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Alarm over prison conditions

Inmate deaths and violence spark concern

02 November, 18:40

(ANSA) - Rome, November 2 - Criminal lawyers, inmates groups and opposition politicians sounded the alarm over conditions in Italian jails on Monday, following two recent prison deaths and a probe into violence by staff. A high-profile prisoner convicted of terrorism, Diana Blefari Melazzi, hung herself on Saturday evening, nine days after another inmate, Stefano Cucchi, died in a prison hospital with broken bones. Meanwhile, prosecutors last week opened a criminal investigation at another jail after an audio recording emerged of a graphic conversation between two guards indicating inmates were regularly subject to physical abuse by staff. The vice president of the Union of Criminal Lawyers, Renato Borzone, said Cucchi and Blefari Melazzi's deaths were ''evidence of the decay in the Italian prison and justice system''. ''It is urgent that we reflect on what is going on in prisons in order to avoid a downward spiral in civil rights taking us back to the violence that characterized past eras,'' he said. Borzone's remarks were echoed by Corrado Stillo, who heads the Observatory for the Protection and Development of Rights linked to the Giuseppe Dossetti association. ''Suicides, violence and overcrowding have turned Italian prisons into a training ground for crime,'' he said. Stillo called on Justice Minister Angelino Alfano to ''tackle the Third World conditions in Italian jails'' and urged local authorities to appoint prison lawyers to protect the rights of inmates. Opposition MP Donatella Ferranti described the situation in Italian jails as ''explosive'' owing to overcrowding and a lack of funds.

''The episodes of recent days combined with continual complaints from humanitarian organizations and prison workers unions reveal a serious state of unrest,'' said Ferranti, who represents the largest opposition group, the Democratic Party, on the House justice committee. CNCA, an umbrella federation of associations for marginalized members of society, said Italy's prison system was ''increasingly sick''. ''The biggest problem is the inhumane levels of overcrowding,'' said CNCA President Lucio Babolin. ''We have long called for this issue to be dealt with because it is to blame for the extremely high levels of suicide and disease''.

Justice Minister Alfano, who has launched investigations into each of the incidents, has promised to deal with the situation as transparently as possible and will address the Senate with initial findings on Tuesday. He is also expected to unveil details of a plan to deal with overcrowding some time this week, but the publication date has already been postponed several times due to lack of funds. The plan, intended to cope with a prison population that is growing by around 800 people a month, envisions the construction of 24 new prisons at a cost of 1.4 billion euros. This latest draft of the plan, finalized in mid-October, also suggests making greater use of house arrest to deal with chronic overcrowding. In addition, Alfano has called for a more stringent use of international treaties allowing for foreign national prisoners, who make up 37% of inmates, to be repatriated in order to serve their sentences in their home countries. The Italian prison population currently numbers over 65,000. Its official capacity is 43,262, with temporary room for up to 63,568 in emergency situations.

According to prisoners association Ristretti Orizzonti, 146 inmates have died in prison since the start of this year, of which 59 committed suicide. The association said that on average, 150 people have died in Italian prisons each year since 1992, around a third of whom took their own life.

photo: Diana Blefari Melazzi

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