Tag Archives: criminal justice reform

End the criminalization of poverty

We have the opportunity to end the criminalization of poverty and “Fine Time” curing the 2017-18 session of the Massachusetts State Legislature.  Sen. William Brownsberger has introduced a comprehensive bill to prevent people from imprisonment because of inability to pay fines.

Read more in this opinion column published in USA Today.

Suspending driver’s licenses creates a vicious cycle: Column

Some states are recognizing the injustice of linking to the ability to pay court-imposed fines and fees.

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Though our nation feels more divided than ever, there is a common concern that cuts across party lines and entrenched ideological silos: a pervasive sense that we have failed to give all Americans an equal opportunity to attain the American dream.

Despite our best efforts, government policies too often create obstacles that prevent Americans from climbing the ladder of opportunity. Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the criminal justice system.

It is universally understood that the justice system should be fair — and that those who violate the law should be held accountable, pay their dues, and move on. But too often, justice comes only for those who can afford it. And all of us pay the price.

Consider the case of Damian Stinnie. A product of Virginia’s foster care system, Damian graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average and went right to work, making close to minimum wage. Then he lost his job. In the four months it took for him to find a new position — another low-paying job in retail — he received four traffic citations. The total owed on the resulting fines and four sets of court costs was just over $1,000.

Making only about $300 a week, Damian could not pay his fines and fees in 30 days. The court gave him no other payment options. Instead, with no notice and no inquiry into his ability to pay, his driver’s license was automatically suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As a result, Damian was caught between two untenable choices: risking more fines and possible jail time if caught driving with a suspended license, or losing his job because he didn’t have a way to get to work. Months later, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he then had to choose between breaking the law and making his doctors’ appointments.

Second, license suspension for conduct other than drunken driving makes us less safe by diverting resources from critical public safety concerns to arresting, prosecuting, adjudicating and sometimes incarcerating defendants for license suspension cases.

How can we stop this troubling and growing trend?

 

This type of commonsense criminal justice reform has strong bipartisan support. Even in a divided nation, we can agree that our criminal justice system must dispense justice fairly and equally, and that policies disproportionately punishing the poorest among us have no place in our courts.

Marc Levin is policy director of Right on Crime. Joanna Weiss is director of Criminal Justice Reform, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @USATOpinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To submit a letter, comment or column, check our submission guidelines.

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A cop explains restorative justice

Restorative justice is a way to prevent people from entering the prison and court systems, and eliminates creating young felons. A short stint of 24-48 hours in jail can change the trajectory of a life FOREVER. More than a dozen communities in Massachusetts have voluntarily signed up for this diversion program. See more here.

Restorative justice is an equitable way for the people, property owners and families of those who are impacted and perpetuated a crime to sit together in a circle, and talk about what happened.

State Senator Jamie Eldridge [D-Acton] has sponsored legislation to introduce restorative justice to every community in Massachusetts.  The bill has been introduced in several sessions and has failed to gain endorsement at the State House. Most people don’t understand what it is and how it works.

Restorative justice allows people to take responsiblity for what they did, and for all parties to understand the impact on victims, perpetuators and property owners. The process reduces the rate of recidivism and keeps people out of jail and prison.

Bail Reformers Aren’t Waiting for Bail Reform

By ALYSIA SANTO

The nationwide movement for bail reform is advancing, gradually, through legislatures and courts. Just last week the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time at this level that putting defendants in jail because of their inability to pay bail is unconstitutional. The appeals court is considering the case of a man in Calhoun, Georgia who was kept in jail for six nights on a misdemeanor charge of being a pedestrian under the influence because he could not afford $160 bail.

Meanwhile, bail reform advocates increasingly are taking direct action: raising charitable funds they use to put up bail for defendants too poor to pay their way out of jail.

These funds have sprung up in recent years in cities across the country, including Boston, Brooklyn, Nashville, and Seattle. Similar funds are currently being explored in St. Louis, Miami, Cincinnati, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Austin. Because bail is typically returned as long as a defendant meets his court obligations, bail funds can be used repeatedly to bail out more people.

Most proponents of bail funds see their work as a form of political resistance, using charity to chip away at a system they believe should not depend on money. “Our overall goal is to end money bail,” said Sharlyn Grace, co-founder of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, which has paid roughly $160,000 for the release of over 30 people, including $35,000 for a woman charged with killing her allegedly abusive husband. “One thing we’re clear about is that we don’t want to exist,” she said.

