Reggio Emilia Prison

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

by 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.

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When: January, 2024
Where: Istituti di pena, Casa Circondariale e di reclusione di Reggio Emilia, Italy
Institution: Reggio Emilia Prison
Facilitator: Sara Uboldi

Sara Uboldi, italian facilitator, send us this letter from Tenerezza, a Pre-Texts participant in prison, from Orione, the transgender section of the Reggio Emilia Prison.

“We start from reading a book. We put it at the center and leave our creativity free as much as possible. The circle that surrounds the text collects our ideas, our creativity and releases artistic flows. The circle rotates vertiginously and harmonizes our angularities. Yes, we are edgy girls, we of this circle, or rather, we have many desires under our skin that, sometimes, also thanks to the circle, we can tell. Our circle is made up of us trans girls who gather in one of the most closed places in the world, a prison. Under tons of concrete and iron we are a small spark that lights a creative fire that warms us, lifts us up, to the point of making us fly towards unexpected or only dreamed of shores, where there is nothing that forces us and closes us and from up there, we see others’ circles. A new opening idea! And if we opened our circle to another circle nearby, and then to another and yet another…. There are circles of Pre-texts all over the world and in very different contexts, artistic expressions that emanate from cultures of all kinds. What if we communicated with other circles, even at a distance, even ideally? Galaxies of circles would be created! After all, even Stonehenge was ideally connected to other circles of monoliths, with a celestial connection! There is something in that constellation of Pleiades to which various works of man on earth have been aligned. Flows of energy, perhaps, creative energy, however generative. And here, in this small prison, we trans girls live in a small department called Orione. In a theater show we were little stars, Pleiades too. We too, with a galactic attitude, through our artistic experiences make a timeless, poetic and literary, expressive, pictorial, wonderfully free journey on board our circle which is now a flying saucer, unique in the world for us trans-galactic explorers”.

October 27, 2023
Where: Istituti di pena, Casa Circondariale e di reclusione di Reggio Emilia, Italy
Institution: Reggio Emilia Prison
Facilitator: Sara Uboldi


When: September 2, 2023
Where: Istituti di pena, Casa Circondariale e di reclusione di Reggio Emilia, Italy
Institution: Reggio Emilia Prison


Erri De Luca, author of Three Horses, visits Pre-Texts Workshop 

Author and activist Erri De Luca recently participated in a Pre-Texts experience at Reggio Emilia Prison. In the Orione protective section, inmates engaged with De Luca’s book ‘Tre cavalli’ using the Pre-Texts methodology. 
After his visit, Erri De Luca shared the following statement on his foundation’s website: Translated from Italian:  “When I meet people detained in prison, I have no desire to know the charges for which they are confined or the duration of their sentences. I share a few hours of their days, and my time draws near to theirs for a while. They have read one of my books, expressed a wish to meet me, and completed the necessary procedures. Here I am with them.”

Author’s reflections on the meeting with workshop participants.


When: August, 2023
Where: Orione protected section for trans-sexual prisoners, Italy
Institution: Reggio Emilia Prison

Sara Uboldi, participant of the training workshop in Pescara, sends us these words about her implementation of the protocol in the Orione protected section for trans-sexual prisoners:
The project is carried out with the participation of  Mamimò theater, and the regional network of Theater in Prisons.

Pre-Texts sessions in prison are aimed at the Orione section, in the Reggio Emilia prison, a protected section reserved for transgender inmates. The life stories of trans-sexual inmates are always difficult, often characterized by painful pasts, family and social difficulties, social stigma, marginalization, rejections and abandonments. The opportunities for movement within the prison, social and educational activities are almost non-existent for transgender inmates, often even just having access to the library or the courtyard is difficult.
Thanks to the availability of the Prison Director, Lucia Monastero, and the support of the Educator Coordinator, Massimo Castagna, and Denise Zurlo from March 2023 I started going to prison together with a professional actress, Cecilia Di Donato, Reggio Emilia Mamimò Theater.
The scientific referent who guided me in the project was Pierluigi Sacco, Professor at the University of Chieti and Pescara.
During the first meetings, I told the inmates about my experience as a ‘student’ of the Pre-Texts method, in the course that Doris Sommer held in Pescara in February.
I explained how it is possible to access literature in an inclusive and democratic way, to support empowerment and holistic well-being, through the protocol developed by Doris Sommer.
After the first meetings to get to know each other, we started working with the Pre-Texts protocol, using the novel Three Horses, by the writer Erri De Luca. The inmates had specifically asked me to be able to have a story that spoke of suffering. In my opinion, Erri De Luca’ literary production is of great interest both on a literary, human and social level.
The pages chosen for Pre-Texts are actually an infinite reservoir of literary topoi: there is pain and death, there is the violence of a dictatorship, the Argentinian dictatorship, but also there is love, adventure, travel and all the poetry of the character gardener, the protagonist, who has “in the gray hair a little yellow pollen”.”.
From these pages, many “threads” have been woven through the stories, stories read, imagined, remembered, recalled, some are dreamed, others lived. The pleasure of standing in a circle, of reading, of narrating and then of interpreting, with the body, the voice, the gazes… Cecilia, like a good theater actress, helps us review the text through her voice, guiding our gestures and intonations.
After the five Pre-Texts sessions, we all need to continue working on that text, on other texts. The participants-readers ask for books, bring their written texts, tell stories, tear pages from their diaries… time passes too fast and it is a strange thing inside the prison.
When I wrote to Erri De Luca recounting the experience, he replied: “There are two occasions in which a person locked up forgets the prison bars: when he sleeps and when he reads a book. That this can happen with one of my own and in a difficult detention section honors me.”
Last week, in a circle, all of us participants agreed that the time of Pre-Texts is a circular, ritual, almost mythical time, and that “with each round we grow the desire to read and increase our knowledge. Every lap, our heart is relieved and the daily difficulties fade and thoughts become less frequent”, says B. one of the participants. While, M. gives us these words:
“Suffering swaps places with gratitude and one believes one has better days and yes! There is life within us, around us and even in the people around us. Thus was born the hope of being able to change something that was wrong, misinterpreted. Yes, I want to live, to discover new horizons, to be able to change what I ignored and didn’t understand and made mistakes”.

Sara Uboldi, Factilitator