Justice minister blames MPs who visit prisoners for prison revolt in Rome's Regina Coeli prison
On the night of 17 August 2004, a revolt by inmates in Rome's Regina Coeli prison, during a three-day protest against prison conditions, overcrowding and preventative custody that started on 16 August, saw prisoners cause extensive damage to the fourth section of the prison, after almost two days during which the protest had been peaceful. The revolt lasted an hour and a half and reportedly included the burning of mattresses and furniture, physical damage to infrastructure, including bathrooms, armoured doors, lights and waterpipes in one of the sections of the prison that was in the worst conditions. No one was injured during the disturbances, after which 40 prisoners were transferred to other sections of the prison. An investigation was launched in order to identify the ring-leaders. The prosecuting magistrate in charge of the case has received a report from the Dipartimento dell'amministrazione penitenziaria (DAP, Department of Penitentiary Administration), which accused 24 prisoners of crimes including causing criminal damage, instigating criminal activity, revolt, resisting public officers and issuing threats, estimated the damage to the prison's infrastructure at 9,200 Euros, and indicated that 40 of the prisoners in the section took part in the disturbances.
Roberto Castelli, the Lega Nord (LN, Northern League) justice minister, who visited the prison on the night in question, blamed MPs who visit prisoners, "who are always the same people", for inciting these violent forms of protest, issuing a veiled threat, "I have the lists". The justice minister added that these actions will "worsen the conditions of prisoners".
Apart from showing a lack of concern for the plight of prisoners these comments also dismiss the relevance of the alarming prison death statistics presented by the Conferenza Nazionale Volontariato Giustizia (National Conference of Volunteers in the Justice sector), which shows that 500 persons died as a result of ill-health or suicide between 2001 and 2003, to the Italian parliament's Social Affairs and Justice Committee on 4 May 2004 (see Statewatch, vol. 14 nos. 3/4, information drawn from the Associazione Antigone website: www.associazioneantigone.it). Associazione Antigone, an Italian NGO that focuses on the criminal justice system, has also indicated that 52 people committed suicide in Italian prisons in 2002, and 65 in 2003. The summer of 2004 has also been particularly tragic, in terms of deaths in custody, with 13 deaths, including nine inmates who committed suicide, in June 2004 alone. This issue entered the political arena with more force than ever after Camillo Valentini, the former mayor of Roccaraso who was under preventative custody and suspected of corruption, committed sucide by putting his head in a plastic bag and tightening it with his shoelaces on 16 August 2004, in Sulmona prison. The case of the mayor highlights the irregularity of practices in the prison as prison regulations do not allow prisoners to be allowed into their cells with shoelaces, noted Stefano Anastasia of Associazione Antigone.
Preventative custody is seen by prisoners as one of the reasons for the chronic overcrowding in Italian prisons, where almost 56,000 prisoners are detained in facilities with a capacity of 42,063 prisoners. Papillon, a prisoners' cultural association that operates from Rome's Rebibbia prison, was highly critical of the political squabble that was taking place and argued that the revolt was a result of "the tension and exasperation experienced by prisoners" rather than the result of the actions of "cattivi maestri" (bad teachers, a phrase used by Castelli to refer to concerned politicians who visit prisons, which was used to refer to left-wing university teachers during the so-called "years of lead", that were characterised by right and left-wing terrorism). Papillon also claimed that the revolt was not as significant as was claimed by authorities, and rejected the possibility of prisoners backing "hypocritical de-penalisation proposals that are only limited to financial crimes and corruption ", in a veiled reference to attacks by representatives of government coalition parties against judges who ordered Valentini's arrest.
Following the justice minister's accusation, the Radical Party pressed charges against him for "defamation", and politicians from the Green and Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) also reacted angrily. Paolo Cento of the Greens said that "we exercise our constitutional rights and will not be intimidated", while Salvatore Bonadonna (PRC) argued that it was "shameful" for Castelli to speak of "instigation" when talking of the "human situation of detainees".
Talking of the problem of overcrowding in Italian prisons, Mauro Palma, Associazione Antigone's honorary president, noted that the only solution is de-penalisation. Drawing on statistics concerning imprisonment rates and overall population, he noted that the problem is European: the rate is 100 (1 detainee for every 100 persons; about 60,000 detainees in a population of 60m) in Italy, 144 in Spain and 142 in Great Britain. He explained these high figures as a result of the "culture of penalisation", which can only be stopped by focusing on alternative forms of sentencing to prison. Castelli's viewpoint is different: more prisons are needed, privatised if necessary, and he boasts of having expelled 2,200 migrants who were in Italian prisons thanks to the Bossi-Fini law on immigration. The problem of overcrowding in Italian prisons is an issue that periodically results in protests by prisoners: last year, in June, a measure was passed (the so-called "indultino"), which allowed the suspension of the last year of prisoners' sentences if they had already served over half of their sentence, subject to stringent conditions. The potential impact of this measure on overcrowding were limited by the progressive narrowing of its scope as it went through the legislative process (it was originally envisaged as a three-year suspension applying to prisoners who have alreadt served a quater of their sentence) and categories such as "habitual criminals" or people sentenced for particularly serious offences were excluded).
Il manifesto 18-20, 22, 25.8.2004; Associazione Antigone, Chart on prison death statistics for 2002, and newsletters nos. 11 & 12 (June & July 2004), available on: www.associazioneantigone.it ;Papillon Rebibbia, press statement, www.papillonrebibbia.org, 18.8.2004; Repubblica, 18-19.8.2004.
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