That is not what motivates the most recent potential entry into the bail fund world. The American Bail Coalition, a trade group for insurance companies that underwrite bail, is considering setting up a charitable bail fund of its own. This represents a change of tune for an industry that has repeatedlydenied that bail often leaves poor people languishing in jail while the well-to-do go home. “It does happen, so I think we need to admit that,” said Jeff Clayton, policy director for the industry coalition, although he insists the inequities aren’t as widespread as bail reform advocates claim. “We can do some good if we put our mind to it.”

Critics of bail suspect the insurance companies’ fund, if it materializes, is part of a public relations campaign to soften the industry’s image and slow the pace of serious reforms.

“The insurance companies think if they do a bail fund, that will slow down the progress of eliminating money, because then they can say, ‘Look, we don’t need bail reform, we’re making progress through bail funds,’” said Tim Schnacke, a bail critic who has analyzed and written extensively about bail systems.

“A national bail fund sponsored by the bail bondsman?” said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. “That’s like a free sample of heroin from a drug dealer.”

Burdeen said bail funds — whether run by the industry or its critics — are unlikely to interfere with bail reform efforts, because lawmakers around the country are more concerned about the other end of the bail system: dangerous people with the means to buy their way out, who may commit new crimes.

“The public safety element of this is more important to stakeholders than poor people who can’t post bond,” said Burdeen.

Bail funds, proponents say, are serving as laboratories of sorts, testing the long-held belief that defendants are more likely to behave themselves and show up for court dates if they have money at stake. The Bronx Freedom Fund, which is an outgrowth of a public defender office, says it has bailed out more than 600 people charged with misdemeanors since 2007. Although they had none of their own money on the line, the vast majority, 96 percent, returned for their court dates, in some cases as many as 15 appearances. Fifty-five percent had their charges dismissed entirely; many of them probably would have pled guilty if the fund had not freed them.

“Anybody will plead guilty to go home, and everybody knows it,” said Robin Steinberg, co-founder of the Bronx fund. “This model allows us to prove that point while freeing people in the meantime.” Steinberg said she is working to establish a national bail fund, called the Bail Project, that would provide seed money and technical assistance in communities across the country. They hope to launch in the fall.

Bail funds have an array of origins and structures. The Massachusetts Bail Fund was started in 2013 by a group of defense attorneys and social workers. The fund uses a scoring tool to help assess each applicant’s potential to appear in court and caps charitable bail at $500 per defendant. TheConnecticut Bail Fund, expected to launch this September, was organized by a group of Yale students who are now working on getting their state bondsman licenses (a requirement to post bail in some states). The Lorena Borjas Community Fund in Queens works to raise bail money for transgender women of color, mostly sex workers. And New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also working to establish a bail fund. Other funds were started by local activists protesting police violence, including bail funds in Baltimore, Oakland, Ferguson, Cleveland, and most recently, Baton Rouge, where nearly $300,000 was raised to help bail out protesters after Alton Sterling was shot by white police officers.

Laws in some states and cities make it far more difficult to sustain bail funds. When Just City, a nonprofit in Tennessee, tried to establish a bail fund in Nashville and Memphis, the group encountered an obstacle: in some parts of Tennessee, courts deduct fines and fees directly from a person’s bail deposit, regardless of who posted it; this threatened to slowly drain the fund. Nashville officials agreed to make an exception and return money to bail funds without deductions, but Memphis was less accommodating, and Just City has suspended its plan for a bail fund there.

The Massachusetts Bail Fund had early success, bailing out hundreds and documenting a 60 percent case dismissal rate for their clients. But the money ran out. “The need seems to be bottomless,” said Atara Rich-Shea, the fund’s operations director. She said getting the money back has been a challenge because the organization isn’t always notified when a case has concluded. They anticipate reopening in September.

This summer, the Chicago Community Bond Fund temporarily limited the number of new clients it accepts to focus on replenishing the fund. The fund is relying on success stories to help them raise that money. One recent client was Steven Cordon, 23, who was accused of having 1.6 grams of crack cocaine and was booked into Chicago’s Cook County Jail this April because he didn’t have $2,000 to bail himself out. He pleaded not guilty to drug possession and sat behind bars for a month awaiting trial before the Chicago fund was alerted to his case. The fund paid for his release on May 1, and four days later, a judge dismissed the charges, citing a lack of probable cause.

