EU Watch

Report Decries Use of Solitary Confinement in Italian Prisons

After two years of visits to 11 prisons and interviews with 748 people, Italy's national guarantor of the rights of persons detained or deprived of personal liberty, Mauro Palma, has published his report about the 41 bis prison regime in Italy.

by Fernando Marini

Under article 41 bis, a special detention regime established in 1986, the minister of justice has the right to suspend the normal rules of detention in exceptional cases.

This instrument is aimed at preventing communication between detainees belonging to criminal organisations, both within prisons and with other criminals on the outside. However, experience shows that in fact this type of communication happens on a daily basis and in some ways the prison service actually favours it as a means of helping inmates to reintegrate.

Solitary confinement a major problem

Among the restrictive measures provided by article 41 bis, solitary confinement stands out as being particularly oppressive. In solitary confinement inmates spend all their time in single cells with no interaction with other inmates and with only two hours of individual yard time a day, under the control of the penitentiary police.

However, Mauro Palma has declared that “the suspension of normal prison conditions and the consequent application of special measures must always comply with the standards imposed by the Constitution”. Throughout his report he highlights that the special regime has several critical problems that constitute a lack of respect for the principle of re-education of detainees.

The most significant issues are repeated extensions of the special regime, which often occur automatically (decisions on extensions should only be taken after thorough investigations and only if deemed necessary) and putting prisoners in reserved areas inside special sections, which could be considered as a "special 41 bis". These sections are separated from other parts of prisons and are intended to hold leading figures from criminal organisations. There are currently 14 such areas, in seven institutions, where 51 people are currently being held.

Moreover Palma has denounced the poor conditions in which some sections are being kept. For example, in Cuneo prison, extra bars have been added to the windows to cut communication between inmates. The actual effect of this move has been to reduce the amount of light and air that gets through the windows.

Palma threatened but institutions express solidarity

After publishing the report Palma was subject to abuse and threats. These include suggestions he works for the mafia and death threats against his family, which appeared under an article posted on the Facebook page of the 'Justice and Security Society Penitentiary', where the original report was posted.

These comments will not be removed from Sappe (the penitentiary agents syndicate), until Palma lodges a complaint.

Several institutions have expressed solidarity with Palma, who, in line with the decrees of the Constitutional Court and the Court of Strasbourg, pointed out that the 41 bis regime must have the sole purpose of preventing communication with the outside and should not serve to inflict additional suffering on prisoners, who are already being punished.

Punishment should not be about revenge, but should help prisoner rehabilitate themselves and reintegrate with society.

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