Two hundred yards from the Colosseum – where condemned men once fought wild animals – modern-day prison inmates face a rather different task: cleaning up rubbish in a park frequented by dog walkers and toddlers.
In a first for Italy, 14 prisoners in blue denim shirts and brown trousers were at work on Tuesday in Rome’s Oppian Hill park, using rakes and shovels to collect rubbish and tip it into black plastic bags.
With the uppermost levels of the Colosseum looming between the pine trees, they were guarded by prison officers in blue berets, who provided security and outnumbered the inmates three to one.
The initiative, organised by Rome council, will benefit parks and gardens across the capital, eventually involving 100 prisoners.
They will be put to work in places like Villa Sciarra, a once elegant, palm-lined park on the Janiculum Hill which has been badly damaged by vandalism and neglect, and Piazza Vittorio, a colonnaded square in the city centre which has also seen better days.
The prisoners will also tackle the lamentable state of Rome’s roads, mending some of the thousands of potholes that make driving in the city a bone-jarring, nerve-wracking experience.
After its launch in Rome this week, the scheme is to be extended to other cities in Italy, including Milan, Palermo and Naples.
“These are guys who have committed relatively minor crimes, largely a result of the economic circumstances they found themselves in – theft and robberies and drug-dealing,” chief inspector Vincenzo Lo Cascio, from the prison service, told The Telegraph, as prisoners swept up discarded crisp packets and empty plastic bottles.
“There are no lifers or Mafiosi. Research shows that if prisoners take part in this sort of work, 85 per cent do not go back to a life of crime when they are released.
“For those who don’t have this opportunity, the rate of recidivism is very high, around 70 per cent.”
The prisoners work amid ancient Roman ruins – beneath the Oppian Hill lies the remains of the Domus Aurea, an opulent palace built by the Emperor Nero.
After the death of the hated tyrant in AD 68, much of it was torn down.
On top of it, the emperors Titus and Trajan constructed vast complexes of public baths and gymnasia, the remains of which loom over the prisoners as they rake up litter.
Rome’s parks and gardens are in an advanced state of neglect, with broken benches, overgrown grass and shrubs, paths in a pitiful state and rubbish strewn everywhere.
Budget cuts and privatization have resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of gardeners employed by the city council, from 1,500 in 2000 to just 120.
Widespread corruption has also left its mark, with city officials working in collusion with underworld groups to plunder public finances in a scandal dubbed Mafia Capitale.
“This is the first project of its kind in Italy,” said Gabriella Stramaccioni, a civilian who is coordinating the project.
“It’s scheduled to last for six months. Then we’ll evaluate it and see if it should be extended. There’s a lot of work to do.”
The inmates, who volunteer for the work, come from Rome’s Rebibbia and Regina Coeli prisons.
They work from 9am until 3pm, five days a week, and will soon be joined by a group of female inmates.