the only accommodation facility on the island.

Surrounded by pine trees, Hotel Melina has frescoed ceilings and has 11 rooms with wooden furniture and stunning sea views, as well as a restaurant and bar, and a large patio where evening drinks are served to guests.

Pianosa remained as a maximum security prison base until 1998Credit: robertonencini/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Manka had been a guest at the unique hotel, which is open all year, for only a few days when the then manager informed her that the establishment was struggling financially and was in danger of closing.

If that had happened, the detainees would have had to be sent back to prison, quickly putting an end to their time in Bianosa.

“I felt I had to do something to help them or they would go back behind bars, in small cells without any chance of a fresh start and learning a job that could help them once they are released,” adds Manca, who previously worked as a tour agent.

Manca, who grew up in Tuscany, decided to stay and take up the position of hotel manager.

She says she initially worked for free, using her managerial skills to help secure the hotel’s future.

In just a few years, Manca has managed to shake things up dramatically, and Hotel Melina has become a popular venue for weddings and birthday parties, with guests drawn in part by the unconventional staff flocking to the hotel.

Alcatraz Tyrrhenian Sea

Pianosa Island has become a popular getaway due to its beautiful beaches and lush green vegetation.Credit: Marco Saracco/Adobe Stock

Pianosa is adjacent to Gorgona, another Italian prison island, and was established during the 18th century to keep outlaws, bandits and revolutionaries.

The island served as the base for a maximum security prison until 1998, when the prison closed. Eventually a few of its inhabitants left and Pianosa was left deserted for many years.

Visitors were not allowed onto the island until relatively recently, and those who do visit can only come as part of an organized boat tour which must be booked through certain tour operators.

In order to be accepted into the Melina Hotel’s rehabilitation programme, prisoner applicants must have already served at least a third of their sentence in prison and undergo a series of rigorous psychosocial assessment tests.

Over the past 12 years, Manca has dealt with about a hundred criminals on probation for a number of crimes, including murder.

Although she notes that many prisoners have been convicted of more than “stealing flowers”, Manca has always felt comfortable on the island and considers it a safe haven.

She also feels strongly that ex-offenders should be given the opportunity to contribute to society rather than spending more time behind bars. in rehabilitation tasks.

“I would love to see them bring back to life through work,” she adds.

Known as the “Queen of Pianosa”, Manca admits her work astounded her friends and loved ones because of the perceived dangers of being the only woman alongside a group of convicts.

“People kept calling me crazy for having such a job, and for being the only woman working and living with male offenders accused of no small crimes,” says Manca.

Melina Hotel, the only property on the island, features frescoed ceilings, as well as an on-site restaurantCredit: Courtesy Giulia Manca

And she continued, “I never felt fear or anxiety, and I did not think about it once. Rather, I feel safer with them here than returning to the city.”

Despite the challenges of managing a group of offenders, Manca says she does her best to set clear boundaries to ensure the effectiveness of the rehabilitation program.

She explains that her relationship with her employees is based on mutual respect, and she has managed to strike a balance by keeping her distance and being firm and transparent, in order to support them.

Every week, Manca boards the ferry for the three-hour cruise to mainland Tuscany to run errands and bureaucracy, departing at dawn and returning to Pianosa at night.

Manca points out that, unlike nearby Gorgona, where convicts must return to their cells after working hours are over, those in Pianosa are allowed to roam freely.

Manka works as the hotel’s manager and oversees the island’s rehabilitation program, which is open to prisoners who meet certain criteria.Credit: Courtesy Giulia Manca

Inmates here receive a monthly salary for their hotel jobs, and stay in the former old prison premises, which have been remodeled and converted into comfortable studios, equipped with a gym, TV, kitchen, and private rooms with bathrooms.

They also got mobile phones so they could stay in touch with their families.

Italian prisons are among the most brutal and overcrowded in Europe, with 120 inmates per 100 beds, according to a 2020 report by the Council of Europe, while the prison suicide rate has risen by 300% since 1960, with 75% returning to crime.

Therefore, the Pianosa is undoubtedly a more attractive alternative for those nearing the end of their sentence.

Although it was once called the Devil’s Island, Pianosa is now a popular getaway for its beautiful beaches and lush green vegetation.Credit: Courtesy Giulia Manca

Manca is proud of the success of the “pianosa model”, explaining that the recidivism rate of those who spent time on the island has fallen to 0.01%.

“In the evening they are free to go down to the beach and swim,” Manca explains. However, they must leave their quarters early in the morning and return at a fixed time in the evening, they are still under supervision and a guard watches them.

Offenders can serve the remainder of their sentence working at the hotel if they behave well, and some have spent five to ten years here.

But those who do not appear willing to change risk being sent back to prison to complete the remainder of their sentence.

Manca is very proud of her role in the process and says those who were initially skeptical of her decision to stay at Pianosa all those years ago now realize the importance of her job.

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