What the coronavirus emergency told us about Italian prisons

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The Covid-19 crisis has led to release, but according to the annual report of Associazione Antigone, Italian prisons have endemic problems to face. The risk is that after the emergency we return to the starting point

When the executive led by the current Commissioner for Economic Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, concluded his race on June 1, 2018, among the great reforms that remained unfinished there was also that of prisons which, in the objectives of the then minister Andrea Orlando should have widened the possibility for the condemned to access alternative penalties thus reducing the overcrowding of Italian detention houses. Less than two years later, the coronavirus emergency puts the issue of mass detention at the center of public opinion, and exactly as reformist pressures and much more robust legalitarian temptations then contend for the arena of public opinion: the reduction of the population prison – from 61,230 to 52,679 people in a few weeks – started in Italy to deal with the emergency, will it continue even when the latter is over? And Italy will know how to build a criminal system and detention regimes that, also thanks to technology, are less punitive and dangerous to people’s health?

Our country did not have, in detention houses, that large epidemic outbreak that occurred in the United States: 2439 cases found in the Marion Correctional Institution, Ohio, another 1284 in the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Tennesse, recalls the New Yorker in an article entitled “Will the Coronavirus Make Us Rethink Mass Incarceration? . Seven of the ten major virus outbreak centers in the United States are punishment institutions. “For decades, civil rights groups have been pointing the finger at the social costs of mass imprisonment“, Writes the New Yorker,his failure to tackle the problem of violence and addictions, the high costs of public finance, racial inequality. The pandemic highlighted another system hazard: public health risks“.

Even if Italy has managed (for now) to contain the contagion in the penal institutions, it cannot evade the question: our country has always been chronically incapable (see Torreggiani judgment) to ensure adequate spaces for each prisoner and this, in addition to being a violation of human rights, has also become a matter of public health. According to the annual report of theAntigone Association published Friday, before the Covid-19 emergency, Italy had 61,230 prisoners with a 130% crowding. It means 15,000 people too many in prisons. As of May 15, however, prisoners had dropped to 52,579, with a crowding rate of 112.2% and 8,551 fewer people in detention centers. The way in which this decrease was achieved, however, tells us a lot about the risk that, once the emergency is over, we will return to the starting point.

Let’s see why: when the health emergency breaks out in Italy, it is immediately clear that the crowding of prisons is a huge epidemiological risk. So with unchanged legislation – that is, using the current rules – from the end of February until March 19, 95 people are sent out of prison every day on average, in many cases people awaiting trial who – all Italian distortion – awaited a sentence behind the bars. These are the days preceding and immediately following the revolt in the penal institutions which on 7,8 and 9 March cost her life 13 people.

Immediately afterwards it accelerates: with the entry into force of the Cura Italia decree, which provides for the possibility of serving the prison sentence at home in the last 18 months, from March 19 to April 16 every day, on average, 158 people were released from prison day. After 16, however, there is a new braking. How do you explain it? In the report of theAntigone Association, Alessio Scandurra writes: “On April 17 he leaves, with an article by Lirio Abbate on lExpressed, a campaign then carried out mainly by Republic which relates the decline in the population detained, determined to contrast the spread of Covid-19 in prison, with the interests of organized crime, even insinuating equivocal attitudes on the part of politics or the leaders of the Dap“. From that moment, “prison attendance drops by 77.3 per day, less than half as before“. According to the association, the change in direction in public opinion was decisive in braking.

These are the days when newspapers publish the lists of the 376 bosses who would have been released from prison during the coronavirus emergency and which, in reality, are only 3, he explains Luigi Ferrarella on the Corriere della Sera. However, Ferrarella is not the news, but Massimo Giletti who reads the offending list on TV.

Now as two years ago, regardless of the news and possible errors, any attempt to rethink the criminal execution in Italy clash against public opinion manettara who does not accept to rethink the great distortions of the Italian system, all still on the table. A third of the guests in detention houses today are people in pre-trial detention, that is, awaiting trial: the European average is 23%. A third of prisoners have violated the drug law, which is now one of the major drivers of prison overcrowding. Suicide deaths, only in 2019, were 53, another 17 to 14 May.

Reduce the number of offenses punishable by first reviewing the drug law, investing in new control technologies, such as electronic bracelets, overcoming a vision carcero-centric of punishment are some of the proposals put forward by the Antigone Association but that seem very far from the prevailing public opinion agenda. Just one fact is enough: to date 61 thousand people are subjected to alternative sentences to prison. Without this relief valve, Italian prison institutions would have an overcrowding well above 200%.

In the public imagination this means crowds of offenders free to commit new crimes. But It is not so: if we look at the data for the first half of 2019, only 3.4% of the measures in execution of alternative penalties were revoked due to abuse, only one in every two hundred was revoked because the beneficiary had committed new crimes.

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