Abandoned psychiatric prison given new life by the Neapolitan community

Huge mural by Italian street artist Blu decorates the rundown facade of Je so’ Pazzo.

Lacking a space to gather and discuss in the city, activists from Je so’ Pazzo organisation took over an abandoned building in the heart of Naples, and have been embraced by the surrounding community.

During the night between March 2nd and 3rd in 2015, a group of people from four Neapolitan social collectives sneaked into an abandoned psychiatric prison. Claiming over the property of the internal minister, these people haven’t left the place since.

Nowadays the place is known as Ex OPG Occupato – Je so’ Pazzo. The name of the place and organisation running it comes from a famous Neapolitan song by Pino Daniele. Je so’ Pazzo translates to “I’m crazy”. The organisation provides free activities ranging from day care to theatre and legal advising for the Neapolitan community with the help of over 100 volunteers.

“We want this place to live for the people, to live for the city, that is the most important thing. It’s also important for people who want to have a political chat or to discuss a problem, to have a space for that,” Giovanna*, an English teacher volunteering for Je so’ Pazzo explains.

The place to gather was especially important for the leftist collectives themselves. The four collectives are formed by Neapolitan university and high school students, workers, and temporary workers from outside of Naples. There is tension between the collectives and Neapolitan administration, so simply gathering at a bar wasn’t an option for them.

“We spent maybe six months deciding to occupy a place and another three to find a place. We came inside here a few times to check the place, and finally in February 2015 we decided to occupy it,” Francesco*, a Je so’ Pazzo activist, says.

The cells are as they were since the property was abandoned in 2008.

In a little over a year, the abandoned psychiatric prison has been turned into a place bustling with colour and life. The run down facade is decorated with street art that continues inside on the corridors and courtyards. Volunteers run around carrying books to the classrooms and setting up the event space for the evening’s speaker. But this is the scene only after a year of hard work.

“When we first came into the building during the night, the place was totally destroyed. The grass was overgrown and there was a lot of trash everywhere,” Francesco says.

The psychiatric prison operating in the huge, 9000 square meter building was shut down in 2008 when the inmates were relocated to a different institution. Nobody took care of the place since, except to steal anything possibly useful such as copper wires and marble tiles from the fireplaces.

Life in the colossal piece of concrete in the middle of the city was welcomed, with the neighbours bringing breakfast for the occupiers the very first morning.

“I remember this huge table full of food. Not because we bought the food, but because people from everywhere, and even the bar opposite from Je so’ Pazzo brought a tray full of croissants,” Giovanna recalls.

To maintain the support, Francesco and the initial group of activists started arranging activities for the neighbourhood children. A soccer team and after school activities were the first projects run at Je so’ Pazzo. Giovanna remembers when she received a phone call that first morning, that Francesco and the others had managed to take over the building.

Je so’ Pazzo volunteers are setting up the stage for the evening’s speaker.

“I just grabbed blankets and pillows and whatever the people could need from home and came over here,” Giovanna says.

Friends and activists from other collectives arrived to help Je so’ Pazzo over the rough start. The activists and volunteers started with clearing a couple rooms from the building where they could arrange the activities. After years of neglect, the building had no electricity or running water. All the skills in plumbing, electrical work and construction found within the volunteers have been put to work.

“After one year we have five showers. With hot water!” Francesco laughs.

The huge property in the Materdei district dates back to 1661, when it started out as a monastery. In 1898 the living quarters of the monks were enforced with barred windows and heavy double doors, as the place was turned into a psychiatric prison. After the occupation in 2015 Je so’ Pazzo members have worked hard to turn this place of suffering into a place of life.

The old kitchen inside one of the courtyards has been transformed into a gym, and classrooms have taken over the facilities used as prison offices. The old visiting room acts as a library and study space. The tables and chairs in the room are still bolted into the floor. Je so’ Pazzo events are hosted in the fenced outdoor areas, where the prisoners used to have their daily hour of exercise.

The old kitchen is now host to different gym classes ranging from yoga to belly-dancing.

The old kitchen is now host to different gym classes ranging from yoga to belly-dancing.

“The Italian and Neapolitan television has an admission to film Italian fictions at the property. For example they filmed some prison scenes for The Gomorrah TV-series here,” Giovanna says.

The cells on the second floor haven’t been touched since the property was occupied. Poems and drawings from the prisoners can still be seen on the walls of the cells. Je so’ Pazzo organises tours in the cells for the visitors.

The property is owned by the internal minister, which created problems in the beginning of the occupation. The initial group of about 30 activists including Francesco stayed inside the building around the clock for the first few months to avoid eviction. The activists slept in shifts, while others were keeping watch in case the police would come in during the night.

“The first week we had a problem with the police. They came here and told us that this place is a jail, it’s inactive,you have 10 minutes to go. For this reason we started all the work with the neighbourhood children to have the support from the population,” Francesco says.

The free activities and services provided by Je so’ Pazzo filled a gap in the neighbourhood. The parents are happy that their kids have a place to go after school with adults supervising and helping with homework. This connection with the community distinguishes Je so’ Pazzo from other occupied places in Naples.

“It’s a lot of different people: university students, advocates, mothers, little kids, university professors. It’s different,” Francesco says.

“Usually when you have a political place, you always see the same faces. People that are interested and involved in politics, who tell each other the same story. But here, what is special about the place is the range of different people. From kids to parents and even old people,” Giovanna adds.

Anybody willing to share their knowledge, expertise or services can start volunteering at Je so’ Pazzo. The organisation makes an effort to keep their events and activities varied to keep attracting people from all walks of life.

Writings from the inmates are still visible on the walls of the cells.

Even the Naples city council has given the organisation their support. Though it is mainly the freedom to stay in the building and keep running the activities. Je so’ Pazzo doesn’t receive any funding from the government. All the money for the organisation comes from donations and the events that they run. Je so’ Pazzo received an official signature of approval from the public administration five months ago.

“Many occupied places in Naples have this accord with public administration. Because now the mayor, Luigi di Magistris, is a friend of social workers. He is more from the left side. But the municipal election is on the 5th of June, and there is a risk to have a new guy from the right,” Francesco says.

The birthday celebration at Je so’ Pazzo in March gathered over 2000 people. The work done by all the activists and volunteers has paid off by truly engaging the community. After focusing on establishing and repairing the space, the organisation wants to get back to it’s political work.

Little battles that Je so’ Pazzo wants to be involved in are the rights of workers, free education and public healthcare. They are starting a campaign to help the employees of a huge call centre in Naples. The organisation also currently hosts ten refugees from Gambia at the prison and tries to help them in a desperate situation.

“We have to be the first actors of what’s happening, and this is a place where it can happen,” Giovanna says. This is where it has to start. If we wait for the government or people in power to do something for us, it never happens.”

*Giovanna and Francesco dont want their full names to be published for safety reasons.