Raffaele “the Professor” Cutolo, one of the most feared and powerful bosses of the Neapolitan Camorra, spent most of his adult life in jail. And it was in a prison bed on Wednesday that he was found dead, aged 79.

His imprisonment didn’t deter him from ordering murders, forging criminal ties and sparking a war that left several hundred people dead in the early 1980s. Cutolo, whose life inspired films and songs, transformed his prison cell into his criminal office, from where he recruited thousands of members into the Camorra who, once freed, committed murders on his orders.

“Because of his strong ties with politicians, Cutolo was a piece of the Italianstate,” said the Gomorrah writer and author, Roberto Saviano. “He was very powerful, more than a prime minister.”

Raffaele Cutolo appearing in court in 1994: ‘The Camorra is a life choice, a party, an ideal.’ Photograph: Franco Castano/AP

Born in 1941, Cutolo was 22 when he committed his first murder. Following a brawl, he killed a young man who had made advances toward his sister. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison, where his criminal career continued in the form of physical assault against fellow inmates. Early on he challenged the alleged first boss of the Camorra, Antonio Spavone, to a duel. Cutolo asked him to come armed with a flick knife to Poggioreale prison’s internal courtyard, but Spavone didn’t show up. That tacit refusal earned Cutolo the respect of the other inmates and bolstered his criminal credentials.

In the Poggioreale prison, at the end of the 70s, Cutolo founded the New Organised Camorra (NCO) with the purpose of renewing the old, rural Camorra. The boss also devised an initiation ritual that included an oath: “The day when the people of Campania understand it is better to eat a slice of bread as a free man than to eat a steak as a slave is the day when Campania will win.”

“Cutolo turned the Camorra into a mass organisation, inciting young people to violence,” said Isaia Sales, an essayist and professor of the history of the mafia at the Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples. “Many bosses have commanded from prison, but they were already mafiosi when they entered. Cutolo entered prison as an ordinary criminal and from there founded one of the most powerful criminal organisations in the world.”

According to the Italian justice department, by 1980 the NCO could count on about 10,000 affiliates.

In the early 80s, Cutolo started an internal war in the Camorra. The conflict was to cause the deaths of hundreds of affiliates and dozens of innocent people.

For the ordered murders, Cutolo was given four life sentences and would spend the last decades of his life locked in a cell. His detention did not prevent him from having a daughter, thanks to artificial insemination, authorised by the justice ministry in 2001 after a long legal battle.

“I’ll die in prison. My last wish is to give my wife a child,” Cutolo told the newspaper la Repubblica.

Cutolo’s life has inspired films including The Professor, by Giuseppe Tornatore, and even a song by the singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André.

Cutolo was happy to give interviews to the press, from court and from prison. In a 1986 interview with the journalist Enzo Biagi, he said: “The Camorra is a life choice, a party, an ideal.”

Sales said: “He was the most media-driven of the mafia bosses. In a sense, it reminds one of Al Capone.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, Cutolo’s lawyers asked the authorities to transfer the detainee to house arrest to prevent him from contracting Covid, but a judge rejected the request, saying that Cutolo, despite his age, “could still strengthen the Camorra, with respect to which Cutolo has fully maintained his charismatic influence”.

During all his years of his imprisonment, Cutolo never gave any signs of repentance and always refused to cooperate with investigators.

“His power kept him in prison all his life,” said Saviano. “And he will take all his secrets to the grave.”