Walter Armanini, a city councilor, was on route to his Milan office on May 19, 1992 when his car phone rang. “There are people waiting for you at the office,” said a colleague. “They won’t give their names, and they won’t go away.”

Armanini’s first thought was that the strangers might be kidnappers. When the men introduced themselves as detectives, there to arrest him for soliciting $125,000 in kickbacks, Armanini, 56, knew his life would never be the same. He was permitted to return home and pack a bag. One of the arresting officers advised him to change out of the dark suit he was wearing: “You won’t need it where you’re headed.”

Armanini’s destination was Milan’s San Vittore prison, which he had often passed without really looking at it. “I never thought about what happened inside,” he says. “It wasn’t a part of my world. Sometimes, out of superstition, I’d make a sign as I went past to ward off evil.” He found himself in evil’s midst. He posed for mug shots, holding a number across his chest, and was fingerprinted. As he walked to his cell, there was a roar from the inmates. “They knew I’d been arrested, and they were laughing and shouting at me to stop stealing because there’d be nothing left for them.”

Armanini was among the first to be arrested in Operation Clean Hands, a corruption probe that has swept up more than 2,500 members of Italy’s business, political and government elite. The profound despair of facing ruin and imprisonment has led 12 of them to commit suicide, a reaction Armanini says he understands. Although he endured the humiliation of a televised trial and was sentenced to four years, the horror that stays with him most palpably is the 41 days he spent at San Vittore.

“I can still smell the urine in the halls, hear the barking of the guard dogs outside, see the flash of the searchlight overhead,” he says. “I just can’t get those things out of my mind.” He spent his first night in a 2-m by 3-m cell with a suspected murderer. “I felt so alone, so scared, as if I were already condemned to spend my life here,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t let myself think about my wife or my daughter. I didn’t want even the thought of them to enter this place.”

Transferred to the isolation ward after three days, he was already thinking like a prisoner. “I noticed that nothing they gave us could be used as a weapon. The dishes and spoons were plastic. The bed sheet was to’o flimsy to hang yourself. When we took exercise, it was in an area open to the wind, but there were bars overhead. The place was full of excrement from the dogs that barked all night and kept me awake until 5.”

At his trial, Armanini admitted to shaking down businessmen on behalf  of the Socialist Party. “I never thought of it as illegal,” he says. Now free, pending an appeal, he says he is frequently accosted on the street and called a thief, “I just want back the life I had,” he says. Trapped in a nightmare he cannot escape, he yeams for a dream that cannot be.


Mark the statements as True (T) or False (F).
1. Armanini was arrested on May 19, 1992.
2. It can be inferred that kidnapping is quite common in Italy.
3. Armanini was wearing a dark süit when he was arrested.
4. He expected to be put into San Vittore prison.
5. He was treated kindly and with tolerance in prison.
6. More than 2,500 people have been arrested in Operation Clean Hands.
7. Armanini thought about escaping from San Vittore after spending 41 days there.

8. He constantly thought about his family while in prison.

9. The thought of committing suicide may have crossed his mind while in prison.

10. Armanini supported the Socialist Party.

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