The state of prisons in Italy

Prison cell
© Marcello Rabozzi / Pixabay

The news and the corresponding video footage, which was leaked last month, showing the mistreatment of prisoners in the prison of Santa Maria Capua Vetere (a town not far from Naples), shocked the Italian public. As far as we know, some members of penitentiary police have been charged of abuse and torture against detainees. Such misconducts are offensive and unacceptable in Italian Constitution, human rights and a liberal democracy in general, but unfortunately seem still to happen in Italy.

Investigations were partially made possible after the Italian Parliament, in 2017, overhauled criminal code, introducing a specific new crime: the crime of torture, as defined in the new enacted article 613 bis of Italian Criminal Code.

Last October a MP of the small liberal party of PiùEuropa filed an urgent interpellation on this topic, after receiving notice of what happened in Santa Maria Capua Vetere’s Prison. Former Minister of Justice, Alfonso Bonafede (5Star Movement), not just played down what took place in that prison, but also formally stated that the penitentiary police “restored legality”. Harassing, abusing and beating undefended prisoners cannot be the idea of rightful justice and punishment. Since last February Bonafede’s role has been taken by Marta Cartabia, a prominent law professor, former President of Italian Constitutional Court. The simple fact that a Minister of Justice in charge visited the site along with the Prime Minister, the prison bodes well for the future.

© Michael Gaida / Pixabay

A review of Italian criminal and penitentiary institutions is indispensable, because what happened in Santa Maria Capua Vetere’s prison just scratches the surface of the general issue at stake:

First of all, Italy must tackle with prisons’ overpopulation. According to Antigone[1]’s mid-year review (issued on last July), the official number of total detainees in Italy is around 53.637, in face of 50.779 places available, with an official overpopulation ratio around 105,6%. But real figures are far more dismal, as Antigone’s report pointed out, real available places in all Italian prisons are 47.445 meaning that the overpopulation's real ratio is around 113,1%. Even more strikingly, in eleven Italian prisons the overpopulation ratio is beyond 150%; e.g. the prison in the Northern Italian city of Brescia has a ratio around 200%. Furthermore, drug-addiction among the detainees is a huge problem and about one out of three is detained for drug law violations. It would reasonable to rethink Italian approach towards drugs and search for better solution than the anti-prohibitionist approach.

Secondly, Italy should try to rethink the use of punishment and tackling of social problems in general. Unfortunately, too often Italian politicians seem to be very eager to enact new crimes, and new punishments, whenever public opinion seems to be shocked by the news of an incident.

So, the overall situation seems to be not so far from that described, during the nineteenth century, by William Gladstone about the Reign of Naples: “force and not affection is the foundation of government. There is no association, but a violent antagonism, between the idea of freedom and that of order”, “an incessant, systematic, deliberate violation of the law, by the power appointed to watch over and maintain it”.

Dostojevkij once wrote, that “the degree of civilization in a Society can be judged by entering its prisons”, so hopefully justice minister Marta Cartabia - despite facing not an easy task- will enact urgently needed prison reforms.

[1] Antigone is an independent no profit association aimed to survey how the detainees are treated in Italian prisons, issuing periodical reports and unbiased proposals of reform.

Our author Andrea Bitetto is attorney at Law in Trieste and PhD in European and Comparative Legal Systems. Classic Liberal, staunch believer in Open Society and Liberalism. He is a member of Centro Einaudi in Turin and founder of Associazione per la Democrazia Liberale.