It's spooky, crumbling and abandoned. Inhabited by seagulls, with only the odd day-trip by scuba divers to disturb them, Santo Stefano is a tiny volcanic island between Rome and Naples, where silence rules -- though not for much longer.
This was once Italy's Alcatraz. For centuries, criminals, bandits, anarchists and political dissidents were sent here to rot. From the Roman emperor Augustus, who banished his daughter to the neighboring island of Ventotene, to the Fascist regime, which deported here those it deemed enemies of the state, rulers throughout history have used Santo Stefano as one of the bleakest places to send those deemed the worst of the worst.
In 1965, the jail was closed and the island abandoned. Until now -- when it's being brought back from the grave with an ambitious restyle project.
The Italian state is spending €70 million ($86 million) to breathe new life into Santo Stefano, transforming it into an open-air museum and tourist hotspot in the vein of America's original Alcatraz. Maintenance works are underway to secure key areas, and in June a call for proposals on how to renovate the jail will be launched.
Silvia Costa, the government commissioner in charge of the restyle, tells CNN the goal is to recover all parts of the penal colony -- from the barracks to the original cisterns -- "with an environmentally friendly approach that takes into account the uniqueness of the island's natural habitat."
Santo Stefano sits inside a protected marine park. Currently, it's accessed by fishermen, adventurous sunbathers, and scuba divers and snorkelers lured by the giant groupers and friendly barracudas swimming in the translucent waters. The seabed is full of archeological wonders and a shipwreck from World War II.
The island has no dock. The only point of anchorage for boats departing from the nearby island of Ventotene, one sea mile off, is an ancient Roman harbor with ragged steps carved out of the rocks. When the sea is rough, not even a canoe can safely get close.
Currently, guided tours take people to visit the prison -- a horseshoe-shaped, pinkish fortress built by the Bourbon rulers in the 18th century -- which involves a 40-minute hike up a steep path. Three signs greet climbing visitors: "This is a place of suffering." "This is a place of expiation." "This is a place of redemption."
On the top, lush vegetation and palms grow over the rusty prison cells, their doors falling off the hinges, and paint peeling off the walls. There are collapsed staircases and even a football field where inmates once played soccer.
According to 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.
The permanent "walking" exhibition will start from the future dock and unwind through the wilderness dotted with dry-stone walls that were first built by inmates.
And the former house of the jail director and the football field's changing rooms where inmates washed after matches will be turned into low-cost hostels with roughly 30 rooms.
The bakery where prisoners made bread daily is expected to become a restaurant café with a panoramic terrace garden where visitors can sip an evening drink while admiring the sunset. On clear days the view stretches as far as Mount Vesuvius and the island of Ischia, 20 miles away. Although it's now abandoned, the garden will be replanted with flowers and plants that once grew there. The inmates' orchards will also be revived.
"We want the island to draw visitors all year-round, not just during the crowded summer months," says Costa.
"Tourism must be sustainable, but Santo Stefano will be more than that. It will be a hub for world academics uniting on key issues such as green policies, human rights, freedom of speech, European citizenship and Mediterranean dialogue."
The masterplan sets out the restyle's concept and vision, to be shaped by the winning proposals for each individual spot. The renovation is expected to end by 2025.
One idea in play is to introduce "virtual inmates," with voices narrating from the cells --- which could themselves be creatively lit. The turrets circling the prison, the central chapel and the cemetery will also be given a makeover, while old objects found inside the buildings, such as photos, furniture and beds, will be showcased. They're also planning a bookstore and apps to guide visitors around.
There's also a possibility that the jail's semi-circular loggia will become a performance and event space. Its notorious horse-shoe shape -- rather like an inverted amphitheater -- is called a panopticon: a type of jail designed to allow guards in the center to see the cells all around them. In the middle was a church to symbolize the spiritual dominion over souls, and to constantly remind inmates of their crimes (or, in the case of political prisoners, "crimes") and the penance they must do.
"We've started from scratch," says Costa of their ideas.
"It's been shut for decades, in total decay. 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."
Along with its neighbor Ventotene, Santo Stefano served as a jail from the days of ancient Rome, when it was a place of confinement, rather than a fortress. On one side of the island is the so-called "tub," a kind of natural Jacuzzi carved from the dark rock with steps where Roman guards took their prisoners for a refreshing dip.