Cordon’s lawyer, Borjan Kovacevic, said the case could have gone much differently if Cordon hadn’t been bailed out. As a defense attorney, he has had numerous clients who pleaded guilty against his advice, he said, because they are desperate to be free. “I knew for a fact they were innocent, but they’re scared, they’re getting beat up, and all they can think about is getting out of there,” Kovacevic said.

Punished for being poor? Lawyers ask SJC to take up bail issue

From The Salem Daily News

BY JULIE MANGANIS STAFF WRITER Aug 5, 2016

SALEM — The state public defender’s office and an advocacy group are asking the state’s highest court to take up the question of whether cash bail is fundamentally unfair to poor people, citing a North Shore woman’s case.

In a filing on Friday, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the group Equal Justice Under Law are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to take up the case of Jessica Wagle, a woman who is currently being held on $250 bail in a heroin possession case brought by Lynn police.

Wagle’s case was heard on Wednesday in Salem Superior Court, where her attorney argued that her $250 bail should be reduced to personal recognizance because she cannot afford to pay it and has no family in the area who are willing to post the bail.

Wagle’s lawyer, Shira Diner, told Judge Timothy Feeley on Wednesday that Wagle was being “punished for being poor.”

Feeley disagreed, pointing to a history of missed court appearances, or “defaults,” in her past cases as a reason to keep the bail at $250, the amount originally set on July 19 by Lynn District Court Judge Richard Mori, four days after her arrest.

Wagle, 32, who has struggled with heroin addiction for six years, her lawyers said, had been free during those four days after her arrest, until she walked into court and prosecutors sought to have her taken into custody on bail.

Her lawyers argue that both the SJC and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly held that no person can be kept in jail solely because of poverty — and argue that neither Feeley nor Mori took into account Wagle’s ability to pay.

“This case raises an issue of fundamental importance to the Massachusetts justice system: Can a person be kept in a jail cell because she cannot make a monetary payment?” the attorneys for Wagle say in their filing.

“Although that basic rule has long been a pillar of our legal system, it is overlooked as a matter of daily practice in courtrooms and jails throughout the Commonwealth. This case is about the irrationality and harmfulness of wealth-based pretrial detention. Such a practice is terrible for public safety and grossly unjust,” the filing says.

In his decision on Wednesday, Feeley concluded that, based on Wagle’s record and a history of missed court appearances, the $250 bail was appropriate, and that her inability to pay doesn’t make it unreasonable.

Wagle’s lawyers say judges routinely “misuse” the bail statute and ignore the question of a defendant’s ability to pay.

If economic status cannot be used in determining a sentence or a probation violation, “it has no place in pre-trial release decisions,” especially when a person is still presumed innocent, Wagle’s attorneys write.
http://www.salemnews.com/news/local_news/punished-for-being-poor/article_a1c9e610-a056-516e-9ae3-79a9b571584c.html

The inhumanity of solitary

U.S. faith leaders push for prison reform of solitary confinement

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, is pictured in a replica solitary confinement cell during the Ecumenical Advocacy Days event in 2015. Photo: CNS/Erin Schaff, courtesy Perisphere Media

The “SHU” is not much larger than a good-size bathroom.

The SHU, or special housing unit, was where Johnny Perez spent a total of three years – the longest period being 10 months – in solitary confinement during the 13 years he was in New York prisons for armed robbery.

The tiny cells where inmates are sent for breaking prison rules or misbehavior are also known by nicknames such as the box, the bing, punk city, the hole, the pound and lockdown.

Perez was sent to solitary for fighting, testing positive for marijuana and having a frying pan in his cell.

In solitary he was alone with his thoughts 23 hours a day, with an hour outdoors in a small caged area for exercise. Corrections officers who brought meals and conducted security checks offered his only human contact.

“If they’re not sociable then you won’t be having a conversation with them,” Perez said of the guards. “One didn’t even look me in the face. It’s hard that the only person you come in contact with doesn’t validate you as a human being.

“It was dehumanising.”

Perez, 37, made it through isolation with no debilitating psychological effects, unlike some others. He received “tons of magazine subscriptions” and two books a week – the maximum allowed – from his family and their church. He had writing materials so he could journal and also thought a lot about being elsewhere, far from the around-the-clock fluorescent-lit cell. He kept reminding himself, “I have to leave here the same as I came, that I don’t succumb to my environment.”

