PIANOSA ISLAND  - Holiday makers arriving on the white sands of Pianosa island off western Italy are welcomed by hosts unlike any others, five prisoners still serving time who help manage a local hotel.

At first sight, there is little to set apart the island, one of seven in the Tuscan Archipelago, with its quaint port, schools of fish and waters as turquoise as those in the Indian Ocean around the Maldives.

The concrete wall of a high security prison attests to its past as a penal colony, where mafia bosses considered particularly dangerous were once sent before the prison closed in 1998.

But a handful of convicted criminals are back on Pianosa, earning their keep and rustling up food for tourists thanks to a program started in 2000 by a local cooperative called San Giacomo in conjunction with the prison on nearby Elba island. “It’s a really positive initiative. It allows these people to gradually re-integrate into society with a lot less trauma then if they were to leave prison from one day to the next,” the cooperative’s deputy head Brunello De Batte told AFP.

The inmates, each serving a long sentence for undisclosed crimes, have been given contracts to work as barmen, cooks, cleaners, waiters, even gift shop salesmen in the small, 12-room hotel with a bar and restaurant run by the cooperative.

Still considered prisoners, they cannot leave the island and are confined at night to special rooms. Yet “over the years, I’ve seen these prisoners mature, take on responsibilities. They are completely changed compared to when they arrived. They have developed a sense of belonging to a group,” he said. Filippo, a 32-year-old Sicilian with piercing blue eyes now in his second year working on Pianosa, says the experience has given him a new sense of self-worth and something to work towards.

“Life has given me a second chance. I feel accepted by society once more,” he said, though he added that it is not always easy to win people’s trust.