During the Year of Mercy, the commitment of a focolarino and 30 volunteers from the Sempre Persona (Always a Person) project at the Rebibbia Prison on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. It all began with a request for forgiveness.
“I was still a child,” Alfonso from the class of 1945 recounts, “when my father was unjustly imprisoned. My mother and I would visit him in prison and, at such a tender age I realised how lonely the inmates were: people without hope or future – and without dignity. So, I promised myself that one day I would do something for them.”
Alfonso had to wait for that chance. He enrolled in a course on volunteering and obtained permission to make visits to Rebibbia Prison, which currently has 1,700 inmates. They are serving time for the most varied crimes: drug dealing, sex abuse, mafia activity, extortion, murder, and more. Alfonso was aware that his efforts would be limited by the distrust of the inmates who belived they had lost any chance at redemption. In fact, many of them refused to let him approach. But he never gave up because he was convinced they were the image of the God he had chosen when he became a focolarino.
Finally, one inmate named Giorgio who was serving time for a kidnapping that ended in tragedy, asked Alfonso to go to his mother, to embrace her and ask her to forgive him. Alfonso went and found the woman close to the end of her life. This totally unexpected, but long-awaited gesture, reconciled her to her son and the past. A few days later, she died peacefully. Alfonso stood by her son until his release from prison. He also helped Giorgio find temporary employment that restored his sense of dignity, enabling him to contribute to the support of the family.
Through his visits with inmates, Alfonso has come to realise the importance of that fragile thread that connects them to the outside world. This is why he works so hard at keeping the relationship with families alive – especially with wives – and supporting families that find themselves in dire straits because of their relative’s imprisonment. This all takes time, people, energy and money. Alfonso never gave up. He began a project called “Always A Person” to show that prison does not take away a person’s human dignity, especially because God’s love for each one of us never diminishes. With 30 other volunteers – parents, professionals and ex-inmates – he has followed up with the families of 160 inmates, offering moral, economic and food support. The numbers grow each day. The spirit of the group is that of a focolare: “being family” for each inmate, being close to him and supporting him – never judging anyone’s past.
In prison, words like trust and brotherhood take on deep meaning – especially mercy, an attitude that the volunteers say “acts on the person like a spring that helps them to get up again every time they’re tempted to let themselves go.” That’s how it was for Roberto who, after 8 years of incarceration and not finding any work, became homeless. Thanks to the “Always A Person” project he was accepted into a small welcome centre where he can practice his profession as a cook. There is also Francesco who had been a truck driver, but after 4 years in prison was not able to find a job because people didn’t trust him. Now, he belongs to the team of volunteers that prepares and delivers the packages for prisoners’ families.
There are more stories like this one that are recounted in the books: “Ero carcerato…” and “Carcere e dintorni” written by Alfonso Di Nicola, and published by Città Nuova.