ROME - The next time you call directory inquiries in Italy, you may speak to a convicted murderer.
Italy's biggest phone operator, Telecom Italia, Thursday presented its new call-center in Rome's largest prison, where 24 inmates are glued to a computer screen to answer thousands of requests for phone numbers and addresses every day.
"This is a unique initiative in Europe and it helps the detainees get some work experience and prepare for when they'll get out of prison," said Telecom's Chairman Marco Tronchetti Provera as he toured the Rebibbia jail, a huge concrete block housing 1,600 inmates on the northern outskirts of Rome.
"Good afternoon, this is Gianluca speaking, how can I help you? Thank you for calling Telecom Italia," said Gianluca Descenzo, who is serving a 13-year sentence for a drug-related murder, politely answering the umpteenth call of the day.
"It's good because people don't know who we are, so we don't feel like we are in a ghetto anymore," he told Reuters as he paused before taking another call.
Rebibbia's call-center follows a similar Telecom operation in Milan's San Vittore jail and runs from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. every day except Sundays.
The detainees get paid 12 cents ($0.15) per call answered and on a normal day each one of them deals with around 200 requests for information.
"Jails should not only be a place for punishment. They need not be a permanent hell, they must also give opportunities to people," said Justice Minister Clemente Mastella as he visited the call-center.
Telecom says there is no security risk in having detainees consult a nationwide database of phone numbers and addresses.
The prisoners cannot dial outside the jail and the company's computerized switchboard randomly directs each call to any one of Telecom's 45 call centers scattered across Italy.
"This may seem like a boring routine job, but for people who would otherwise spend the day sitting in our cells and doing nothing, it actually gives a sense to your life," said 34-year old Salvatore Striano, who has been convicted for Mafia crimes and also works in the call-center.
"It allows us to have some contact with the outside world. And it also makes you feel like you're being useful. People often need the address of a hospital or a pharmacy. Sometimes they'll ask the weirdest questions, like what day is it today or my dog is sick, what should I do?."