A chorus of happy bleats greets Orazio as he approaches the herd of goats on Gorgona, a rugged island off Tuscany, Italy.

The 24-year-old spends most of his days caring for the goats and the nearby sheep, cleaning their barns and feeding them.

“I worked on farms before I came here, so I was always surrounded by animals,” he said. “They understand me, and it’s important that we understand them.”

But this isn’t an ordinary farm job and Orazio’s tenderness toward the animals might seem at odds with his past. He is one of almost 100 criminals living on Gorgona – Italy’s only remaining penal colony.

“I murdered someone,” he said. “We had an argument and then it happened. It was an accident. I was only 18 at the time and have changed a lot. Being on Gorgona has helped so much. You don’t feel as though you’re in jail – I have a responsibility, I have purpose.”

Almost 100 convicts live on Gorgona. The only full-time year-round resident of the island is a woman in her 90s.

Prisoners and animals have lived alongside each other ever since the colony, an hour’s boat ride from the port of Livorno, was established in 1869. Until recently, the island was essentially a working farm, with the inmates rearing pigs, cows, sheep and goats that were then killed for food. The slaughterhouse was finally dismantled in late June following an agreement between LAV, an animal rights’ organization, the Italian justice ministry and the prison service, and 588 animals were moved from the island to a refuge.

“Being on Gorgona has helped so much. You don’t feel as though you’re in jail – I have a responsibility, I have purpose.”

The 180 or so that remain are there to help the prisoners, most of whom are on the final stretch of their sentences, to rehabilitate and prepare for life after they are released as part of the so-called “human-animal” project.

“It’s about building positive relationships,” said Giacomo Bottinelli, a representative of LAV. “In order to be able to re-enter society, a prisoner needs to be able to develop empathy, and if we’re killing animals, for sure they can’t develop positive connections with other humans. It’s very important that they learn the concept of care, with the objective of them being able to care for themselves.”

The prisoners themselves did not work in the slaughterhouse, but they did have to rear the animals and often accompany them there, a troubling experience for many.

“One moment I was caring for them, the next bringing them to the slaughter. I felt terrible,” Andrea, a heavyset man serving time for trafficking arms and explosives, said as he petted a big gray swine called Ciccio.

Andrea and Ciccio the swine.

“I am very attached to these animals: they have helped me a lot. In them I perceive loyalty – they never betray you.”

During the day, the prisoners can freely walk around the wild, mountainous Gorgona, a 543-acre islet packed with lush vegetation, dotted with coves and considered impossible to escape from. Other than taking care of the animals, some of the prisoners have been trained in winemaking, producing Gorgona, one of Tuscany’s most expensive white wines, on behalf of Frescobaldi, Italy’s oldest wine dynasty.

They also help with the upkeep of the island – which is home to only one all-year-round resident, a woman in her early 90s – and maintain hiking trails for tourists who can now visit with a special permit. The inmates earn an income, a portion of which is set aside for after their release. They play football and cards, and their families can visit once a week.

“I am very attached to these animals: they have helped me a lot. In them I perceive loyalty – they never betray you.”

Needless to say, the waiting list for those seeking a move to Gorgona from overcrowded prisons on Italy’s mainland is long.

“Yes, they are in prison, but here they don’t always feel like prisoners,” said Carlo Mazzerbo, the prison’s director. “They work and they do it with satisfaction because they know it helps everyone. It gives them certain values, including respecting the rules of others.”

Mazzerbo has seen the impact the island and various projects have made on the inmates. Past data has shown that the reoffending rate among former Gorgona prisoners was around 20%, compared to 80% for those released from mainland prisons.

“The most beautiful thing about Gorgona is this human aspect. It’s unique,” he said. “Working in nature pays off – it gives you strength.”

Researchers are now working with prison psychologists to study the rehabilitation benefits of the human-animal project, devised by the University of Milan-Bicocca and the only one of its kind in Italy.

“The first step was to close the slaughterhouse, as what is really beneficial is to live the human-animal relationship in a non-violent environment,” said Stefano Perinotto, a human-animal expert who runs the project. “People in jail are scared of being judged as bad people, but an animal doesn’t do this: they accept them, and this helps with rehabilitation.”

Angela Giuffrida is the Rome correspondent for The Guardian