It was an environment where the men in neighbouring cells screamed, acted out their frustration in anger and cut themselves. And there was suicide.

About halfway through his sentence Perez began to realise “my mother didn’t give birth to me to sit in a jail cell”. He had a daughter who was born two days before he was arrested and he had barely seen her.

Perez enrolled in college classes while incarcerated, studying criminal justice and is set to graduate from St Francis College next year. His studies and change of heart helped prepare him for his first job when he was released from prison two and a half years ago. Today, he is a safe re-entry advocate with the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project in New York City helping the newly released adjust to life outside of prison.

He also is a vocal advocate for solitary confinement reform.

Perez’s stay in solitary was relatively short. Some incarcerated people have spent 30 years or more in isolation.

Advocates like Perez have joined their voices in a growing campaign to call attention to the wide use of solitary confinement nationwide. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people were held in isolation in 2014, said a report from the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called attention to the importance of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate people convicted of crimes and that imprisonment “should be about more than punishment” in its 2000 statementResponsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice.

While the bishops did not address solitary confinement directly, they expressed a belief that prisons are places where human dignity must be respected.

Advocates for reform as well as psychologists say solitary confinement often destroys people rather than rehabilitates them.

The Washington-based National Religious Campaign Against Torture, of which the USCCB is a supporter, is one of numerous organisations calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Rev Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the religious campaign, compared inmate isolation to torture, citing a 2011 United Nations finding.

“For us as people of faith, we really see this effort as a profoundly moral effort, that we would deny any person access to community, access to restorative justice, to, what I would say as a Methodist minister, access to redemption and a belief in God’s ability give us all a second and third and 23rd chance,” Rev Downton told Catholic News Service.

“There’s been a real acceptance that once someone is labeled a criminal that the standard of humanity and dignity would be removed from them,” she said. “The inherent God-given human dignity of the person doesn’t end at the prison doors.”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a documentary on solitary confinement titled Breaking Down the Box. The organisation also has built a replica 1.8-metre-by-2.7-metre cell that it displays at programs.

In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, U.N. special rapporteur on torture with the Human Rights Council, called for a ban on solitary confinement except in exceptional circumstances and for no longer than 15 days. Mendez also said that in no case should the practice be used for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

In January, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He said the practice is overused and can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones”.

Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has researched the psychological effects of incarceration. He has found that segregated prisoners deprived of normal human interaction reportedly suffer from mental illnesses including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators did not respond to requests for comment.

Bills to limit solitary confinement have been introduced in several states in response to concerns raised by once incarcerated people and psychologists. They have met with mixed results.

Catholic leadership on the issue, particularly by Catholic Mobilising Network, the New York State Catholic Conference and the California Catholic Conference has helped obtain gradual shifts in inmate isolation practices, Downton said.

In New York, the bishops in 2000 called upon state officials to “avoid extreme forms of confinement and abusive punishment” in its statement Restoring All the Fullness of Life: A Pastoral Statement on Criminal Justice. In April, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany addressed the need for reform of solitary confinement in a column in the Times Union.

The New York Catholic conference also backs the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The bill would limit the time anyone can spend in segregation, end solitary confinement of vulnerable people, restrict the criteria that can result in isolation and create more humane and effective alternatives for inmates.

Retired Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany told CNS that the state’s bishops have worked on restorative justice issues for more than a decade. He said their concern always has been for the dignity of the inmates.

He also welcomed a settlement agreement reached in December in a lawsuit over incarceration practices in New York prisons. The agreement calls for a step-down unit to help inmates reintegrate into the general prison population, a substance abuse treatment program, a community re-entry program for people being released, incentivising good behaviour, ending the use of a restrictive diet as punishment, and disciplinary guidelines to end the use of arbitrary sanctions.

Cross country, the California Catholic Conference has pursued avenues to reform the state’s use of solitary confinement. From meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown to backing legislation placing limits on inmate isolation, the conference has staked out a consistent position that, a staff member told CNS, the bishops view as a human rights issue.

“They just felt like this is wrong. That we need to find different ways to address this. There’s different ways than keeping people in isolation for so long,” said Debbie McDermott, associate director for restorative justice at the California Catholic Conference.

Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, who chairs the conference’s Restorative Justice Committee, said he was troubled to see during visits to different isolation units that some inmates were held in cages. He said the men told him they feel lonely and neglected.

