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Italian NGO calls on government to address overcrowded prisons

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By Josephine Joly
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Inmates' relative stand outside the Sant’Anna prison in Modena, Emilia-Romagna, in one of Italy's quarantine red zones on March 9, 2020.
Inmates' relative stand outside the Sant’Anna prison in Modena, Emilia-Romagna, in one of Italy's quarantine red zones on March 9, 2020.   -   Copyright  PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP
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Italy's prisons face serious overcrowding problems, with 53,637 people occupying space for 47,000, according to the annual report of Associazione Antigone, an Italian NGO working to protect human rights.

Of Italy's 189 jails, 117 of them exceed a 100% occupancy rate. Some prisons like one in Brescia reached a record 200%.

The government claims there is enough space behind bars for inmates and some 4,000 cells are constantly being repaired or renovated.

But Associazione Antigone is calling on Rome to address overcrowding by reducing the length of criminal proceedings, as people in pre-trial detention are over-represented in Italy's prisons.

"We also have an over-representation of people detained for drug offences, compared to other European countries. So a different approach to drugs in the legislation and in police practises, but also in social policies, could make a difference in prison overcrowding," Scandurra added.

Suicides

Since the start of 2021, there have been 18 suicides in Italian prisons, in addition to the 62 in 2020 (one for every 10,000 inmates), the highest number in recent years.

Prisoners have been complaining of torture and there have been allegations of beatings. Some claim the conditions behind bars have directly contributed to the suicides.

"The situation is very bad because the prison system is still partially in lockdown mode. The social activities are very limited, access of external staff, volunteers, etc, is still limited in most of the prisons. Contacts with the families are limited, and this has been going on obviously since the start of the pandemic, so the situation is very heavy on the prisoners," Alessio Scandurra, coordinator of Antigone's observatory on prison conditions, told Euronews.

Italy's justice minister Marta Cartabia has asked for the country's department of penitentiary administration (DAP) for a report on prison suicides to understand the causes and how to prevent future deaths.

Naples video

A video showing guards brutally beating inmates at a jail near Naples last year was released in June, pushing Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to seek for the prison's system to be reformed.

Fifty-two prison guards have since been arrested. But according to Scandurra, some of the guards seen on the video are not under investigation as it was impossible to identify them due to face masks and helmets.

"We need to introduce identification numbers for police officers. That will be very important, for instance, in cases like this one," he said.

"Other measures, like the quality and the efficiency of the video recording system that proved to be so important at the Santa Maria Capua Vetere prison, are not always there in many other facilities. We have ongoing investigations of similar cases, in the similar period, for the same reason. But there was no video recording. Either the prison was not equipped or the system wasn't working. And therefore we don't have this very important evidence."

What does the Italian government say?

"Improving living conditions is a priority aspect," said Massimo Parisi, general manager of personnel and resources at DAP.

"We are working on two fronts: the first front is to rigorously apply all the protocols we have with the health service to prevent self-injurious actions.

"It is very important, and there is a clear political direction on this, to improve living conditions in prison.

"We then made -- and this is the second front -- a very specific choice: we have reserved 30% of our budget on prison buildings for interventions on treatment spaces. We believe that creating opportunities for inclusion, making life less idle within institutions, increasing job opportunities, creating hope on the 'outside' is also decisive for intervening on these gestures, which do not always have the same cause. they may be different, but an intervention that tends to improve living conditions can only improve the well-being of the prisoners and also those of the staff."

Watch the full video report in the player above.