by Francesco Cortonesi

I’ve been dealing with imprisonment for more than ten years. I started by telling the story of a man sectioned for life in an asylum. The story of Nannetti Oreste Fernando who, after insulting a public official was tried and acquitted by reason of mental defect, and spent the rest of his life in an asylum in Volterra. In order to escape that horrible destiny, Nannetti Oreste Fernando spent his time carving a visionary diary on the external wall of the ward he had been sectioned in, using the buckle of his ‘lunatic’ uniform waistcoat. The biggest ‘page’ of his diary is 180 metres long and 2 metres high. It tells, in a very enigmatic way, of imprisonment, of childhood, of contemporary history... but also of a very near future, in which spaceships would come and help him – who knows – probably, to escape. He also wrote many letters and postcards to imaginary relatives, signing them with his initials ‘Nanof’, ‘Nof’ or ‘Nof4’, and seamlessly calling himself astronautical mineral engineer, astral colonel, nuclear burglar. Nof were the initials of his name, while 4 was the serial number he was identified with in the asylum. Working on this story and interviewing numerous people who survived time and institutionalisation, I understood how devastating imprisonment can be for anyone’s mind. Many of those people were sane and turned insane while living in those places. Some told me about nurses being convinced of doing something good for them, of being nice, without realising that the real problem for these people was precisely being there. Among those walls. In the asylum. It was in 1978, when Law 180, fostered by Franco Basaglia, was enacted, that things began to improve in Italy, and asylums were closed for good.
Even though I already knew some of these things, this experience was enlightening. I remember thinking that imprisonment, in many different ways, still existed in our society, that people didn’t understand what being free truly meant until freedom was taken away from them. Of course, there wasn’t Coronavirus yet, that maybe – and I say ‘maybe’ – has helped us have a less superficial idea about it. Today, we know that even our social life, which we thought was free, actually isn’t, but is limited and conditioned in ways we are unaware of. Its bars invisible to most people. Things we take for granted, but actually aren’t. I remember thinking about what we do to animals while writing that story. About how depriving them of their freedom is one of the main actions we take towards them. A few years later, I decided to start dealing with zoos and dolphinariums. Dolphinariums are prisons. Many people think this is commonplace, but maybe they talk out of ignorance or interest. After all, if you’ve never been to a dolphinarium you can’t fully understand what it is. It seems difficult to believe, but it’s true. Pictures, videos absolutely can’t convey the idea of it. It’s not a figure of speech. I’m saying this out of experience. Before I saw a tank up close for the first time, many years ago, I thought its dimensions were, in some way, designed to make life bearable to these animals. But this is not the case. There really is nothing that can be described as liveable, when you find yourself in front of those cells. I understood, then, that it’s not dimensions that are somewhat compatible with the life of dolphins, but rather dolphins that have an incredible adaptability. These mammals prove to be able to survive even in the hardest conditions, and, in a relatively short time, any of them – when they don’t go crazy, of course – can even build up a life for themselves to endure that situation. Prisoners do the same in jail. I have been teaching in a jail for many years now, and I have been able to observe the reactions of many people. In most cases, after the first dramatic days, a phase of resignation sets in that corresponds to acceptance. Of course, much depends on the length of the sentence, but it is uncommon to see someone who doesn’t try to survive by building some kind of ‘normality’. Contrary to what is often thought, people laugh and even play in prison. This doesn’t mean they don’t suffer; on the contrary, their pain is so great that the only possible reaction, to avoid going mad, is to manage to grin and bear it. And when this is no longer possible, it unfortunately ends in tragedy. And this is exactly one of the arguments trainers use to support and legitimate dolphinariums: “Dolphins play and have fun here. How can they be unhappy?”. Actually, and much more realistically, dolphins do that not only because they’re forced to, but also because, just like prisoners, they try to escape boredom and, probably because they want to survive, they manage to hide in some part of their brain how it feels to swim free in the sea. On average, a tank is 50 metres long; a dolphin, in the wild, swims every day for almost 30 km. Aren’t these figures enough to understand what we’re talking about? Inside a concrete tank, with only a few balls floating on the surface to have fun with, a dolphin sleeps most of the time. When they’re not performing their exercises in front of a public, these mammals almost always activate “Slow-wave sleep”, thus called because, during sleep, only one of the two brain hemispheres loses consciousness, while the other remains active. Visitors of dolphinariums, therefore, can’t even realise it. For them, dolphins are simply swimming. There’s an unwritten rule, in jail, that everyone respects and that goes more or less like this: “When prisoners are asleep, don’t wake them up, because their time is passing faster”. Maybe this is what dolphins think too. Of course, it is unbearably sad to think that these animals will never see the ocean again and will be forced to accept the schedule imposed by trainers every day of their life, a schedule that will end up making them more and more like puppets that move on command. And yet, why can’t so many people understand this? Why do they still go to dolphinariums? I honestly don’t think there’s only one answer. Many people surely go there because they see nothing more than happy dolphins having fun. Others don’t reflect on what ‘forever’ means, and still others don’t even consider the issue. Yet I’m sure that if someone just stopped and thought about what “forever encaged among those concrete walls” means, they would at least declare to be against it. Today, in Italy, there are three dolphinariums where dolphins are detained: Oltremare in Riccione, the Aquarium of Genoa (both managed by the Costa Edutainment group, formerly the owner of many aquariums in Italy and abroad), and Zoomarine in Rome (recently acquired by the multinational company Dolphin Discovery, owner of some twenty dolphinariums between the Caribbean and South America). Until 2014, there were six of them. For different reasons the dolphinarium in Rimini, the dolphinarium in the zoo in Fasano and the one inside Gardaland amusement park have been closed. This is undoubtedly a good thing, denoting people’s growing sensibility. Even though, I have to say, figures are far from miraculous. Suffice to say, in 2019 Zoomarine was visited by more than half a million people. There is still much to do, hoping that some day, someone like Franco Basaglia will come and a law 180 will be passed for dolphinariums as well.