` Doing Hard Time in Italy's Last Island Prison Means Making Olive Oil

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Doing Hard Time in Italy's Last Island Prison Means Making Olive Oil

Nov. 10, 2015
By Ylenia Granitto

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Some of the most beau­ti­ful and unspoiled islands in the world are pris­ons. Breath­tak­ing spots — from the Island of Bastøy in Nor­way to Iwahin in Philip­pines — host or have hosted penal colonies.

Forced iso­la­tion has given rise to an inevitable para­dox: the aber­ra­tion of crime and the tri­umph of cre­ation.

Italy’s last island prison is Gorg­ona.

Here, dur­ing the course of reha­bil­i­ta­tion of the inmates, a small mir­a­cle is real­ized: the pris­on­ers pro­duce extra vir­gin olive oil. More­over, the island is the birth­place of an extremely rare olive vari­ety that counts only a few dozen plants: the Bianca di Gorg­ona.

The island is located in the Tus­can Arch­i­pel­ago National Park, a marine Park in the Provinces of Gros­seto and Livorno, Tus­cany, that includes a group of islands among which Elba, Giglio Island and Mon­te­cristo.


Here a model prison lodges 60 inmates of which at least 50 are free to live in open air, not locked up in cells, tend­ing to agri­cul­tural work and farm ani­mals. Only with the evening cur­few they must return to their rooms.

In addi­tion to a join­ery and a mechanic’s work­shop, the inmates take care of about 250 ani­mals includ­ing bovines, ovines, pigs and poul­try. They main­tain an api­ary, man­age a cheese fac­tory and a bak­ery and pro­duce Ver­mentino and Anson­ica wine from a vine­yard of about 5 acres.

Of an olive grove con­sist­ing of 1,000 plants between Lec­cino, Moraiolo and Bianca di Gorg­ona, a small part is ded­i­cated to the pro­duc­tion of olive oil.

Gorg­ona Penal Colony is the result of a great work of Prison Admin­is­tra­tion,” the Spe­cial Inspec­tor Mario Pas­cale said. The job oppor­tu­nity offered to the inmates assigned to the island is unique in Italy. They are trained and pre­pared to return to the com­mu­nity, hav­ing served the sen­tence.”

After a two-year break in oil pro­duc­tion due to unfa­vor­able weather con­di­tions, about 300 kilo­grams of Bianca di Gorg­ona olives have been col­lected this sea­son.

Agronomist Francesco Presti on a Bianca di Gorgona olive tree

From about 30 plants of the native cul­ti­var we obtained approx­i­mately 40 liters of a bright green, slightly fruity mono­va­ri­etal EVOO, with hints of freshly cut grass,” the Agri­cul­tural Tech­ni­cal Direc­tor Fed­erico Falossi explained.

After the har­vest, olives were imme­di­ately pressed in a mill in Cas­ciana Terme, in the province of Pisa. There is a press on the island, but it would have been too dif­fi­cult to put it back in ser­vice hav­ing been idle for two years for the mod­est amount of olives gath­ered. We wish to have a rich har­vest soon to put it back into oper­a­tions,” Falossi added.

The first time I arrived on the island I was hes­i­tant,” the agron­o­mist says, but then I changed my mind. The inmates work with care and pas­sion. They attend train­ing courses, accu­mu­lat­ing knowl­edge that will be use­ful once released. And you can feel their com­mit­ment in the qual­ity of the island prod­ucts”.

The research for the deter­mi­na­tion of the rare native vari­ety was accom­plished in 2012 by the Agron­o­mist Francesco Presti, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Clau­dio Can­tini, a researcher at the National Research Coun­cil of Italy Trees and Tim­ber Insti­tute.

Torre Vecchia (Old Tower) was built as a watchtower by the Republic of Pisa in the 12th century to defend the island from pirates and corsairs

Mor­pho­log­i­cal and genetic analy­sis revealed that the plant has a pecu­liar mol­e­c­u­lar pro­file, dif­fer­ent from any other — a new cul­ti­var that needed a new denom­i­na­tion. My daugh­ter’s name is Bianca and when we had to choose the nomen­cla­ture for the new vari­ety, I chose Bianca di Gorg­ona in her honor,” Francesco Presti con­fessed.

The beau­ti­ful sec­u­lar trees on the island were prob­a­bly planted by Carthu­sian monks, who lived in a monastery here until the end of 1700. The iso­la­tion of this ecosys­tem prob­a­bly con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of the unique vari­ety, and other species of plants and ani­mals.

Since the par­tic­u­lar con­di­tions of the island make it dif­fi­cult to reach all of the olive trees, some plants are now incor­po­rated in a wooded area.

The native vari­ety seems to be very resis­tant, despite wind and salt due to the inces­sant expo­sure to sea­wa­ter, and it is pos­si­ble to obtain a very good prod­uct even under organic farm­ing, with medium polyphe­no­lic and high toco­pherol con­tent, accord­ing to chem­i­cal analy­ses.

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