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Human Rights

Rights Crushed in Italy’s Overcrowded Prisons

ROME, Mar 13 2013 (IPS) - When Claudio was detained in a prison in the northeastern Italian city of Vicenza, he had to share a 7.6 square-metre cell with two other people. “Once you excluded the space taken up by beds and drawers, each inmate was left with 90 centimetres to himself. We had to take it in turns to stand up,” he told IPS.

But cramped living conditions were not the only problem. Forced into that room for 21 hours each day, “there was no possibility for (inmates) to engage in any activity”, Claudio added.

In a prison in Busto Arsizio, a city in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, “there was only one educator for 420 inmates, and the only psychologist could dedicate just six minutes of his time to each of them every year,” Claudio recalled.

In short, the real problem lay not in each individual case but in “the systematic violation of human rights” in prisons across Italy, he concluded.

Indeed, a recent decision by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) confirmed the level of dysfunction inherent in Italy’s prison system.

The Strasbourg Court’s January ruling declared that the crowded conditions seven inmates had been forced to endure in two Italian prisons constituted a violation of their basic rights.

As the official sentence reads, “Their conditions of detention had subjected them to hardship of an intensity exceeding the unavoidable level of suffering inherent in detention”, and violated the European Convention on Human Rights’ prohibition against torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

The court also ordered the state to pay the applicants 100,000 euros (about 131,000 dollars) in damages.

Now, people like Claudio who feel their rights have been similarly violated, are queuing up at the ECHR.

“The aim is to denounce the general violation of people’s dignity: we were not allowed to touch our relatives’ hands during (visits), and there was no space dedicated to (visits) with children, who had to go through searches and a hostile environment,” Claudio added.

Ornella Favero, director of the non-profit organisation Ristretti Orizzonti (Narrow Horizons) who has been “denouncing the conditions in Italy’s prisons for years”, told IPS the ruling is just the tip of the iceberg.

With an occupancy rate ranging from 142 to 268 percent of maximum capacity, Italy holds the dubious distinction of having the most overcrowded prisons in the European Union, according to a report published by the Rome-based Prison Observatory of Antigone.

But the rate of overcrowding should not be used to justify “building new prisons, which is absolutely not what our country needs”, Favero stressed.

Quoting the Council of Europe, Alessio Scandurra, coordinator of the Prison Observatory, stressed that the “solution to overcrowding is not building new structures, because that is a system that creates its own demand: the more prisons you build, the more they will get filled”.

Following visits to prisons across Italy, the 2010 report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) states, “(A)dditional accommodation is not likely, in itself, to provide a lasting solution to the problem of overcrowding. Addressing this problem calls for a coherent strategy, covering both admission to and release from prison, to ensure that imprisonment really is the measure of last resort.

“This implies, in the first place, an emphasis on non-custodial measures in the period before the imposition of a sentence and, in the second place, the adoption of measures that facilitate reintegration into free society of persons who have been deprived of their liberty.”

According to various studies, incarceration rates increased in Italy from 47,316 in 1992 to 67,961 in 2010.

Favero believes this is because “in the last decade, there has been no ability or (political) will to reform the Penal Code.”

According to the Prison Observatory of Antigone’s report, more than 20,000 people are serving terms of less than three years and approximately 25 percent of the inmates are drug addicts.

Italy has one of the highest percentages of drug-related crimes in the region: 38.4 percent of all prisoners compared to 14 percent in Germany and France and roughly 15 percent in England and Wales.

While the European average for pre-trial detainees is just 28.5 percent, in Italy they account for 42 percent of the prison population, Scandurra said.

The number of immigrants in Italian prisons is also well above the European average, comprising 35.6 percent of all prison inmates.

“All these people should have access to non-custodial sanctions,” Favero argued.

But in 2012 less than 20,000 people incarcerated in Italy were serving their sentence outside a prison, far less than the EU average: in 2009 Spain, Germany and France could boast 111,000, 120,000 and 123,000 people respectively taking advantage of alternatives such as pecuniary fines, community service and house arrest for lesser crimes, as well as medical treatment for drug addiction. In England and Wales the number was closer to 200,000.

“These are definitely the countries we should look at when it comes to non-custodial sanctions,” Scandurra said.

A robust body of evidence supports the civil society push towards alternatives to imprisonment. According to the Justice Ministry’s Observatory on Alternative Measures, non-custodial sanctions and gradual reintroduction into society show an 81 percent success rate, while 69 percent of those people who serve their entire sentence in prison tend to repeat their offenses.

“Keeping inmates in jail for longer does not make our society safer. But while this seems to be clear in many EU countries, in Italy the idea is that prison is the universal panacea,” Favero lamented.

Despite the grave outlook, Scandurra said the government has begun to pay more attention to the issue than it has in the past, and a consensus about what needs to be done is gradually developing among social workers.

“Elections are a delicate phase — bringing up these topics during a campaign is almost impossible, because it doesn’t get votes. But the hope, now that elections are over, is that politicians will finally have the courage to enforce the required measures,” Scandurra said.

Turning a slightly more cynical eye to the problem, Favero believes that what is more likely to promote a change is the threat of high monetary sanctions coming from Strasbourg. More than 500 similar cases are currently queuing up at the ECHR – if they result in a similar ruling to the one passed down in January, the government will be hard-pressed to cough up the necessary compensation, experts say.


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  • Marian

    In Estonia we had a similar debate, although too short and too quiet. It was also said that the imprisonment does not result in less crime and more safety in a society. Violence only causes violence, anger only produces more anger. And I don’t think prison is the place to let go of all that. Rather, it creates a sense of us-and-them, exclusion, solitude, more excuses to fight against the system. There should be more articles like that to create debates and knowledge on this so sensitive topic! Great work!