Democracy & Justice

How Did A Mathematics Philosopher End Up Fighting for Prisoners' Rights? | Meet Our Members

Meet Susanna Marietti, a former philosophy professor before defending prisoners' rights in Italy. A jack of all trades, her role as national coordinator of Antigone includes TV appearances, hosting a radio show and writing a children's book.

by Eleanor Brooks

On the afternoon of our call, Susanna Marietti, national coordinator of Antigone, has to rush to a TV interview as soon as we finish speaking. It is just one of three TV appearances she’ll make within 48 hours, following two prison news stories which caused a furore in Italian media.

Antigone is an Italian human rights organisation based in Rome that advocates for prisoner’s rights and is frequently called on by the media to comment on high-profile cases. Unruffled, Susanna takes it all in her stride. "This is a sensitive moment, [its] always a sensitive moment for prisons in Italy", she tells me.

Susanna is a philosopher of logic and mathematics by education and was a long-time fan of Antigone before she joined the team. While working as a Post-Doctoral Researcher and Assistant Professor at the University of Milan, she turned her philosophical gaze to Antigone’s revolutionary ideas about the penal and penitentiary systems. From her humble beginnings as a volunteer, she’s worked her way up the ladder and never looked back.

One of the incidents that Susanna was invited to discuss on TV concerned reports that guards had roughly beaten young prisoners in a juvenile facility. Having just published their bi-annual report on juvenile justice in February, Antigone had the latest statistics on juvenile detention. Susanna tells me Antigone has filed a complaint and will ask to enter the trial as a plaintiff once the trial starts.

It’s not the first time the prison has come to Antigone’s attention. Set up in 1998, Antigone Observatory organises routine visits to Italian prisons to report on living conditions and prisoner welfare, covering roughly 100 detention centres annually. Susanna tells me that during Antigone’s most recent visit to the scandal-embroiled prison, observers saw young prisoners lying in bed as if drugged.

Antigone Observatory brings human rights abuses to light

The Observatory is an important plank of Antigone’s advocacy work. The statistics and data gathered form the basis of Antigone’s annual report on prison welfare, and the routine visits keep prisons on their toes. Prisoners can also bring up issues with Antigone’s prison Ombudsperson office. When individual complaints are addressed on a large scale, they create systematic change.

One routine prison visit that stood out in Susanna’s mind was to a prison in Northern Italy. She discovered inmates in a psychiatric wing in dire conditions: "I found something that I really never saw before: People completely isolated living with food on the floor, they couldn't articulate a word because they were drugged". She wrote an article describing the horrors il Fatto Quotidiano, an Italian daily newspaper where she writes a blog. A media storm ensued, the prison administration immediately shut down the section and the inmates were transferred elsewhere.

Antigone also interacts directly with prisoners through its uses these visits to hear complaints from prisoners and support their direct needs. When individual complaints and cases are addressed on a large scale, they create systematic change.

Prison reform faces political resistance

Prison reform doesn’t usually come so easily or swiftly, especially in the current political climate. According to Susanna, previous governments were more invested in improving the criminal justice system and pre-pandemic there was a very earnest attempt by the Minister of Justice from the Democratic party (PD) to introduce sweeping legislative changes. When a change of government put the Five Star Movement in the driving seat, they gutted its most ambitious proposals until it was almost unrecognisable.

Amongst Antigone’s contributions that didn’t make the cut was the proposal to reduce the use of solitary confinement, an issue the organisation is still championing today. In collaboration with Physicians for Human Rights, last year it published an international guiding statement on alternatives to solitary confinement. The statement offers less harmful alternatives to solitary confinement that prison guards can use to manage their prison population, such as de-escalation techniques

Any lingering hopes for political cooperation were dashed when Meloni’s government took power, whose adversarial attitude towards prisoners’ rights can be summarised as ‘throw away the key’. "We don't work with all”, says Susanna, "They are very far-right." In this context of national upheaval, international solidarity within civil society is vital. Susanna tells me that being part of Liberties’ network helps Antigone understand what is really happening on a European level and is an invaluable source of support.

A jack of all trades who is devoted to her work

Since joining Antigone, the philosopher turned national coordinator has added more feathers to her cap. Besides her journalistic publications, Susanna has written a graphic novel and children’s book explaining how prisons work, in addition to hosting and curating Antigone’s radio show, Jailhouse Rock.

Bursting with ideas to spark the public’s interest in prisoner’s rights, Susanna’s passion for her work is evident: "I'm really devoted to Antigone. If some other organisation says to me, ‘I give you more money’, no, I'd stay at Antigone”.

More articles in the Meet Our Members series:

From Activist Journalist to Co-Creating an Organisation Supporting Grassroots Movements

Giving Birth Pushed Adéla Holeček to Fight For Maternal Justice

Fighting for a Future World Where Human Rights Are Respected

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