“It’s disconcerting that a lot of the people are left alone. Many threaten suicide. They can’t see their families for long, long times. So we have to reach out to them (state corrections officials) to say, ‘This isn’t the way to go. They’re not animals’,” the bishop said.

Over the years, the committee has been instrumental in gaining reforms in California solitary confinement practices. It played a major role in ending a two-month hunger strike in 2013 that involved nearly 10 per cent of California’s inmate population over solitary confinement policies, particularly at Pelican Bay State Prison.

“When the men were not eating at Pelican Bay, certainly we advocated for them and against what was happening to them there,” Bishop Garcia said.

“I think the SHU is improved, especially at Pelican Bay, from what I’ve been hearing,” he added.

Perez is pleased that reform campaigns are gaining attention. The reform efforts are not meant to prevent prison officials from doing their job, he explained, but to ensure that administrators remember that incarcerated people must make amends for their wrong-doing and not to be further punished in isolation for even minimal rules violations.

“We’re not saying you can’t not hold people accountable,” Perez said. “But you don’t have to treat them inhumanely.”

Race to the Finish & Mariposa

Until July 31, we are on the fast track in Massachusetts to refer bills out of committee [deadline today] and pass them by the end of session July 31. [New session starts Jan 2017].
WOULD YOU take a minute today to:
1) Contact your Representative and ask him/her to express support to House Chairman John Fernandes for H1475 (Solitary Reform Bill), H1381 (An Act to Require Data Regarding the Use of Solitary Confinement)
Solitary is cruel and inhumane after 15 days, and torture for people with mental illness. We treat our animals better. Some people are released directly to the street from solitary and end up rebounding back to jail because they are so disoriented.
And ask them to act on
H1628 (Medical Placement for Terminal and Incapacitated Prisoners)
 
It costs up to $200K/year to keep a person in jail at the end of life, versus releasing them to a nursing home where they go home or medicare takes over for $120,000-$140,000, which also creates jobs in the community.
2) Contact your Senator and ask him/her to express their support to Senate Chairman Brownsberger for S843 (Medical Placement for Terminal and Incapacitated Prisoners). The Senate version of the Solitary Reform Bill is pending in a different committee and the Solitary Data bill (H1381) is a stand alone bill- no Senate version. Still ask your Senator to let Chairman Brownsberger know that you are supporting the House versions of those bills.
To find your legislator, go to: http://openstates.org/.
3) Get a free ticket to attend Mariposa & the Saint,  
a powerful short play about the intense experience of solitary confinement based on a woman’s experience of living in a barren space the size of an elevator for nearly 3 years.
                     Performances March 23-26 in Boston and
                    Milford on Thursday March 24.  FREE Tickets HERE.
​ENCOURAGE your state legislators to attend.

Gourmet dinner in … Prison

NEW YORK TIMES

Italian Cuisine Worth Going to Prison For
By JIM YARDLEY    MARCH 5, 2016
Prison movie posters on the walls at InGalera, at the Bollate penitentiary in Milan, as an inmate serves patrons. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Time

MILAN — The waiters glided through the crowded dining room of InGalera, a restaurant that opened recently to rave reviews. Dinner reservations are almost fully booked for March, and the Milanese elite have taken note. A former bank president came a few weeks ago. So did a former Miss Italy. Families come on weekends.

For Silvia Polleri, the restaurant’s manager and visionary, InGalera is a dizzying triumph, if more because of the locale than because of the food.

It is inside the Bollate penitentiary, a medium-security prison with 1,100 inmates on the outskirts of Milan. The waiters, dishwashers and cooks have been convicted of homicide, armed robbery, drug trafficking and other crimes.

“May I take your plate, sir?” asked a waiter, Carlos, an inmate dressed in a tie, white shirt and black vest as he cleared a table on a recent night.

It is hard to imagine a less likely culinary success story than InGalera, or a more intriguing experiment in rehabilitating inmates — and confronting public attitudes about them.

Few people think of prisons as a place for a nice night out, yet the novelty of going to the prison grounds for food and drink has resonated, and even become something of a marketing tool.

Ms. Polleri decided that the best way to reassure patrons was to take a wink-wink approach. The name, InGalera, is Italian slang for “In Prison.”

The restaurant’s design is sleek, airy and modern, but the walls are decorated with posters from famous prison movies, including “Escape From Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood.

