Naples hires ex-cons as tour guides

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?

Naples is a unique mix of architectural beauty and environmental violations. It is home to the infamous Camorra mafia, and has one of the highest crime rates in Italy. It’s no wonder that newly released ex-convicts find it easier to jump back into crime than find a regular job.

“The biggest financial enterprises in southern Italy are the mafia, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta,” said Naples Councilman Corrado Gabriele, who oversees Esco-Dentro. “You don’t need to read Roberto Saviano’s great book to know that,” he said, citing “Gomorrah,” the internationally acclaimed book on the Neapolitan mafia. By targeting ex-cons, Gabriele is chipping away at the Camorra’s workforce. “With this small intervention, we hope they can avoid asking the Camorra for a job,” he said. Gabriele’s approach didn’t pass unnoticed. He has already received direct threats from the Camorra. His political opponents, on the other hand, have criticized him for hiring ex-cons as tour guides, saying that it could hurt the city’s image.

But the $2.8 million allocated by the European Union for Esco-Dentro, said Gabriele, is keeping hundreds of ex-convicts off the streets while providing on-the-job training that could be useful to them in the future — enough payback for the councilman to ignore the disapproving sneers.

Criminologist Antonio Di Rosario, who works for Esco-Dentro as a consultant, said the city is giving them a sense of community.

“This makes the reintegration process into society much easier,” said Di Rosario.

The program will run until December on EU funds. For now it’s unclear whether or not it will continue after that. The city seems unwilling to support the program out of its own pocket. This worries Esco-Dentro workers.

“I have 700 people waiting in line outside my office who don’t want to go back to crime,” said Pietro Ioia, “and we need to give them an answer. Because if they get a job, that means 700 less in the hands of Camorra, and that would be outstanding.”