FATHER GAETANO: “THIS IS HOW WE SAVE YOUNG PRISONERS”

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The one of Father Gaetano Greco and of his “difficult” boys, teenagers or little older, who are guests of the Community Amigò, is a story that comes from far. They are about twenty in all, some come from the juvenile prison in Rome, others have stories that seem incredible, but they call him “Father” not only because he is a priest but because for some of them he represents the only family figure.

His vocation was born thanks to Padre Pio, to whom, when he was 7 years old, he confessed his desire to become a priest receiving his approval. The years pass and Gaetano enters the Order of Capuchin Tertiaries of Our Lady of sorrows that have a very specific charism: to take care of the young detainees. After Sardinia and Tuscany, he arrives in Rome at the prison of Casal del Marmo. There begins a path intended to change not only his life, but also the one of many kids.

Father Greco, the prison is a difficult place for an adult, let alone for teenagers
“There should not be jails for young people, this is a failure for all of us: family, school, society in general. It is the last stage for those that are declared irrecoverable after having tried other paths”.

Who are the children of Casal del Marmo?
“Emulators. They are bullies, they think to be omnipotent, they have no respect for life! When they arrive, they behave like small bosses, an attitude that they retain both before entering and during the stay. They are arrogant, they believe to be someone, in particular those that already know prison, they are the veterans, the masters. A guy during a robbery killed an elderly woman and minimized the act. In his arrogance, he thought he would return home in two days. The father told him that he had to stop to behave like a boss, that he had become a murderer and his place was certainly not at home. In that case the paternal authority brutally reduced his ego. Instead those who arrive for the first time are terrified, they collapse”.

How do they reach the sentence, what pushes them?
“They arrive to prison because violence and discomfort are significantly increased, there is everything: it goes from offenses as theft and armed robbery to drug dealing and murders. In particular theft and drug dealing are the most common crimes because they produce money immediately and when a teenager acquires a space of self-management he is no longer controllable. Obviously for him the economic goal becomes more accessible, until it crosses the threshold of the prison, but often it is no enough because many are repeat offenders”.

What has changed since you start to be a chaplain in the juvenile jails?
“Everything. In 1981 the jail was for guys caught committing crimes in flagrante delicto, in Rome they were about hundred. In 1984 the law 448 has amended the idea of punishment, the first recovery communities were opened and now at the centre there is the teenager. During the day, they are busy in many activities that are very distracting, which is right, but before, in prison a path of faith was possible. I remember a very difficult guy that was imprisoned three times that in the end came to mass. There was Eucharistic adoration, we could propose a true path of faith, concrete. A sixteen-year-old boy decided to receive his first holy communion, it was an immense goal, that request meant that he wanted to change his life. Today is no longer so easy to achieve these changes”.

Why?
“Currently there are many more foreigners, this means that it is much more difficult to propose a true alternative to violence. Even if I have to say that despite they are Islamic or Orthodox, when speaking in general of God there is always someone that is interested. What counts is to give testimony, to propose the path of the heart. These guys do not know the word love, but only money, power and indifference. We could also suggest to call an Imam or an Orthodox priest, but nobody wants to do so. So much secular pedagogy, but little heart”.

Anyone you remember in particular?
“Many, indeed so many. Some of the guests of my community got married and had children, at the end they made a choice opposite to the one they thought was destined for them. I remember a guy who at the time of the murder was only 14 years old. The mother persuaded him to kill the partner of the father, at the beginning he did not realize the severity of the act, but with time he started to feel terrible remorse, a big burden for the whole life. Another boy that today is eighteen years old, gave a fist to a foreigner, because the father was annoyed by the man singing. A sad history of racism, today he is still upset, he is in need of forgiveness. We are witnessing an escalation of pain and violence. But I am also convinced that one can make the right choice after having made a mistake and we must insist, make everyone understand, I do not give up”.

Who are the guests of Community Amigò?
Albanian teenager immigrants, Africans arrived with the big boats, some who come from the prison of Casal del Marmo and others from North Africa. We try to give them a future. Especially to the unaccompanied minors that have not committed any offense and that the Court gives us in custody; for those who comes instead from the criminal, the arrangement is very restrictive because they are under probation, they are employed in voluntary and social recovery activities. For those who wish, it is possible to study, but if they violate the provisions they go back to prison. They are different between them and they do not integrate easily. We give it all, but it depends on their will, unfortunately there are also failures.

Do you remember a story that ended positively?
“That of an Albanian boy without criminal records, unaccompanied minor, completely alone, given in custody to our community. He studied and we helped him to find a job. He saved his money and now he has a farm in Albania. If you want, with all your strength you can make it”.

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