Curiosity about a forbidden and feared world has turned a night at InGalera into a daring adventure, with a fine meal as a bonus. (It has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor.)

“We wanted to see the reality here,” said Carla Borghi, who came with a group of couples from the nearby town of Paderno Dugnano. “It is not the classic restaurant. But it is a classic restaurant. The food is excellent.”

For years, Italy has struggled with its prison system, as well as how to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Overcrowding had become such a problem that in January 2013 the European Court of Human Rights ordered the country to fix the system.

Amuse-bouche dishes of cheese mousse with mustard, curry and dill awaiting customers. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
Italian lawmakers responded with more alternative measures for minor crimes. In 2014, Italy also repealed harsh drug sentencing laws enacted during the 1990s, similar to the “three strikes” laws in the United States. In 2014, Italy began releasing 10,000 inmates (of roughly 60,000) who had been convicted of minor offenses.

But the issue of how best to rehabilitate offenders — and lower the recidivism rate — remained difficult. Italy has long allowed inmates in medium-security prisons to move around the facilities during the day.

“The main problem has been that they do little during the day, which doesn’t help them at the present, nor for their future outside prisons,” said Alessio Scandurra, who works for Antigone, a nonprofit group focused on the rights of detainees.

The Bollate prison was at the vanguard of experimentation even before opening the restaurant. Under the director, Massimo Parisi, the prison offers an array of programs. Companies have work programs on prison grounds. Volunteers teach theater and painting. Carpentry skills are taught in workshops equipped with power drills and saws. Inmates maintain a stable of horses in the prison yard.

 

There is also an initiative involving a carefully vetted group of 200 inmates who are allowed to leave each day for jobs with an outside firm. Inmates travel without supervision on public transportation; they must check in upon arrival at work, and at other points during the day.

Mr. Parisi said only one inmate had failed to return at the appointed time, and he showed up a few days later.

InGalera, Italian slang for “In Prison,” represents an experiment in rehabilitating inmates and confronting public attitudes about them. Credit Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times
But sending out inmates is different from asking law-abiding citizens to come in for a meal.

“Our first worry was: Who would come?” Mr. Parisi said. “But many people are coming. People are curious about prisons. It is an unknown world to many people. That creates interest.”

The force behind the project is Ms. Polleri, who spent 22 years teaching kindergarten before becoming a caterer and later founding a social co-op in 2004 to help inmates. She hired select inmates from Bollate for catering jobs outside the prison. Once, she took a convicted bank robber to wait on tables at a reception in a bank.

But the idea of starting a restaurant was an altogether different challenge.

“People looked at me like I was crazy,” she said. “They also thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to name it InGalera. But I wanted to stop talking about this in a sweet way.”

She solicited grants from sponsors, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm, and a local architect designed the restaurant’s interior for free. It is on the ground floor of the dormitory for prison guards; inmates are housed in a different part of the prison. She hired a maître d’ — who seats guests and handles the money — and a professional chef, Ivan Manzo, who was unfazed by working with convicts.

“I’ve seen a lot of crazy people working in kitchens outside of here!” Mr. Manzo said.

In the kitchen, inmates were busily preparing dishes as one, Mirko, was showing another how to make tarts. Inmates are paid up to 1,000 euros a month to work in the restaurant, and share tips.

“It is a matter of pride, a way to make people happy and show them that even inmates can change and evolve,” said Mirko, who like the other inmates wanted to be identified only by his first name.

Ms. Polleri says that she realizes the restaurant may bother some people and that she does not want to offend victims of crime. But she argued that prisons must train inmates to become responsible citizens capable of re-entering society, and noted that the recidivism rate of inmates in similar programs is far lower than average.

Before the dinner crowd arrived on a recent night, Ms. Polleri hovered over the waiters, reminding Carlos to “walk straight.” Her most nerve-racking moment came in early December when she learned that a food critic for one of the country’s most important newspapers, Corriere della Sera, had secretly come for dinner one night and was preparing a review.

“I couldn’t sleep for a week,” Ms. Polleri said. The critic praised the food, the waiters and the “convivial atmosphere.” He even praised the prices, which are more reasonable than most Milanese restaurants. “To have honest prices,” he wrote, “you have to come to jail.”

Looking across the dining room, Ms. Polleri pointed to the guests enjoying their meals. “This is the revolution,” she said. “A lot of these people before didn’t know where the prison was.”