Pre-Texts in Prison: The Harvard Protocol to Support Empowerment and Mental Well-being in Marginalized Settings

Pre-Texts in Prison: The Harvard Protocol to Support Empowerment and Mental Well-being in Marginalized Settings

Sara Uboldi and Pier Luigi Sacco

Summary: The Pre-Texts Protocol, based on reading and creativity, is the foundation of the cultural program activated in the section dedicated to transgender inmates and to the patients in the Articulation for Mental Health Care of the Reggio Emilia Penitentiary Institute (Italy). The Pre-Texts program in prison develops two parallel paths: the first, is led by the writer Erri De Luca, and the second, in collaboration with the Palazzo Magnani Foundation of Reggio Emilia, starts from an exhibition in the city to bring culture to social peripheries, in a perspective of cultural welfare distributed throughout the territory.

The benefits of reading in a prison regime are well-documented and demonstrate that reading and education programs reduce recidivism, promote health and empathy, improve family bonds, even after the period of incarceration (Krolak 2019; 2020; Muñoz 2009). The awareness of the potential of reading within places of confinement to counteract the risk of marginalization and promote social reintegration is at the heart of the rehabilitative purpose of the penalty, which in Italy is enshrined in Article 27, third paragraph, of the Constitution.

In Italy, the right to access library services in places of detention is determined by Articles 12 and 19 of Law 354/1975 and Article 21 of the implementing regulation (D.P.R. 230/2000), which provides for the presence of a library in each penitentiary institution. However, exercising the cultural right in prison is often challenging in daily practice, especially for people under protection and in the units dedicated to transgender people.

Yet, globally, interventions using reading as a resource for learning and individual development to support well-being and rehabilitation even include sentence reduction programs. Countries like Brazil, the Philippines, and France have launched significant interventions in this direction (Krolak 2020). Within this perspective, lies the pilot experience of Pre-Texts in prison, initially conducted within the section for transgender inmates and later extended to the patients of Articulation for Mental Health Treatment in the Reggio Emilia Penitentiary Institute. The program started in May 2023, is still ongoing, and has already included over 100 hours of activities, over the scientific management of Pierluigi Sacco (University of Chieti and Pescara).


The first phase of the Pre-Texts project in prison involved a program based on reading the novel “Three Horses” by Erri De Luca, explored through the Pro-texts method. Within the program, a series of events involving participants from the transgender section were organized, including two meetings with the scientific coordinator of the project, Prof. Pierluigi Sacco (July 2023) and with the writer Erri De Luca (September 2023), and a theatrical reading where inmates performed texts they had written during the experience, conducted in collaboration with the MaMiMò Theater (Reggio Emilia). The Pre-Texts theater workshop then had a second moment of restitution with the show on the experience entitled “This is not the reality” directed by director Cecilia Di Donato and staged with the inmate actresses into the prison (Mars 2024). Additionally, the stories written by the participants have been collected in an editorial project curated by Erri De Luca and Sara Uboldi, currently being published, with an introduction by Doris Sommer and Pierluigi Sacco.

Starting from October 2023, further development was proposed, which in April and May will involve an event and an exhibition within the European Photography Festival, in Reggio Emilia.

The potential of the Pre-Texts creative protocol has allowed for experimenting with creative modes perceived as most congenial by participants, working not only with reading but also with creative writing and painting. The impacts of this work are particularly significant in terms of supporting and disseminating reading practice, even in the case of non-native speakers, empowerment, boosting self-esteem, empathy and support relationships, sense of security, and emotional well-being. The meaning attributed to the experience, also in relation to tragic biographical experiences and extreme marginalization, is well traceable in the participants’ testimonies:

“The text by Erri De Luca I find rich in many emotions, sensations, smells. There is passion, tenderness, fear, sex. There is a desire to start over, even if not in a simple and linear way, all this pushes me to dig deeper inside myself because, for too long, I have been clouded.”

“With each round, our desire to read and increase our knowledge grows. With each round, our hearts lighten, and daily difficulties fade, thoughts degrade. We come out truly inspired and ‘cleansed’, eager to elevate ourselves, at least a little.”

Similarly, the perception of being part of a community of practice that provides resilience, a sense of security, and connection:

“What safer place can there be than the circle we create at every meeting? Where each of us can look into the eyes of the other and discover that we have so much in common, or not, but this is also beautiful… cultural, temperamental differences… because from here sharing and enrichment could arise. As for me, it’s already happening, I’m experiencing this with my companions.”

“I learned that I can help people with the same needs as mine.”

Often, the Pre-Texts experience is narrated in relation to the desire for social redemption and the need for empowerment:

“For me, it meant having the opportunity to learn today and maybe teach tomorrow.”

“Thank you, oh thank you… I thank you for this experience… I was desperate because since I’ve been here I’ve been asking to go to the sewing workshop, but we trans people can’t…”

The emotional well-being generated by reading and creative practices is often associated with mental disorders and medication abuse:

“I came here at a very difficult time… If I had known what you were doing here in the circle, you would have been my medicine!”

The impacts generated by reading through the Pre-Texts Protocol are also significant in the group of participants in the Mental Health section. 

In line with what was said by Doris Sommer, creator of Pre-Texts, the protocol gives people the pleasure of feeling agency through an approach to literacy based on artistic integration (Sommer 2014). In particular, the potential of an approach based on informal learning is well reflected in the words of Ludovico, inmate detained in the psychiatric ward of the prison:

“I didn’t expect it, I didn’t expect it… a course like this, something like this… In fact, I don’t even know if it’s a course… Something like this where strangers met and created something that… I don’t even know what they created… I didn’t understand anything but, this is beautiful…”

We would like to conclude this intervention by reporting the words of the writer Erri De Luca, following the dialogue with the inmates who participated in the Pre-Texts experience, hoping for a necessary broadening of the debate on the right to culture even in places of confinement:

“A book in prison becomes a journey to rediscover oneself, reacting to reading with one’s own memories, even the painful ones, with one’s own writing prompts. Putting them in the circle frees them from internal segregation. They encounter memories, the rebound writings of the other people involved on an equal footing. With all the imaginations that have allowed me to write many stories, I can’t even come close to the struggle of these people who had to fight with themselves and the world to change the form and substance of their bodies. But at least, as a guest of their time, I shared some hours of intense equality. Leaving the sequence of armored doors of the establishment, I learned that through that program, the participants in the circle saved part of their sentence time, participating in a reconstruction of themselves.”


Krolak, L. 2019. Books beyond bars: The transformative power of prison libraries. Hamburg, UIL.

Krolak L., 2020. Lire derrière les barreaux: le pouvoir de transformation des bibliothèques en milieu carcéral. Unesco Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Muñoz, V., 2009. Promotion and protection of human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development. The right to education of persons in detention: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to education. United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, Eleventh session, Agenda 3, A/HRC/11/8. New York, United Nations

Sommer D., 2014, The Art in the World, Civic Agency and Public Humanities, Duke University Press. 

Erri De Luca informations: