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Prison strikes

Italy plans prison crackdown that pushes Western boundaries

Italy plans prison crackdown that pushes Western boundaries
Carabinieri and police surround the prison of Bellizzi Irpino, Avellino, Italy, 17 May 2023. EPA-EFE/MARIO DARGENIO

MILAN, March 13 (Reuters) - Prisoners in the northern Italian city of Parma are on hunger strike over poor sanitation and overcrowding, the latest in a spate of protests in the country's jails where cases of suicide and self-harm are at an all-time high.

Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right government has responded by threatening to make even peaceful protesting a criminal offence – a draconian crackdown that experts say has no parallel in any other Western democracy.

The move is among a raft of law-and-order initiatives by Meloni, establishing new crimes and stiffening penalties for existing ones ahead of European parliament elections in June.

If a little-noticed clause in a government security bill becomes law, inmates like those in Parma who beat on their cell bars or refuse to work or eat could see their jail time doubled, a prospect that troubles both legal experts and prison workers.

They say the real problem faced by Italy’s prisons is that they are overcrowded and understaffed, making it difficult for inmates to access health, psychiatric and educational services.

As a result, psychological problems are rife, morale is low and protests are frequent, either for personal reasons or over degrading conditions.

“When prisoners use passive resistance to protest we have ways to deal with it, by listening first and if necessary by restraining them,” said Donato Capece, who was a prison guard for almost 50 years and now heads the sector’s union Sappe.

“I have doubts about classifying these cases as crimes,” he added.

Angela Della Bella, a criminal law professor at Milan University, said adding new crimes and longer sentences to the penal code will mean more congested courts and more prison overcrowding, compounding an already critical situation.

Italy’s prisons housed almost 61,000 inmates at the end of January, some 10,000 more than the official capacity, according to data from Antigone, a prisoners’ welfare organisation.

At the same time there is a shortfall of almost 7,000, or 16%, in the prescribed workforce of guards.

“The number of prisoners is increasing and we can no longer cope,” Capece said.

 

SURGE IN SUICIDES

Italy is not the only European Union country with a prison problem. With economies weak and budgets tight, penal systems often struggle for funding even as more and more people find themselves incarcerated.

Jails in France, Greece, Romania and Cyprus all have more inmates than their official capacity, Eurostat data shows.

In Milan’s main San Vittore prison, a dilapidated 1870s construction, a guard with 35 years’ experience said problems were growing in managing inmates who are mostly migrants, unable to speak Italian, and still awaiting trial.

“We used to handle people, now we handle numbers,” said the guard, who asked not to be named.

There have been 21 suicides in Italy’s prisons since the start of the year, against nine at the same stage of 2023, Antigone’s data shows.

Della Bella, the Milan law professor, said the government bill’s criminalisaton of “passive resistance to the execution of orders,” punishable with up to eight years in jail, would make Italy unique among Western legal systems.

Britain and the United States have the crime of prison “mutiny”, she said, but it only applies to violent actions. There is nothing similar in other European countries.

The legislation, which also applies to protests in migrant reception centres, does not even specify that the orders have to be legitimate.

The bill was presented in November and is now before parliament where the government, with its ample majority, should have no difficulty in getting it approved.

 

LAW AND ORDER

In Parma, 100 detainees in the prison’s high security unit began their four-week protest on Feb. 24, refusing to eat or work to demand better prison hygiene and health care, more phone calls to families and improved education opportunities.

The prison, which houses a total of 700 inmates, has just seven “educators,” figures supposed to play a key role in rehabilitation and preparation for life outside.

Veronica Valenti, the city’s state-appointed official charged with ensuring prisoners’ rights, said the protest was “legitimate” and based on real grievances.

Andrea Delmastro, Italy’s junior justice minister with responsibility for the prison system, declined to comment on the proposal to criminalise passive resistance in jails, but said prison misconduct in general cannot be tolerated.

“When people who have been deprived of their liberty because they have done something wrong try to start riots with violence against things and people, they should be punished,” he said.

The bill continues the law and order hallmark of Meloni’s government. One of her first steps after taking office in 2022 was a crackdown on unlicenced rave parties, laying out jail terms and fines for organisers.

Other measures have included toughening penalties for women offenders with young children and for parents whose children skip school, tightening asylum rights and increasing sanctions for climate protesters who damage property.

Francesco Maisto, the state guarantor for prisoners in Milan, said the prison bill appeared to deny the right of protest enshrined in a European Court of Justice ruling in 2005.

It also runs counter to Italy’s constitution “in which a prisoner has rights as well as duties,” he said.

(Angelo Amante reported from Rome, editing by Gavin Jones and Angus MacSwan)

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