The deadline imposed to Italy by the European Court of Human Rights is getting nearer and nearer. By the end of May, the Court of Strasbourg could decide to sentence Italy in the 4,000 pending recourses related to prison overcrowding. Considering the average pecuniary sanction already established in the past by the Court, we can reasonably imagine that Italy risks fines of around 28 millions euros.
The recourses concern prisoners who have spent too much time in a very small cell and without a satisfactory social life in prison. A few days ago a delegation of the European Parliament visited the Poggioreale prison facility in Naples, reporting about a medieval situation that should not exist in a European country.
Numbers are now crucial, begging important questions when considering whether Italian prisons are overcrowded, and how just other conditions within prisons are. The minimum space is 3 square meters per detainee, while anything under this number is considered an automatic violation of Article 3 by European institutions. Is this minimum standard guaranteed to every prisoner? How many prison sections are presently closed and why? Are the closed sections considered to count towards the space available in the official statistics? How many new prison facilities have been opened? How many hours are prisoners allowed to spend outside the cells in the open air or with other prisoners? How many prisoners work, and for how many hours a week? How many prisoners attend education courses? How many physicians work in the penitentiary system? And so on.
These are the questions that Antigone’s observers used to ask the wardens when they visited prisons during the activities of Antigone’s Observatory on the conditions of detention in Italy. A few days ago, a circular letter was issued by the Penitentiary Administration that specified that the wardens are no longer allowed to give information to Antigone’s observers, “in order to avoid inconsistencies that should create problems to the public image of the Administration."
Antigone’s answer – during a public debate and on the newspapers – has been very firm. The penitentiary system, Antigone said, needs a kind of transparency that is very far from what the Administration has in mind. The relationship between the institution and the civil society could be evaluated by looking at how much the former is ready to be observed, measured and judged by the latter. The peripheral data gathering is certainly more precise and useful than the central one. Why is the Penitentiary Administration scared by Antigone’s reporting data to the Council of Europe? Let’s see if the circular letter preventing Antigone from doing its work will be cancelled, as the Minister of Justice himself has ordered.