Italy moves to relieve overcrowding in its jail cells

Some observers say a long-sought prison reform bill doesn't go far enough.

Roberto M. stands in the courtyard of one of Italy's highest security prisons, Il Nuovo Complesso di Rebibbia. Despite the 95-degree heat and meager shade, the tall Venetian smiles broadly at the three hours of relative freedom he's been given, for good behavior, to attend a concert.

It will be a brief reprieve from the packed cells of the prison's New Complex, where he is among 1,600 inmates - exactly twice the number it was built to house.

While citizen confidence in Italy's justice system has historically run short, several factors have converged in the past decade to create further strain: a severe shortage of judges, mandatory sentencing for everything from petty theft to mafia crimes, an increased immigrant population, and the government's hesitancy to take on the politically volatile issue of prison reform.

"Prison reform is like this elephant in the House of Deputies that no one wants to talk about," says Maria Ponce De Leon, a professor at St. John's University in Rome who has worked inside the capital's prison system for more than five years. "But the prison system itself is a nasty powderkeg, especially in the summer, when life becomes unbearable for the inmates."

Human Rights Watch has criticized several Western European nations, including Italy, Belgium and Spain, for overcrowding.

Italy's more than 215 prisons, many of them former monasteries and convents built in the 19th century, are swollen to nearly 36 percent over capacity. Designed for 42,000, the system now holds 57,000. About 60 percent of those in prison are actually serving sentences. The rest are awaiting trial or the outcome of an appeal.

While experts agree the judicial system needs newer facilities, higher pay to attract more guards, more judges, and greater flexibility in sentencing prisoners, until this month all major judicial reforms bills passed in the last two years were designed specifically to protect prime minister Silvio Berlusconi from the corruption charges against him.

Last week the lower house of the Italian parliament passed a bill that would free prisoners convicted of a nonviolent crime who have served more than half of their sentence and have less than a year to go. The bill would apply to about 10 percent of the prison population and is expected to pass the Senate.

"With this law, those [prisoners] who wish to redeem themselves can do so outside prison, and we [legislators] have responded to the wishes of the Pope," Luca Volontè, a member of the center-right Unione Democristiana e di Centro party said.

But prison reform advocates say the measure will accomplish little. "It's a flimsy, ineffective and offensive attempt to appease those seeking genuine prison reform," says Professor Ponce De Leon. "This government has been so busy creating shameful legislation to favor the judicial situation of its prime minister, it is too bad some of that fervor couldn't have been dedicated to the less fortunate and defenseless."

The prison population grew exponentially in the past 15 years, alongside an increase in immigration and the implementation of mandatory sentences.

While the previous prison generation of prisoners was made up primarily of career criminals - thieves, murderers and kidnappers - today's population includes many imprisoned on lesser offenses.

Prisoner suicides and stress-related ailments like heart attacks and self-mutilation have increased, says The Rev. Piersandro Spriano, a Roman Catholic priest who has served as chaplain in Rebibbia 13 years and is president of Volontari in Carcere, a group of 120 volunteers who visit prisoners, help them contact attorneys, and bring personal items like clothes, soap, and shampoo.

The hiring of judges has not kept pace with the increase in arrests, which means trial schedules are crowded, appeals take longer, and first-time offenders - or even defendants held on remand - are often in cells with hardened criminals while awaiting trial.

Exact numbers on the shortage of judges are not available, but in Rome, the average judge currently has a waiting list of 1,000 trials.

Pope John Paul II spoke about prison overcrowding first in his Jubilee speech in 2000 and then again in an unprecedented November 2002 speech before the Italian legislature, asking the government to find an effective solution. "Everyone applauded, and that was that," said Roberto, who is serving a 25-year sentence for murder. "Nothing more happened."

Prisoners have sometimes protested overcrowding by beating their bars or going on hunger strikes.

Judge Laura Longo, who presides at the Tribunale di Sorveglianza di Roma, also serves as an advocate for the 27th Amendment of the Italian Constitution, which protects prisoners' rights. She said she once toured a Rome prison in 95-degree heat in which nine men were placed in a cell built for four.

"We changed it immediately," she says, but adds that this was just one drop in a sea of problems that need fixing.

Because of overcrowding, prison administrators feel overwhelmed and they can't respond to even serious problems quickly, Father Spriano says. "The whole rehabilitation mechanism slows down.

"We have an incredible increase in the number of people from the marginal parts of society," he adds. "Immigrants, for instance, can't understand the system. They do not have proper translators and attorneys within the system, and they are more likely to end up in prison than an Italian who can actually defend himself."

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