It is known as Italy’s Alcatraz,rugged nub of rock and Mediterranean maquis where hardened criminals serve out their sentences.
But Gorgona, the country’s last surviving island penal colony, is now revealing a softer side – in particular towards its four-footed inhabitants.
For decades, inmates have spent their days rearing pigs, sheep, goats and cows in the prison farm – and then killing them for food in the island’s slaughterhouse.
Now, the 600 animals are to be spared the butcher’s knife, in a programme that is intended to inject humanity into the island jail and help improve inmates’ chances of rehabilitation once they are released into society.
Around 450 of the livestock are to be transferred to the Italian mainland, where they will be sent to animal refuges, while others will remain on Gorgona and become, in effect, pets.
Ending the rearing of livestock and shutting down the abattoir will also, it is hoped, reduce the pollution that the animals produce with their dung and urine – a significant footprint on an island that at 220 hectares is the smallest in the Tuscan Archipelago.
The project is the result of collaboration between the ministry of justice, the prison service and the Tuscan Archipelago national park, which includes Elba, where Napoleon was exiled, and Montecristo.
“The closure of the slaughterhouse and the transfer of many of the animals to the mainland will result in a drastic reduction of pollution on the island,” said Vittorio Ferraresi, the deputy justice minister.
“It will also allow prisoners to take part in rehabilitation activities with the animals that remain, to build up empathy and respect for the land.”
Carlo Mazzerbo, the governor of the prison, said respecting the rights of animals could teach prisoners valuable lessons in wider society.
“It can help the inmates on the path to rehabilitation. It is important in terms of ethics, but also economics – closing the abattoir will enable us to save money that we can spend on other projects.”
Gorgona’s 100 prisoners are soon to be put to work in the island’s wild spaces, managing patches of woodland and building hiking trails for members of the public, who are now allowed to visit with special permission.
“We want to make the most of this splendid island and as much as possible allow it to be enjoyed by the public,” said Luca Salvetti, the mayor of Livorno, the nearest town on the mainland. “We’ll be happy when we see children, hikers and nature lovers come here.”
Gorgona has already won plaudits as a prison where inmates are not locked in their cells all day, but put to work.
The island boasts a vineyard, tended by prisoners, which produces expensive, award-winning white wine from Vermentino and Ansonica grapes.
Expertise for the wine-making comes from the Frescobaldis, an aristocratic Tuscan family that has been making wine since the 13th century and counted Henry VIII as one of their customers.
Italy has a long history of banishing its criminal and political prisoners to remote islands.
Napoleon was sent into exile on Elba before escaping and making his last stand at Waterloo and Mussolini sent his political enemies to the islands of Ponza and Ventotene, between Rome and Naples.
Gorgona is the only island jail that remains. The prospects of escape are slim – the nearest land is 20 miles away, police launches patrol the coastline and there is a three-mile exclusion zone to ward off other vessels.