BOLLATE, Italy - With a bark of excitement, Titti, Tato, and Carmela scamper down the corridors of the Bollate prison near Milan and are enveloped by prisoners who shower them with treats, pats and hugs.
It's pet therapy day, and Valeria Gallinotti, founder of the Dogs Inside association, has brought her Labrador, Doberman, and a mongrel to play with inmates in Italy's model jail, where a host of such initiatives keep repeat offender rates at a record low.
Convicted murderers and sex offenders scoop up the canines for kisses, burying their hands in their fur and playing endless games of fetch with tennis balls in the prison yard, chasing them oblivious to the rain.
"My dream was to organize pet therapy sessions in prison because it's the one place where there is a total lack of affection, where dogs can create calm, good moods, emotional bonds and physical contact," Gallinotti, 47, told AFP.
She volunteers once a week to teach the prisoners how to train the animals
— with treats handed out for sitting, shaking paws, and lying down — as well as how pet therapy works so that some can go on to set up their own initiatives once released.
"I have always loved animals. I had a cat and dog at home, and pet therapy has been wonderful," said Nazareno Caporali, who is serving life for murder,
The 53-year-old, who divides his time between the dogs and studying for a third university degree, said he wanted to pass on the joys of pet therapy to others.
"I hope one day we will be able to give to someone else what we have received — by doing pet therapy with people with Alzheimer's or children with psychophysical problems — with the same dignity it's been done with us," he said, as Titti, tired out by the game, settles down for a snooze nearby.
Murder, Mafia, and a Fresh Start
The theory of using animals as agents of socialization and relaxation dates back to the 18th century.
Later Sigmund Freud and Florence Nightingale favored the use of dogs or other pets during sessions or while treating patients.
It is also a way of tackling solitude within the towering walls at the medium-security facility in northern Italy, set up in 2000 as an experimental project designed to cater to prisoners who wish to study or learn work skills.
Maurizio, 36, who was found guilty of ordering five mafia killings and expects to serve at least 30 years of a sentence which officially ends in 2087, has done time in over 15 prisons and said Bollate is "by far the most advanced in terms of giving you opportunities to recreate yourself."
Italy has the second-highest level of prison overcrowding in Europe, partly due to the number of convicts who commit crimes once released, landing them back behind bars.
While 78 percent of prisoners in Italian jails go on to become repeat offenders, in Bollate just 20 percent do so.
With training for cooks, electricians, and carpenters, as well as courses such as painting, yoga and gardening on offer, there's a waiting list to get in.
In exchange for a chance to spend their mornings playing tennis, learning a foreign language, or playing with dogs, inmates must agree to conditions, including living with sexual offenders, who are traditionally housed separately.
Nicolo Vergani, 25, a former Red Cross volunteer, said he wanted to work with animals once he has finished serving time for sexual acts with minors, and hopes to specialize in zoology after he gains his biological science degree.
"I do pet therapy to prepare me in even a small way for what I'd like to do in the future," he said, as his fellow inmates tried to stop the dogs from eating the cakes and pizzas they had made for lunch in the ovens in their cell-blocks.
He said his favorite dog is "Carmela, because she arrived and didn't know what to do. She was so scared, sort of like us when we arrive in prison."
"Now, like us, she too is getting used to the experience," he said.