Covid means prison overcrowding is a public health issue
As of 28 February 2021, there were 53,697 prison inmates in Italy. On the same date in 2020, 61,230 people were in prison, meaning the number of detainees decreased by 7,533 people (12.3%) in a year. Numbers as low as these were last seen in 2015.
Even with this decrease, Italian prisons are currently at 106.2% capacity. And this number does not include about 4,000 places that are temporarily unavailable, which brings the prison population to 115% capacity. According to Antigone’s Observatory, in 22.7% of the 44 prisons visited in 2020, there is less than three square meters of space for each inmate.
On 31 January 2021, foreigners accounted for 17,291 and represent the 32.5% of the total prison population. This number has been more or less stable over the last few years. Among non-Italian inmates 18.1% were awaiting their first trial, while for Italian prisoners this number was 15.4%. Among Italians, the prevalent regions of origin correspond to the poorest regions of the country.
There were 2,250 women in detention at the end of January, representing a stable 4.2% of the total prison population. Of this total, 26 women are detained with children under the age of three. This number has fallen from 57 at the same time last year. In January 2021, 281 minors were being held in 17 Prison Institutes for juveniles, down from 374 a year ago.
Suicide and self-harm
In the past year 61 people committed suicide in Italian prisons, which is 11 suicides for every 10,000 detainees. This is the highest rate in almost 20 years. Antigone’s Observatory recorded 23.8 cases of self-harm for every 100 people. Overcrowded prisons (around 120% capacity) also have a large number of self-harm cases.
The effects of Coronavirus on prisons
As of 1 March 2021, 410 prisoners, 562 officers and 49 members of the administrative staff returned positive Covid tests. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18 detainees and 10 prison officers have died from Covid. The number of positive people per 10.000 is much higher in prison than among the general population, although this has changed over time. In February 2021, the rate per 10,000 prisoners was 91.1, compared to 68.3 per 10,000 in the general population.
The pandemic has brought a positive development in the area of technology. While before the pandemic only a few prisons offered video family visits, 95.5% of institutes visited in 2020 allow this option. Widespread use of technology was introduced following the first wave lockdown in March 2020. In a few cases, technology was also used for educational activities, although in the majority of cases, this was not possible because of the lack of equipment.
Alternatives to prison
As of 15 February 2021, there were 61,589 people (of whom 6,961 are women) serving non-custodial sentences. As many as 18,936 persons are on probation. Unfortunately, alternative measures do not seem to have contributed to lowering the number of detainees in Italy. In fact, the number of people in the criminal justice system has actually increased, given that in 2015 the prison population was the same as today, but fewer people were serving alternative sentences.