Italy leads way on prison reform but system in crisis

Italy leads way on prison reform but system in crisis
By Robert Hackwill
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Italy is showing the world how to reform prisons, and has passed into law an impressive and widely-praised reform package. But the money to implement it is sorely lacking, and in the meantime most of

Bollate, a prison near Milan, is unlike any other.

Bollate is a model jail that attracts visitors from all over Europe, keen to learn from its policies of rehabilitation and reinsertion into active life. It has workshops, and even stables.

But it is the only one of its kind in Italy.

The national situation is much bleaker, despite penal reforms.

Prisons from another century, another world

Take Regina Coeli in Rome, a 17th century former monastery. The first surprise is that everyone is out of their cells. One reform allows cell doors to stay open during the day. Other reforms have allowed the early release of more than 10,000 inmates to serve alternative punishments.

The European Court of Human Rights likes Italy’s reforms, indeed praises them as exemplary, but their application is patchy, and building programmes are stalled. One prisoner told us that in his block there were cases of scabies, and there were only two showers for 72 inmates.

“When you live behind bars things that are trivial in the outside world become vital. For example, waiting too long for a shower can blow up into a major dispute,” says one prisoner.

“So there is tension?”

“Yes, all the time.”

But there is worse. Some showers in Como prison in the north are barely fit for purpose. They leak into the surrounding cells as if rain was coming in, and are almost dangerous.

The prison was built in the 1980s. Since then the showers have not been renovated.

“They told us the showers would be repainted more than a year ago,” grumbles an inmate.

The kitchens and toilets share the same space.

Even worse conditions can be found, like in Trani in the south-east. Toilets are in full sight, next to dinner tables and facing entrances.

Alessio Scandurra works for penal refoms and is a managing board member of ANTIGONE, the prisons watchdog. He says there are too many problems to mention.

“Italy’s prisons are very old and a lot of renovation is needed in all of them. Any new building work or improvements are done in haste, in part a reaction to the growing overpopulation of recent years, with no long-term planning.”

The will to reform needs financial backing

In Como, just like elsewhere, three people share a cell designed for one. The European Court of Human Rights criteria on overpopulation are respected, but only just. This means that detainees have to have between three and four square metres each, the minimum to avoid penalties. In Italian law they are supposed to have nine square metres.

The prison educators’ co-ordinator, Giovanni Perricone takes us to see a special section designed to re-educate prisoners, especially drug addicts. But what should be at the heart of the prison’s rehabilitation mission is too dangerous to use and has been closed off. Water leaks have brought down entire walls.

Perricone tells us the place is derelict because the rain would flood in and that undermined the walls.

Just next door is a special court built 20 years ago to try members of the Calabrian mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta. Its several hundred metres of space was only used for a few months, and the prison desperately needs that extra space, but it is closed.

So reforms may be in place, but there’s not enough money to start much renovation. Too much money was wasted in the past.

False starts and failed projects

For example Spinazzola in Pouilles has a prison that closed after only a short period, and it is far from being the only one. A prison officers union representative tells us money was thrown out of the window in the past.

“They spent 200.000 euros to improve conditions only just before it was closed,” says SAPPE union rep Federico Pilagatti.

One thousand kilometres to the north in Revere it is the same story. An almost-finished prison built in the last decade, but never completed, and abandoned. The local mayor shows us around.

“This would have had individual cells, with their own bathrooms,” says Sergio Faioni. “The building as you see it cost overall about 2,5 million euros. Unfortunately as you can see it was a massive waste of money. It was never used, and can not be used in this state, so it is clear that taxpayers money was very, very badly spent indeed.”

Avoiding prisons’ revolving doors

Eighty percent of Italy’s prisons are over 100 years old. At least one dates from the 15th century. And what can be done within them? That is the real question, because there not enough activities for inmates, a problem recognised at ministerial level. As a direct consequence prisons are failing in their primary duty, to get criminals back on the straight and narrow. This is why Italy’s repeat offender rates are among Europe’s highest.

One prisoner has a better living space, Regina
Coeli’s scribe.

“Some people in here don’t know how to write so I write their requests for them, to the prison authorities or friends, or help them with legal documents. By doing this I’ve learnt a lot, I’ve almost become a lawyer myself, so I help others and some I have even been able to help get released with appeals I have written.

As my activities mean I am allowed out of my cell more than the others I can do a little more for other people, as most of them stay in their cells all day long as they don’t know what else to do,” he says.

Success on a shoestring

Latina is a small prison not far from Rome. Following the nine-square-metre rule it should house 76 prisoners. Instead there are 144. The prison director shows us the small gymnasium, created thanks to charitable donations because the money she gets from the state is not enough.

“Last year we received just 1070 euros,” says Nadia Fontana. “This is supposed to cover educational activities for an entire year. The law says we have to provide support for the detainees. This means we have less than 10 euros per person, and that is supposed to cover all their education and rehabilitation needs.

This is why we have appealed for volunteers. Now we have around 50 coming to help, but it’s not enough. Without the unpaid volunteers we wouldn’t be able to do anything,” she sighs.

When life can mean a new life

Despite everything Latina prison works minor miracles. Many were illiterate on entering, but now know how to read and write.

“I knew strictly nothing, but now thanks to my teacher I have succeeded, even if it took me some time. I get my school leaving certificate next week. When I wrote to tell my niece she said ‘It’s super! It’s the most beautiful letter you have ever written to me, because it’s in your hand’. I was very moved, because I wanted this for my nephews.”

No retirement home

As we walked the corridors we were surprised to see a number of elderly inmates. We do not know what their offences were, but we couldn’t help wondering if prison was the right place for them. But the problem is this sort of detainee cannot be placed under house arrest because they have no home, or it is unsuitable. Prison is the only solution, as there are not enough day centres or similar establishments.

Nadia Fontana agrees that it is an inhumane situation.

“We have become a dustbin for all the people society doesn’t want to see at large. So the homeless, the mentally ill, the old and all those in precarious situations wind up in here. We are left with the difficult problem of managing this. This is absolutely not what we are supposed to be doing,” she says.

Find the latest Council of Europe report on the EU’s prisons here .

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