With high cliffs and wild vegetation, it was impossible to escape from Santo Stefano. The few who tried drowned.
The 18th-century prison ensured a strict, centralized control of all cells. It's shaped like Dante's Inferno: divided into three floors with 33 cells each.
Typical punishments ranged from whipping to standing for hours under the scorching sun without water, observed by everyone. Inmates -- who were divided into clans based on political and geographical affiliation -- cheered when their foes screamed in anguish.
They couldn't even find solace in nature. All cells were windowless and looked towards the inside, where the guard patrols stood.
Food was scarce. Meals were mostly bean soups; meat was served once a month.
A particularly dark period in the islands' history was during Fascist rule. Opponents of the regime -- including students -- were sent to Ventotene and Santo Stefano, with those on Ventotene allowed to circulate around the island, and the more "dangerous" prisoners jailed, and often tortured, in the cells of Santo Stefano. Many died.
Post-war, the island returned to being a regular jail. Things got better with the arrival of an enlightened director, Eugenio Perucatti, in the 1950s. He took a more humane approach, making the prison liveable and turning it into a small-scale self-sufficient economy.
Perucatti built a movie theatre and that football field. He set up artisan shops run by prisoners, established fruit and vegetable plots, and the bakery for fresh bread and pizza. Inmates helped to clean the jail, and were given a special currency to buy stuff among themselves. There were cobblers, carpenters, bricklayers and cooks.
Inmates were allowed to spruce up their cells with pastel-colored paints to make their stay more bearable.
"My grandfather believed in the power of redemption through work, and that each inmate deserved a second chance. He gave them hope, bettered their living conditions. Rehabilitation was key," says Simone Perucatti, grandson of Eugenio. His family's story -- as well as the memories passed down to him -- will form part of the museum.
"He moved to live on the island with his entire family. My dad grew up at the jail, and used to tell me about this criminal called Pasquale who babysat him, spoiling him and taking him bathing and adventure-trekking."
Pasquale had murdered his wife, who had an affair with Pasquale's father while Pasquale was off fighting in World War II. He threw her down the stairs and dismembered her body, but later turned himself in to the authorities, says Perucatti.
"My dad, then a kid, had a hard time believing he was rubbing shoulders with such terrible criminals who showed him affection and cuddled him."
Perucatti's director grandfather, who turned the penal community into one big family, even held his daughter's wedding reception at the prison.
"He built the sewage, brought light and water, opened the cells. Inmates worked to improve the paths and lodgings. They grew cereals and tended to the terraced fields. There was a butcher and optician, goats for fresh milk. My father had a lamb pet," says Simone Perucatti.
Some locals on neighboring island Ventotene still have vivid memories of the jail -- they'd sail over to play against the inmates' football team. A few former guards are still alive. Ventotene restauranteurs recall how criminals on probation sometimes popped in for lunch with their officers.
The revamp of Santo Stefano will boost the tourist appeal of Ventotene, the authorities hope. Already a tourist destination, it's the hop-off point for sunset boat trips which take people out for cocktails on the water. Today, its patchwork of brightly colored fishing cottages and old grottoes bears few marks of its past.
Today, visitors can even sleep in former housing for the prisoners, now painted yellow and purple, and eat in their canteens in the village square near the Bourbon castle.
Ventotene's history is not entirely dark. The preponderance of political prisoners during fascism turned the island into an impromptu bootcamp of politics and philosophy. Altiero Spinelli, who was to become one of the founding fathers of the European Union, was dispatched here in 1941 as an anti-fascist prisoner. While on the island he co-wrote the "Ventotene Manifesto," calling for a united Europe. It began as a text for the Italian Resistance, but then paved the way to European integration.
Other political prisoners included Sandro Pertini, who was imprisoned on Santo Stefano from 1935 to 1943. He later became president of Italy in 1978.
For now, tourists suntan on the black rocks below Ventotene's quaint lighthouse. The view of Santo Stefano's jail from here is said to have inspired in Spinelli the ideals of a free and unified Europe.
And with the refurbishment of the island, authorities hope to be able to pay their respects to the people who were imprisoned there -- and the politics that 20th-century internment inspired.
Image Source: Getty Images