Located on the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples is the island of Santo Stefano. Although it may initially appear to be a quaint little island rolling with lush vegetation and a few ruins nestled amongst the hills, it actually was the home of some of Italy’s worst criminals for centuries. The prison was originally built in the 18th century by the Bourbon rulers, but the island was previously used to ship criminals all the way back to Roman Emperor Augustus’s reign. The prison ended its harsh reality of being home for purported perpetrators of crimes in 1965 when the government closed the prison and evacuated everyone that lived on the island. Even though the jail is still available for tours, the Italian government has current plans to refurbish the prison and transform it into a museum, and as of February of this year, the project is officially moving ahead.
As CNN wrote last June shortly after the conversion was announced, “the restyle masterplan, Santo Stefano will host a multimedia open-air museum on the history of the prison and its inmates, artistic ateliers, academic hubs and seminars on the European Union.”
This June, Italy will open its doors to international applicants to submit designs for the prison museum. The proposed goal is to apply adaptive reuse designs of maintaining the original history and integrity of the prison while also incorporating a modern-day museum among the ruins. The original bakery where prisoners made fresh bread on a daily basis will be brought up to modern standards and will continue to produce bread for visitors. In addition, the brief calls for the transformation of the original director’s home on the island into a hostel. The Italian government is prepared to spend $86 million (€70 million) on the site’s revitalization.
Although the Santo Stefano prison museum has similarities to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, there is one major difference: the physical architectural design and the floorplans of the cells.
Alcatraz’s industriously rectangular buildings contained 336 cells. What remains among the rusted pinkish paint and random detritus of the Santo Stefano prison is its horseshoe plan. This prison was a prime example of the panopticon design theory, which was developed in the 18th century by British philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon’s layout includes a central observation tower for the prison guards which provides views of all of the cells and their inmates. The panopticon is still frequently used in the designs of today’s prisons.
“It’s been shut for decades, in total decay,” Silvia Costa, the main government official in charge of the project, told CNN. “There is no light, no running water. Access is tricky. The renovation focuses on telling the story of the pain suffered in this jail, preserving this symbolic place of memory but looking towards the future.”
The Santo Stefano prison open-air museum is slated for completion in 2025.