L'università di Rebibbia | Learning about life in prison
L'università di Rebibbia | Learning about life in prison

L'università di Rebibbia | Learning about life in prison

Posted on 29 May, 2023



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138 pages

Original language


When a story is based on a reversal of perspective, it is no wonder it will make the reader get to know a fresh point of view. Especially when the writer is someone like Goliarda Sapienza, a non-conformist and free intellectual who always followed the path of disrupting the pre-established ideas in the name of freedom. L’università di Rebibbia, written in 1983, is an example.

She was born in Catania in 1924, in a big family that resembled Italian society itself. Her father was the socialist lawyer Giuseppe Sapienza, who already had three children before meeting Goliarda’s mother, the trade unionist Maria Giudice, the first female manager of the Chamber of Labor of Turin, who already had seven children. After starting a career as an actress, Goliarda gave up acting in order to dedicate herself to writing. Because of the richness of her life, as well as the curiosity of her mind, she decided to put her personal experiences at the centre of her literary works. She wrote numerous autobiographical novels, such as Lettera aperta (1967), which recounts her childhood in Catania, and Il filo di mezzogiorno (1969), an account of psychoanalytic therapy.

To know a country, know its prison

In 1980 Goliarda found herself in a condition of financial straits, after dedicating nine years to nothing but writing The Art of Joy, her most famous novel. Apart from the real economic necessity, what made her steal some jewels from one of her friends was their indifference. As she explained in her diaries (which she called “notebooks”), she wanted them to feel some sort of responsibility for her condition, if not for her choices.

Yet, more than everything, she chose to go to prison because she wanted to learn a new way of being in the world and a new language. Also because she knew that in order to know a country, it is necessary to know its prison system. In her autobiographical novel L’università di Rebibbia, Sapienza tells the three-month experience she lives inside the prison of Rebibbia and what she discovers by observing and being part of those dynamics.

What about freedom?

As Netflix’s most-watched original series of 2019, Orange is the New Black, gives space to a choral portrait of the women the protagonist meets in prison, L’università di Rebibbia presents the author’s point of view through the use of a first-person voice, but it is also rich in dialogues which express all the women’s voices, and, as a consequence, various tones (informal and formal) and languages (dialects and standard Italian). The language is a reflection of the different backgrounds of the prisoners.

The first cellmate she meets is Giovannella, a pregnant single mother who insulted a public official to get arrested and get an abortion, since in prison they perform the service better than they do outside. She confesses that every time she is in jail, she promises herself she will get a cat once released. However, when she is free, she has to deal with so many problems that she forgets about her intention. Giovannella seems to suggest that in the hardest moments of life, people find the essence of what they are: prison thus becomes the home for her real self, while the outside world drives her into perdition. This reversal of perspective leads to a crucial question: if living in society means losing the true self, is true freedom what people experience outside? 

Sapienza discovers a dimension where everything is possible because all is lost. Then people get total freedom and show their real nature, which can of course result in violence and contradictions. In other words, the real self is the only thing left when there is no space for the “ideal construction” people build through money, culture and good manners in society. 

A new-found self in a new-found community

Sapienza finds herself in a new world where she is first of all a learner. She must learn new rites, new emotions, and how to be a new self in a new community. Not only Giovannella, but almost everyone will be a teacher for her, from Teresa Marrò, a young former actress destroyed by heroin and her mother’s indifference, to the mysterious Chinese Suzìe Wong, who prepares teas and involves her companions in long discussions. Showing the typical humbleness of those eager to learn, Sapienza soon gains respect and even affection from cellmates from different backgrounds.

As a matter of fact, the class difference is evident both inside and outside prison. It is difficult to avoid acting according to someone else’s desire (as in society), driven by a mysterious evil force which the author calls “the centrifuge”. However, unimaginable things can happen thanks to the power of experimentation that inmates release in prison. The unimaginable has to do with a sense of solidarity and community that is not present in society. For example, when Lola, a black woman who spends most of her time reading a book, obtains the trial date after fasting for twelve days, everyone celebrates, even the gipsies, who don’t normally participate in collective events. It is a community that recognizes diversity and leads to creating a sense of “prison attachment” because, even in the lowest layer, everyone has a role. In other words, nobody is alone. 

Thanks to the identification of the “prison attachment” syndrome, L’università di Rebibbia becomes the first fictional book to be reviewed by the Ministry of Justice scientific journal. It is also the starting point to set up the Sapienza Prize for short stories written by prisoners. 


In an interview, Sapienza explains that she doesn’t want to celebrate prison. Instead, she expresses the contradiction of a society that doesn’t guarantee freedom, personal satisfaction and communion; values that she instead found in prison.


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