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Interviews with a Sicilian hitman continued: They arrested me for bag snatching. I was fourteen years old, the first arrest I ever had. This first time in prison I did not feel angry or think it was unjust: I felt like a fish out of water, that is: I found myself in an unknown environment. We were on the same floor in the adult prison, so we gave each other courage, we strengthened each other… However, at the time we were also hungry! In prison in 1968, everyone was hungry! We weren’t sharing a cell with adults, but we hung out with the grown men, we talked to each other. Twenty-two hours out of twenty-four we were locked up in a cell: two sandwiches, two pieces of bread and some soup, at fourteen years of age, for three and a half months. They didn’t allow us to listen to the radio; the newspaper was cut up; we got one pack of cigarettes per week!
Nino was one of the prominent personalities in a clan of the Catania region of Italy. He carried out numerous killings, hold-ups and extortions. He has collaborated with the law since 1984, and is serving a sentence of 30 years for a double murder committed the first time he was out on parole. Between late 1996 and spring 1997, over forty hours, he and Amedeo Cottino met in the prison where he was held. What follows is the fruit of those interviews and for the first time in English. Nino affirms that today he is another person. We seek to understand what he was and how he was different, if at all.
Nino: If they were going to rehabilitate me, they should have done it [on the occasion of the first bag snatch]. As a juvenile, the longest prison term I did was about two and a half years. In that time, I saw some kids come and go at least five or six times! All of them said, when they showed up the first time: That’s enough. When I get out I won’t do this any more. They left, and then after two months or two weeks they were back again. Why was that? Because they didn’t teach them anything! They only instructed them when they broke some minor rule… and then they got their hands caned. I remember this (though they don’t do this anymore), more than once… And how many canings I got! How could they rehabilitate me? Lots of people drugged themselves or started to take drugs in prison. I’ve known lots of young boys, decent young boys, with great possibilities outside, and maybe they were asked to work with drugs, and they didn’t want to because they were disgusted… and then I’d discover that they had started taking drugs in prison.
But then, I don’t know, when you leave prison, where do you go? Either you’re a millionaire, or you have a well-heeled family behind you, with a job for you, and you’re a fool if you don’t take it. But if we are as we are, where do we go? Maybe it’s better inside, at least you get fed…
Professor Cottino: So starts what Nino calls a prison career. His father threatens him:
Now that's enough… If you do this again, I don’t want you as my son any more.
But the bad company occupies an important position in his life.
People around you have a great influence. With your pals beside you, you step over the line… But perhaps I was driven to other types of pals… I don’t mean everyone, but a good percentage of children can go wrong even if they have the most wonderful parents who don’t let them want for anything, who give them an education. A bad company can be sufficient, getting you involved in something illegal. I always went around with people who were older than me, more criminal than me. Perhaps this had an influence.
This bad company interacts with a context that precludes “good” alternatives:
Because, logically, given that I lived in a particular, obviously run-down environment… it was easy for me to meet bad company, to run into kids, make acquaintances, mostly not guys whose friends studied or went to work - even though I did have friends like that when I was a kid myself. You see, the relative of a judge moves in certain circles - he meets his nephew, his brother, his cousin -because they are part of the family.
Moreover, as Nino shrewdly implies, the family of someone in prison becomes, somehow, part of the world of prison and criminality.
The family of a crook, for better or for worse, even if they are working class, is always in the same circle! So when I was in prison, it was those people, in that circle, who took money to help out the families, and that sort of thing…
Then there is the external environment that may or may not offer much of an alternative to the street.
So if we admit that in Sicily there is nothing, that Sicily has been abandoned, not like here in Turin, where living is already different… here there are places to go after school, where children can play; there, already as kids, there’s only the street. It’s another culture, I don’t know, but that’s the way it is. So this is how you make friends, and this is how you grow. As a kid, I stole fruit once, another time I stole… that is, I grew up like that; who’s going to tell me to change? I chose my friends myself, and those people were already labeled as bad. I meet people from my own environment, and when I meet people from another environment, I change, I pretend that I, too, am from a healthy environment.
Yes, there was someone who warned me when he found out I was doing these things. I was already grown up, but he was the one, this guy who had done some robberies with me! He spoke to me because he was outside the Family, and then he discovered that I was part of the Family. He was worried about the people who were close to me, people who in his opinion were unreliable, and he knew that, once in, I could never escape. Then he came into the Family too!
Aside from this episode, no one warns him of the risks he faces. And yet he has a precocious criminal career:
It wasn’t that I started out to be a crook at, I don’t know, twenty or twenty- five, or that I had hung out with a better group before. No one ever told me: Nino, what are you doing? Keep away from these people, don't get into trouble.
On the other hand, the doors start closing early, and it is difficult to escape.
Then I grew up, by then I had made my choice, I was caught up in the machine, perhaps unaware, but I was in… I didn’t fully realize it, but I was in.
