Italy's overcrowded prisons close to collapse

Wed Jun 12, 2013 9:50am EDT
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By Barry Moody

ROME (Reuters) - Gazing at the glories of Rome from its best viewpoint on the Janiculum Hill, the cluster of old buildings immediately below and to the left look like yet another of the Holy City's hundreds of churches.

The reality is less romantic.

The buildings are the historic Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven jail - a long, long way from paradise for prisoners crammed inside in conditions which even senior Italian officials say have made Italy's prisons a national disgrace.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in January that overcrowding in Italy's prisons violated basic rights, ordering the government to pay 100,000 euros ($132,000) to seven inmates who brought a test case and to fix the problem within a year.

President Giorgio Napolitano said the ruling was "a mortifying confirmation of the persistent failure of our state to guarantee the basic rights of detainees awaiting judgment and serving sentences".

Justice Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said last month Italy's prisons were unworthy of a civilized country.

Prison rights group Antigone says they are the most crowded in the European Union with occupancy at more than 142 percent of capacity. There are close to 67,000 prisoners in jails built for 45,000.

"Decisions can no longer be postponed to overcome a degrading reality for the inmates and for the prison guards," Napolitano said last week.   Continued...

A prisoner puts his arm through the door of his cell in the historic Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven jail in Rome June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Tony Gentile