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Naples hires ex-cons as tour guides

The program keeps the ex-cons away from crime, while they help tourists do the same.

A woman from Norway speaks with tourist guides in downtown Naples. The city is experimenting with a new program called “Esco-Dentro,” that employs ex-convicts as tour guides. (Angelica Marin/GlobalPost)

NAPLES, Italy — In downtown Naples, a group of rowdy men crowd around a tall blond woman, yelling at her in a throaty Italian. Luckily for her, they’re armed with brochures, not guns.

“You should speak English,” says the woman, as she stands at the entrance of the Spanish Quarter holding a map of the city.

“My mentor spoke English,” jokes one man in Italian, “but he died in a train accident yesterday!” Theatrically, he waves his hands into the sky in a sign of prayer. The woman laughs hysterically — still with no idea where to go.

Sporting bright yellow vests and nametags, these animated men look like tourist guides, but have a hard time acting like them. Most speak only Italian, have never heard of personal space and give out tourist brochures as aggressively as a street vendor peddles stolen goods. Perhaps it’s not surprising, as their resumes include petty theft, drug-pushing and armed robbery — the tourist guides are ex-convicts.

In June, 420 ex-cons were deployed throughout Naples by a program called “Esco-Dentro,” or Exit-Inside, which helps newly released convicts re-enter society.

These men — and a few women — were given jobs in sanitation, street cleaning and immigrant assistance. However, the most controversial assignment was tourist guides. “I spent 19 years of my life in prison,” said Pietro Ioia, an Esco-Dentro worker who learned Spanish while serving two years in a Barcelona prison. “ I’ve made some mistakes, and I want to change. Why don’t people expect us to change?”

As the spokesperson for the Union of Organized Convicts in Naples (DON), Ioia is a strong supporter of the Esco-Dentro initiative. Now in his 50s, he’s gained some perspective and encourages his fellow workers to keep honest so they can keep making the $700 a month the city pays them.

“If I’d had a job every time I left prison, maybe I wouldn’t have wasted all this time behind bars,” he said.

Just weeks after he was interviewed for this story, Ioia found himself behind bars again serving a five-year sentence after the slow-moving Italian justice system caught up with a past charge against him. Now the ex-cons lack a spokesman for their cause.

But earlier this summer, Ioia was stationed at the entrance of the city’s Beverello Harbor, helping tourists find the best pizza and avoid pickpockets — and who better to give that advice than he and his fellow ex-cons?