There is more. We have seen how circumstances converged to connect a Nino, who is not necessarily aware of what is happening, to the criminal world (because when you’re a child, when you’re small, you can’t understand: 'I chose this road because everyone did'). Others were looking after and for him, they were those adults who, to borrow the language of sports, were looking for 'talent'.
Already there were people watching me, unknown to me, watching me… They start watching when you’re still a kid, then they get you involved in an organization, little by little, maybe getting you to do a couple of little things. Later, your involvement grows, slowly, slowly, all this going on in the environment where you’re living, where you’re hanging out, and they’re still watching you… till finally they invite you to join the organization.
So the social environment where you live, the friendships, surely they count a lot, but I think that, above all, where you live has the greatest influence.
It is a totally precarious world because it is without objectives, without goals, except for getting hold of money:
I looked for work, stole some dough, and went on. That’s what I had become… can you understand that? I had no prospects, I didn’t have an aim, I didn't know what I wanted or didn’t want. I was outside; I had money and spent it… Truly, I didn’t even know how to spend money: I hid it.
Nino himself is surprised by what he tells me. It is as if he is reflecting for the first time. Could it be - he thinks - that an adolescence not lived, a childhood when one was not a child, was, in the end, one of the reasons why he finds himself here today, in prison?
Yes, here it is; perhaps this is it. I grew up too quickly, and maybe this is what brought me to ruin. Because, perhaps, if I’d had a childhood more like it’s supposed to be, I wouldn’t be here now to tell these tales. We tried to work things out, but we didn’t really live well. Maybe this was why I changed my life, I don’t know… The family fell apart…
Was there a point of no return on this road characterized, above all, by emptiness, by absence - of the father, of the mother, childhood games, tenderness, school experiences? Was there a threshold beyond which Nino became a professional criminal? Nino is honest with himself; he does not like to deceive himself… [He] does not yield to the temptation to use his own story as an occasion to appear as a “victim of the system”. And yet ours is a society where one’s own father spends years and years in prison because he stole a refrigerator to preserve the fish; where at the age of fourteen one goes to prison with adults who inflict abuse and violence; where the school experience appears to have left no trace in the adolescent (not to speak of the effects of family disintegration). Should we, therefore, be surprised that Nino chose a criminal career - even assuming that the term “chose” is appropriate? In Nino's words: for street kids like we were, like a million other kids, I think… a kid can’t really understand so he chooses the street because everyone else is doing it. But Nino is not satisfied with these conclusions. How is it, he asks, that not everyone who grows up in a split family milieu becomes a crook? Evidently, the environment does not explain everything. With a little irony, he observes:
I was born in an area, S. Cristoforo in Catania, which is the most notorious district in Catania. I tell you that there are very few people born in S. Cristoforo who become judges, lawyers or who… no, perhaps there aren’t any!
It seems to me, you’re not born a rebel: if you become a rebel, there are reasons for it. Perhaps this is the explanation for me: I became a rebel because I had nothing, because my father was in prison. I grew up like that because my family fell apart, so maybe I saw this rebellion as an outlet… Then, in the midst of this rebellion, I start meeting guys who make me change. Maybe, at first, it’s like a game. You begin playing a game, and then it gets out of hand… Later on who knows what happens in your mind… I’m not talking about childhood, I’m talking about being grown up, about adulthood…
And then with a flicker of regret:
I think we all want to find out about our life as a child - have it make sense. But it’s very difficult.
I can’t say that I made a mistake there, in that phase of my life. But mine is a story that really is different, maybe different from that of everyone else, because, if you’re someone who has a close-knit family, a father and mother and that kind of thing, I think it’s more difficult to stray, though of course it’s possible…. Lots of people stray, not everyone has been separated from their parents, but the break-up of the family, being abandoned, is something that makes it worse… It’s the environment in which you live and grow up that changes a person. To bring about that change of mentality, you have to start with school. If you remember, in one of our meetings, I told you: mentality can be changed, the code of silence broken, but only after at least three generations have passed! To drum into the heads of people, children at school, that the Mafia is a bad thing, that criminality is bad… but to do all this, the State should help these people.
In conclusion, let us note that Nino has tried to ascertain the reasons for his own criminality, following a path of reflection that fully fits the paradigm of traditional criminology. Nevertheless, after having considered the various possible influences that brought him to undertake a criminal career, he retains many doubts, among them the irrefutable knowledge that not all those who were raised in conditions such as his turned to a life of crime.
Amedeo Cottino, Professor of Sociology, University of Turin; also in his time Dean of the Faculty of Political Science, Président of the Comité Scientific du GERN and Director of the Italian Institute of Culture, Stockholm. These interviews were first published as a book in Italian as Vita da Clan, 1998, EGA-Edizioni Gruppo Abele; then in Swedish in 2004 as Familjeliv: en maffialedare berättar, Ordfront Förlag. There was also a French version in 2003.
Click on the title following to go to Part 1 of Nino: Journey into the heart of darkness
Click here to go to Part 2: "A "healthy moral education"?