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LSU School of Social Work Visits Italy for International Experience

The LSU School of Social Work recently sponsored a 10-day continuing-education tour that sent 53 social workers and mental-health professionals from Louisiana to Italy to explore the criminal-justice system. And while the sights of Rome, Florence, and Venice were memorable for the social workers, it was a visit to an Italian prison that made the greatest impression.

After learning there was no capital punishment in Italy, the social workers were interested to tour the prisons and learn more about its penal systems. Faculty member Tim Page spearheaded the tour of the prison and served as the connection between the Louisiana group and the professors in Italy. The prison was chosen by the group’s Italian hosts, a team of academics and students from the University of Florence who are part of a research institute, L’Altro Diritto. This institute provides services to prisoners such as contact with families and basic case management upon discharge.

“We were left with several impressions from visiting this prison,” Page said. “First, we visited in some unusual circumstances, where the census was unusually low.”

A release of inmates occurs every few years in Italy when prison populations become overcrowded. The group was amazed, as this would never happen in the United States.

Both national and international visitors go to the prison regularly out of interest in the conditions the prison tries to provide, as it reflects a more humanitarian approach to imprisonment than its American counterparts. The group was taken first to a new, not yet completed, visitors’ center, where inmates meet with family members.

“(The visitor center) is a beautiful building designed by one of the most prominent contemporary architects in Italy,” Page said. “The building, while secure of course, has no obvious jail-like qualities, such as bars. It is spacious and very colorful, with a small garden area adjacent.”

Inside the prison, the group noticed there was attention to promoting inmate art. Prisoners decorate their walls with murals, most of which are very well done. Consequently, Page said the prison cells closely resemble college dormitories in America.

Another rarity the group noticed about the prisoners was that they could wear regular clothes instead of uniforms.

Although the prisoners have the luxury of not wearing striped suits and are allowed to have open windows, they are still prisoners. The educational facilities are very basic, and the prisoners are not allowed much time in the exercise yards of the prison. There is, however, an area designated for mothers and their children.

“We were very interested in a small cell block for mothers with infants,” Page said. “At the time we visited, there was only one mother there. Her cell looked very comfortable and there were a lot of things like play equipment for children.”

As social workers, the group was interested in the roles of their colleagues in the prison. One of the group’s guides was a prison social worker who often serves as a liaison between prisoners and prison administration. He also works with prisoners in counseling roles and works with their families when prisoners are being discharged. However, the social workers do not offer group-level services, such as group therapy, that are often found in U.S. prisons. The professional roles of social workers in Italy are not defined in the same ways as in the United States, which, Page believes, shows less recognition of the profession and its varied roles.

Why Italy?

The LSU School of Social Work’s decision to send social workers to Italy stemmed from faculty members’ hopes to incorporate international experiences and expose social workers to other cultures. The School of Social Work Director of Special Projects, Linda Lee, served as the liaison between the school and tour company and was also in charge of planning and marketing the trip.

“Traveling abroad broadens your vision throughout the world and makes your view more wide-angled,” Lee said.

The school usually holds four to five continuing-education workshops a year, but they have always been held in the United States. This trip to Italy marks the first international educational offering.

The school selected Italy with the help of Professor Emeritus Charles Grenier of the School of Social Work, who has a professional relationship with one of the professors at the University of Florence. The trip filled to capacity within 10 days, which has now encouraged the school to consider offering a trip like this at least once a year. The school also organized this trip with no outside funding.

During the trip, the social workers discovered many other differences between Italy and the United States beyond the prison. Everyone was surprised by the way Italians conserve energy. In some of the hotels there was no air conditioning because their policy was to shut down the systems during the fall and winter.

“We didn’t see many sport utility vehicles in Italy because (gas prices) are two to three times higher, and they seem to have much more respect for the environment,” Lee said.

The 10-day trip included visits to three Italian cities rich in history and culture--Rome, Florence, and Venice. On the trip, the social workers attended lectures and saw some of the world’s most well-known marvels. In Rome, the social workers visited the Vatican, which was a spiritual experience for many, and they also traveled to the Coliseum and Pantheon. In Florence, the statue of David was a highlight, and in Venice, they toured St. Marc’s Basilica and the Grand Canal.

Pamela Monroe, interim dean of the LSU School of Social Work, felt the trip as a whole was a huge success.

“Whether we were engaged in continuing-education lectures and visits or touring the famous sites, the trip was great fun. It also gave us a unique opportunity to connect with our alums in a way that built positive feelings toward our programs here in the School of Social Work,” Monroe said.

Sue Ann Bernard | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Summer 2007

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